The Case against Incineration
Friends of the Earth believes that one of the ways to achieve better resource management in the UK is through the implementation of waste recycling policies. These policies will create a closed loop system where materials are used over and over again.
The move towards incineration rather than recycling is not a long term sustainable solution. Here Friends of the Earth outlines its main arguments against incineration schemes.
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1: Climate Chaos
The incinerator will increase CO2 emissions enormously.
Electricity only incinerators emit 33 percent more fossil CO2 than gas power stations, but 40 per cent less than a coal power station. But in 2020 it is predicted that electricity only incinerators will emit 78 per cent more fossil CO2 than gas power stations, and only around 5 per cent less than a coal power station.
Climate change - debunking the myth of energy from waste
Incinerators do not provide a renewable source of energy through "capturing" the energy produced by burning waste. The incineration of recyclable material actually results in even more fossil fuel energy being consumed because more of the same materials will need to be used to replace them.
When waste is burned in an incinerator, heat is produced which can be used to create electricity. Proponents of ‘energy from waste’ incinerators claim that the electricity created when waste is burned is a type of renewable energy as it displaces the equivalent amount of electricity to be generated at a power station from fossil fuels. However the truth is that incineration actually increases the emissions of greenhouse gases responsible for global warming compared to recycling. This means that energy from waste incinerators contribute to climate change rather than reducing it. Here’s why.
The US Government Environment Department (EPA) has developed a model comparing the energy use of recycling and incineration for different materials, and Friends of the Earth has applied this model to components of the UK waste stream. It estimates that recycling and composting household waste might save up to 4.5 million tonnes of carbon emissions each year compared to an alternative scenario of incineration with energy recovery. This would be equivalent to the emissions generated by 55 billion kilometres of vehicle travel in the UK, some 12 per cent of all vehicle kilometres.
- The level of energy capture in incinerators compared to the potential energy present in the waste is very low.
- Incinerators burn fossil fuels when plastic is present in the waste stream (as plastic is made from oil).
- When materials are destroyed in incinerators, new ones have to be made to replace them. The extraction and processing of virgin materials uses huge amounts of energy. For example, creating a tonne of aluminium cans, made from the raw material bauxite, takes around five times as much energy as producing a tonne of recycled aluminium cans. A Canadian study estimated that “on average, recycling saves three to five times as much energy as is produced by incinerating municipal solid waste.” (Recycling versus incineration, 1992. Sound Resource Management Group Inc.)
Clearly the energy captured from waste incineration is not renewable and recycling is much better for reducing climate change. When the entire life cycle of products is considered, it makes much more sense to recycle secondary materials than extract and process virgin ones. Put another way, capturing the materials in our waste stream is far more productive than merely capturing the energy.
Unfortunately for the last 10 years the UK Government has supported energy from waste schemes through a renewable energy subsidy mechanism. This is at odds with the current European Parliament definition of renewables which does not include energy from waste. Friends of the Earth believes it is totally inappropriate of the Government to subsidise incinerators in this way. It means that true renewable energy technologies, such as wind, solar, wave and water, are being starved of valuable funds. Very worryingly, it seems that the Government is trying to meet its targets for renewable energy electricity generation by including a process that is wasteful of energy and worse for climate change.
2: Destroying Valuable Resources
Incinerators destroy valuable materials which should be kept with the eco-system
Incineration of waste means that we use products once only and then destroy them. This represents a linear system of resource use, which is unsustainable when we live on a planet with finite resources. It results in the destruction of precious natural habitats, such as old growth forests in Russia and Scandinavia, which are cut down to supply the paper and wood trade. Five years of intensive research undertaken by the Taiga Rescue Network (organisations campaigning on forestry issues) shows that, due to intensive deforestation, only a fraction of the original old forests remain.
Only 5-7 per cent of the European-Russian temporal forest is still intact, and the percentage is even lower in Scandinavia. Loss of habitat means that species, such as the golden eagle and grey beaded woodpecker, are threatened with extinction. If wood and paper recycling was increased, there would be less demand for virgin timber and the pressure on these disappearing forests and their wildlife would be reduced.
