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Up in smoke

Derek Wall looks at the many dangers of burning our waste

December 18, 2008
8 min read

Britain is facing a rubbish crisis. Behind the tabloid stories of ‘bin wars’ and fines for children dropping crisps lurks a more sinister reality. Unless local authorities meet strict European Union targets for reducing the amount of rubbish going into landfill, they face fines that could rival the Icelandic bank losses as a source of financial pain for council tax payers. Their answer, apparently, is to build incinerators: new euphemistically-named ‘energy from waste’ centres are marching across the UK. There are now 19 incinerators in the country, up from 12 a year ago. Twenty-two more are going through the planning process at the moment – but within a few years virtually every borough in Britain could have one.

Britain produces 29 million tonnes of municipal waste a year, and the Local Government Association says it costs between £80 and £100 to dispose of each tonne. This loss of resources means that more forests are cut down, more mines are driven into fragile habitats, more oil is used to make plastic that is thrown away. Pollutants from landfill, including dioxins, create toxic conditions in water courses, while the pollution from transporting the rubbish is another environmental ill. Methane emitted by decaying waste is a major greenhouse gas, and although it disappears more rapidly from the atmosphere, it is around 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2.

Waste of money

The EU Landfill Directive means that each local authority must reduce the amount of biodegradable waste that is put in landfill by 75 per cent of the 1998 figure by 2010, then a further 50 per cent by 2013 and another 35 per cent by 2020. Authorities that miss the first target will be fined £7 million each, and a recent report by the Audit Commission has urged local councils to build incinerators to avoid the risk of such fines. But even without the prospect of fines, the practice of landfill is costly.

Landfill tax is £32 a tonne at present and due to increase to £48 by 2010. So incineration has been put forward to fill the gap, repackaged as a ‘green’ way of producing energy from burning waste and avoiding the pollution associated with landfill. However much we recycle, it is argued by the pro-burning lobby, some waste will always be left over. EU policy, to its credit, is firmly anti-dumping, but is burning the solution?

Incinerators take years to build and can cost hundreds of millions of pounds. They are generally funded by private finance initiative (PFI) schemes. Many such projects have risen sharply in cost with the ongoing financial crisis, and local authorities are finding it difficult to borrow the money from banks to complete them. A £4.4 billion PFI project in Manchester, for example, is currently in crisis because the private companies behind the scheme are short of a couple of hundred million.

Local authorities are signing long-term contracts – as long as 25 years – with the incinerator projects, with the paradoxical outcome that they have to keep on feeding them waste. If the amount of rubbish is reduced the incinerators will lack financial viability, so incinerator building locks us into a system that is based not on reducing waste but producing more. This is one reason why Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London and London’s Green Party MEP Jean Lambert campaigned so vigorously against the expansion of incinerator projects in the capital.

Health hazards

Health effects are also a very serious worry. While modern incinerators are less likely to produce dioxins if properly run, there is much evidence to suggest that they are not always run with enough care. The incinerator operators in Edmonton, north London, have been fined for breaching health and safety legislation. Without very careful monitoring, a new generation of incinerators is likely to commit similar breaches on a national scale. Dioxins have traditionally been a worry, but the major concern now is about mb-10 particles. Although these are unknown to most people – even those active in the Green Party or environmental movements – they have the potential to create a health crisis.

I first became seriously concerned about mb-10s after reading Bjorn Lomborg’s book The Sceptical Environmentalist. Lomborg is famously critical of claims made by environmentalists and views market-based economic growth as creating an ever-cleaner planet. Yet in his chapter on air pollution, he notes the ill effects of mb-10s. If even a sceptic like him is worried, the rest of us should be terrified.

Mb-10s are tiny microscopic particles produced by incinerators, difficult to monitor because they are so small, and many experts view them as deadly. Their size means they have the potential to get into the human body and do real damage, and we know that incinerators can spread these particles over a 15-mile radius. Several reports note increases in health problems, including genetic defects, among people who live close to incinerators. Incinerators have also been linked to increased infant mortality, heart disease and cancer. The ash left over from incineration is toxic and risks being blown around during disposal.

So incinerators are costly, damage the environment and health and produce far less energy than they promise. But there is a huge incinerator lobby in the UK that has the ear of government and major political parties. Waste has been big business in the UK ever since Thatcher launched her crusade to privatise local authority services in the 1980s. The name badges for delegates at the last Conservative Party conference were stamped with the logo of Sita, one of Britain’s biggest waste companies, which has an interest in incinerators.

In the Morning Star (26 October 2008), Solomon Hughes noted: ‘The company’s name runs all around the lanyards, so Tory delegates’ necks will be “branded” Sita. This is embarrassing for Conservative shadow Cornwall minister Mark Prisk and Conservative candidate for St Austell and Newquay Caroline Righton. Last month, they jointly presented a petition to Gordon Brown against a Cornish waste incinerator being built by Sita.’

And it’s not just the Tories. The t-shirts worn by the stewards at Labour’s Manchester conference were also marked with the Sita logo, and the company paid £30,000 for ‘advice’ to former Labour chief whip Hilary Armstrong. But Sita is not unique. Waste is big business – and there is no profit in no waste. Like virtually all other areas of British policy making, the agenda is shaped largely behind closed doors by corporate interests. Ultimately, capitalism thrives on waste: the more we throw away, and the faster we buy replacements, the better.

Zero waste

There is an alternative. Local campaigns can defeat incineration. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have been fighting the incinerator menace for more than a decade. There is a national anti-incineration network that is bringing grassroots campaigners together. The Green Party, along with Ken Livingstone, has a proud history of fighting incinerators. The Socialist Party is currently running an impressive campaign against a new north London waste plan based on burning. Social movements can win if they make noise, start fighting early, use legal means and embarrass councillors who support the toxic incinerator alternative. There are a number of very useful research, campaigning and legal resources that activists can use (see box).

The alternative to landfill and incineration is zero waste. Why recycle when goods can be made to last longer and be repaired more easily, and over-packaging can be outlawed? Zero waste is about producing less waste in the first place. In San Francisco the Green Party has managed to ban traditional plastic bags. EU directives are already making corporations deal with the consequences of waste, although the British government often opposes such progressive moves.

There are a number of clean technologies for dealing with the waste we throw away. A Greenpeace report on the subject, Zero Waste, argues that kerbside collection could be extended to the whole of Britain to make it easier to recycle where appropriate. Something like 45 per cent of the waste we produce domestically is from food, which is shocking in itself – and, given that decaying food produces methane, it is also a source of climate change. Food waste could be collected in sealed units and be put through anaerobic digesters to be used as a source of energy.

The right kind of waste policy could contribute massively to a low-carbon economy. It will require a political struggle, but without real pressure we could easily slip into a Britain where most of our waste is incinerated, with devastating financial, environmental and health consequences. n

Useful links

Socialist Party report on incinerators http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/519/3740

Greenpeace incinerator resources

http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/tags/incineration?page=6

Friends of the Earth resources

http://community.foe.co.uk/campaigns/waste/incineration

UK anti-incinerator network

http://www.ukwin.org.uk

Medical report on incinerators

http://www.ecomed.org.uk/pub_waste.php

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