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 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.
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
Socialist Party report on incinerators http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/519/3740
Greenpeace incinerator resources
Friends of the Earth resources
UK anti-incinerator network
Medical report on incinerators
Yasmin Gunaratnam reflects on John Berger’s gut solidarity with the stranger
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
As man-made global warming gets closer to the tipping point, Andrew Simms finds reasons to be positive about averting catastrophic climate change
In this extract from his new book The Candidate, Alex Nunns tells the inside story of how Jeremy Corbyn scraped onto the Labour leadership ballot in 2015
Graham Jones proposes a framework for a diverse movement to flourish
Musician Eliane Correa reflects on the fading revolution
Trump's victory is another sign of the failure of the centre-left's narrative on climate change. A new message is needed, and new politicians to deliver it, writes Alex Randall
Siobhán McGuirk says the question we are too afraid to ask is simple - what kind of society leads to Donald Trump as President?
The battle lines are clear. Democracy is in peril and the left must take itself seriously electorally and politically. Ruth Potts speaks to Gary Younge, who was based in Muncie, Indiana, for the US election, about the implications of Donald Trump’s victory
We need a society built on openness, community and equality to truly defeat everything that trump stands for, writes Nick Dearden.
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.
A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas
Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn
From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'
The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion
The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.
Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.
Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism
What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry