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Tim is Director and Chair of UK Without Incineration Network. UKWIN actively supports and empowers local campaigners in opposing incinerator planning applications and at planning inquiries. Our...
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The Burning Issue – Opposing Waste Incineration
Written by Tim Hill
Chair of UKWIN

Published: 28 Jan 2011
If everyone in the world consumed as many natural resources as the average person in the UK we’d need three planets to support us. The same situation applies in most other developed counties.
Not only are we depleting natural resources much faster than they can be replaced but we are polluting the earth and its atmosphere and contributing towards global warming.
This cannot be a sustainable situation for future generations of mankind and life on Earth as a whole.
But a sustainable future is not, and we cannot allow it to be, just some distant aspiration.
Around the world forward-thinking individuals, businesses and government, and non government organisations, are working to change the ways we live and work to meet the challenges of resource depletion and climate change.
UKWIN is one of the non governmental organizations that opposes the waste of natural resources and believes that ‘waste’ implies just that – the discarding of items and materials most of which, while no longer of use to their owner, can offer real benefits to the economy if reused, recycled, recovered or converted.
Waste is bad, bad for the Earth, bad for the economy and, both directly and indirectly, contributes to global warming. Its disposal can create toxic emissions and pose significant health risks.
Traditionally, most waste has been disposed of in landfill dumps and some still is.
More recently, in the UK in particular, although good progress has been made with reuse and recycling, this progress is increasingly being hampered because of the destruction by incineration of materials that should never be dealt with as waste. Unfortunately many local authorities are being persuaded to adopt incineration as the most effective and simple alternative to landfill which is becoming increasingly costly as landfill taxes increase year by year.
The conditions under which local authorities are signing up to long term (25+ years) incineration based waste disposal contracts, often supported by Private Finance Initiatives (PFIs), are not only extremely costly in themselves but assume that waste volumes will rise.
In fact Government statistics show that, because of recycling and a widespread inclination on the part of businesses and consumers to reduce waste, they are falling and have been for some years.
These contracts include costly penalty clauses applicable if the local authorities fail to make the agreed waste volumes available. There is every reason to assume that the penalty clauses will be invoked unless more recyclables are diverted to incineration.
The assumptions and commercial arrangements (including the perpetuation of obsolete polluting technologies) written into these waste contracts encourage the destruction of natural resources, conflict with recycling and reuse and increase levels of greenhouse gases that themselves encourage climate change.
Incineration comes in more than one form (conventional incineration, gasification and pyrolysis) but its proponents will generally dignify it as Energy from Waste (EfW) using Advanced Thermal Technology (ATT) on the basis that the heat produced is used to generate what they will, again, dignify as ‘green’ electricity that, fed to the National Grid, will displace that otherwise generated from fossil fuels thus saving on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
In practice, very little of the heat produced by incinerators is actually used to produce electricity (ie they are very inefficient) and a substantial proportion of the wastes they incinerate are plastics, of fossil origin. Hence, for each unit of power produced, the GHG emissions (and their contribution to climate change) from an incinerator are normally very substantially greater than those from a modern power station.  

So incineration driven EfW is not green at all.
The GHG emissions from waste incineration are accompanied by toxic emissions and ash with a toxic content. These toxic elements pose significant health risks.
It is hardly surprising therefore that waste incinerator planning applications face massive public opposition and, to be successful, have to be forced through in the teeth of it.
In reality, gasification and pyrolysis are not bad processes per se. They have been used for many decades by the chemical industries; and they can be used to good advantage to produce liquid fuel and other chemicals from biowastes; but, for waste, there are better, more environmentally sound options.
Ok then, so what should be done with the ‘waste’ that is burned in incinerators?
UKWIN’s view is that for a start, most of it is not waste. Some of it is perfectly capable of being recycled; much of it is biowaste (garden waste and food waste) and we can extract great  benefit from it whether it be as energy or fertiliser, and some four times the benefit we can expect from incineration. If it is not biowaste and it is not recyclable, UKWIN believes that it should not be around in the first place.
Sewage and farm wastes are also biowastes.

There are a number of highly effective options for dealing with garden waste and food waste, options that are very efficient at converting valuable materials into useful products.
Garden waste should be composted and the compost used to improve soil quality and minimise the use of chemical fertilisers. Food waste, together with farm wastes and sewage, can be converted into methane and fertiliser using the anaerobic digestion process. The methane can be added to the Gas Grid, used as a fuel for road vehicles or used to generate electricity, in each case displacing fossil fuels and bringing real GHG reductions.
There are other environmentally friendly emerging technologies that are highly efficient at recovering energy, in the form of ethanol, from biowastes. Ethanol can be mixed with petrol so reducing the fossil element, and, once again, reducing GHGs.
So, in summary the incineration of household waste:
The alternatives to incineration are cheaper, more flexible, quicker to implement and better for the environment. Rather than incinerating waste, local authorities should focus on maximising recycling and providing a weekly separate food waste collection for treatment by anaerobic digestion (AD). Recyclables and biodegradables should be separated from the small amount of residue material. This residue should be stabilised by composting and then sent to landfill.
Further sources of information.
Incineration depresses recycling and wastes resources:

Incineration reduces our ability to reuse or recycle potentially valuable discarded material. As WRAP notes in its recent report (Domestic Mixed Plastics Packaging Waste Management Options), there is currently a ‘Catch 22’ situation, with few Local Authorities prepared to collect plastic waste other than bottles, as there is limited potential for them to be recycled. However, this means there is a lack of such plastics available for companies to attempt to do so.

WRAP also reports that “recycling offers more environmental benefits and lower environmental impacts than other waste management options”. See Environmental benefits of recycling: An international review of life cycle comparisons for key materials in the UK recycling sector for more detail.

Waste PFI contracts that include incineration depress recycling rates. In Nottinghamshire it would appear that Veolia see it as more profitable to fall short of recycling targets, as their planning application for a waste incinerator to be built in Sherwood Forest indicates that Nottinghamshire’s recycling will be effectively capped at less than 47% for the next 25 years!

Incineration releases greenhouse gasses:

Incineration involves the release of high levels of CO2, the main climate warming gas. Accounting for recovered energy, incineration is accompanied by twice or more the CO2 per unit of power than the same energy (as electricity or combined heat-and-power) produced from fossil fuel (Stop Trashing the Climate report, June 2008). The Environment Agency’s WRATE software is used to claim energy-from-waste is beneficial, but this depends on faulty assumptions on efficiency and bio-carbon. Proper lifecycle calculations using the better ATROPOS model found that “scenarios using incineration were amongst the poorest performing” while those using MBT were much better. See the Eunomia Consulting report
Studies show that for electricity-only incinerators (incinerators that do not optimise the use of the heat they produce), energy production is so inefficient that, from a climate change perspective, incineration is worse than gas- or coal-fired power stations! See Dirty Truths: Incineration and Climate Change and A Changing Climate for Energy from Waste? for further details.

Incineration is often forced through against strong public opposition:

Incineration is not the way that householders want their discarded material to be managed. Despite this, DEFRA was given a further £2 billion of funding through PFI credits in the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review (including £600 million in 2008/09, £700 million in 2009/10 and another £700 million in 2010/11). DEFRA have issued criteria for the granting of, PFI funding
but the process is not transparent. Although Local Authorities do not appear to follow DEFRA’s rules, public funding (in the form of PFI credits) is still being made available to them.

For example, Guideline 6 states: “Proposals should demonstrate that other relevant authorities, the public, and interested parties have been consulted and that there is a broad consensus supporting a recognised long term waste management strategy which is reflected in the proposed solution”, yet it would appear that, for instance, Waste Officers from Hull and East Riding Councils submitted an Expression of Interest for funding, and that Waste PFI funding was approved by DEFRA, without the knowledge of the democratically elected members (Councillors), and certainly without reaching “a broad consensus” to support their incinerator proposals.

Incineration Relies on exaggerating future quantities of waste instead of strongly increased recycling and composting:

Many Waste PFI contracts are entered into as a response to predictions of huge increases in the quantity of household waste (often calculated five to ten years ago) when in fact household waste has actually fallen in many areas. According to DEFRA Statistics, the average annual increase in municipal waste from 2001/02 to 2006/07 was just 0.2%, far short of the 3% year on year rises that were predicted. These flawed and exaggerated predictions are still being used to try to justify the building of unnecessary incinerators.
Operators also say they could always ‘top up’ with commercial and industrial (trade) waste to make up for any ‘shortfall’, although in practice this has been shown to cause operational efficiency problems, e.g. for Veolia’s Sheffield incinerator – see our article entitled Did McDonald’s give Sheffield’s incinerator indigestion?

Incineration creates toxic emissions and hazardous ash:

While everyone agrees that incinerators do not improve air quality, there is a great deal of controversy over that extent and nature of the harm resulting from releases into the air (and indeed releases to land and water). Although incinerator fumes pass through expensive filter systems, modern incinerators still emit significant levels of NOx and of ultrafine particles. The latter includes nano-particles which are of great concern because they can pass through the lung lining, causing internal inflammation and penetrating to organs (even to the foetus in a pregnant mother) [1].

Dioxins still an issue: officially these most toxic products are restricted to very low emission levels by incinerator filters. But studies overseas show that high levels are emitted during start-up and close-down when dioxins are not monitored in the UK [2].

Incineration poses significant health risks:

UKWIN calls for the adoption of a more precautionary approach while better scientific research is conducted into the extent of the damage to human and animal health (and to ecosystems and fragile habitats) caused by the release of these harmful toxins. The scientific evidence is quite sufficient, UKWIN argues, to trigger the precautionary principle. Government and regulators should compel the waste industry to measure, assess and suppress all of their suspect emissions of harmful toxins.

There is plenty of evidence that emissions from incinerators and their ashes are potentially harmful. The licensed emissions of NOx and particulates cause a level of harm that is included in the EU assessments of industrial and traffic emissions. Incinerators also have emissions unlimited by license, during start-up and close-down, and from ash dispersing during transfer to landfill or construction sites [3].

5-7% of the mass of incinerated waste becomes “fly ash” (also known as APC). The fly ash is trapped by filters, and is classed as hazardous waste. Because fly ash is strongly alkaline and also high in dioxins and heavy metals, it has to be transferred to landfill. The Bishops Cleeve hazardous landfill site in Gloucestershire takes fly ash from many incinerators; the residents see the ash literally blowing around. UKWIN believe residents are fully justified in fearing the health impacts. Indeed, the health risks have been shown as significant by an official study (Duarte-Davidson et al.).

Grate-ash (bottom ash) forms another fraction, 25-30% of the mass of incinerated waste. This ash also contains levels of dioxins and metals. Because of their commitment to incineration, the authorities are encouraging the use of bottom ash as construction fill and as an aggregate substitute. But some of this ash spreads around during construction, and the toxins leach into groundwater. During new construction, in decades to come, the metals and dioxins will get into the environment.

[1] Nano-particles arise in huge numbers from vehicles, most being carbonaceous. But high temperature combustion processes such as incineration generate nano-particles with metallic, dioxin and aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) coatings, which may be much worse for health. The review by Cormier et al (Origin and Health Impacts of Emissions of Toxic By-Products and Fine particles from Combustion, 2006) is strong evidence, while various research papers are establishing tangible public health impacts (Univ. of California study 2008 – Air Pollution may Cause Heart Disease; shows nano-sized particles are the most damaging). See FOE’s workshop paper for wider discussion and specific references.

[2] A 2007 Japanese study (Characteristics of dioxin emissions at startup and shutdown of MSW incinerators) implies that dioxins from a few start ups each year can be very significant, while incinerators operated in batch modes could emit a high proportion of the total when starting up. Other studies show dioxin-like products are also emitted, but again these are not controlled or monitored. Also see Peter Montague’s article entitled The Deadliest Air Pollution Isn’t Being Regulated or Even Measured.

[3] As the Royal Society states (in relation to the oft-quoted 2004 Enviros study into the health impacts of incineration): “In view of the large uncertainties associated with some of the data examined, particularly in the epidemiological studies, it would have been more appropriate to adopt a cautious approach, rather than use inadequate data in a quantitative framework. The latter may give a misleading impression of the robustness of the results. Caveats associated with the uncertainties in the results are not presented adequately, particularly in the quantification of the health effects, which could mislead the reader. The report’s relevance to waste management decision-making by Local Authorities is limited, as several important issues are not addressed. These include the effect of local environmental and health sensitivity to pollutants and the impact on emissions of specific waste management activities operating under non-standard conditions. Bias in the availability of good quality information means the report concentrates mainly on the effects of air pollution. Consideration of the potential effects of exposure to pollutants through other pathways is not consistent throughout the report and therefore prevents adequate comparison of the options”.
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