3: Cutting off options for alternative waste management strategies
Incinerators undermine councils’ recycling schemes by demanding long term waste delivery
Because the construction and operation of a major incineration plant represents a huge capital investment, the owners will require a guaranteed supply of waste over about 20-30 years to make a profit. Contracts drawn up with local authorities usually require a continued supply of large quantities of waste, and financial penalties are imposed if this is not provided. This undermines local authority commitments to reduction, re-use and recycling.
Councils will be unlikely to divert waste to recycling schemes when to do so may lead to them incurring financial penalties from incineration companies. The problem is even worse with new larger facilities that require enormous quantities of waste to feed them. For example, Cleveland County Council signed a 25 year contract to supply 180,000 tonnes of waste per annum for incineration which jeopardised future recycling schemes. The Assistant Director stated that councils “are already constrained by the contracts from doing even a modest amount of recycling” and the penalty clauses “mean that fundamentally we are into waste maximisation" - This is completely incompatible with the environmental benefits of high levels of recycling and composting.
4: Air pollution and human health
Incinerators produce emissions of particulates, heavy metals and dioxins, all of which are potentially dangerous to human health.
When waste is burned in incinerators, toxic fumes from the mixture of ‘materials are given off. While the emissions from incinerators are subject to regulatory controls, this is not a guarantee that the standards set are adequate. In addition, inspection rates are very low, and there is always the chance 6f accidents and unauthorised emissions. Two of the most modern incinerators in Britain, the upgraded Edmonton in North London and SELCHP in South London reported 183 emissions infringements between 1995 and 1998 The standards that are set for incineration emissions also do not consider the cumulative and cocktail effect of different sources of pollution in the same area. In modern life there are many sources of serious pollution; any additions from incineration are undesirable.
Incineration of MSW creates emissions of particulates, heavy metals and dioxins. Particulates are very fine particles of invisible soot which have been associated with the exacerbation of chronic lung and heart diseases, such as asthma and emphysema. Dioxins are formed when materials containing chlorine are incinerated. They are known to cause cancer in humans and it has recently been estimated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency that they are 10 times more likely to cause cancer than was previously thought. They are easily captured in food chains, especially dairy products, as they accumulate in fatty tissue in the body. Toxic heavy metals, such as lead, cadmium, arsenic, mercury and chromium are also released during incineration. These have a variety of serious health impacts causing cancers, kidney and lung disease. Incinerators will also add to local traffic levels, and the associated heavy vehicle pollution.
5: Toxic ash
Incinerators produce toxic ash (the remainder of the MSW) which still has to be disposed of in landfill.
When mixed municipal waste is burned in an incinerator it does not disappear completely. A large amount of solid residue called bottom ash is left behind. This is about 30 per cent of the original weight of the waste and occupies 40-50 per cent of the space that compacted unburned waste would. This ash still has to be disposed of in landfill sites. Bottom ash may be toxic as it contains some of the heavy metals and dioxins present in the things that were burned, such as batteries. When it is landfilled these pollutants may eventually leak into groundwater from where it is virtually impossible to clean them up. Moreover in ash form, the toxins are more liable to leach than if they are in unburned waste. According to the EU Commission, leaching from landfills may well be one of the most important sources of dioxins in the future. This means that society risks creating huge mountains of ashes, containing very large amounts of dioxins, which will be left for future generations to deal with.
Fine particles and polluting gases are also left behind after combustion. These are caught in the chimney by filter systems and are called fly ash. Incineration does not simply make the toxic substances in waste disappear, and as the filtration technology on incinerators improves (which helps to reduce the amount of toxic emissions to air), the concentration of toxic contaminants in the ash increases. Fly ash is undisputedly toxic, and although there is not such a large amount of it (about 3-5 per cent of the original waste by weight and about 5-15 per cent of all the ash produced), it has to be treated with great care. It is classified as ‘special waste’ and has to be landfilled in very careful circumstances.
The so-called ‘recycling’ of incinerator ash
Incinerator companies have recently started to use bottom ash for construction purposes, claiming this is a type of ‘recycling’ and maintaining that the ash is inert. However there are many concerns about the safety of this usage. Research carried out in 1993 for the then Department of Transport looked into the chemical content of bottom ash from the incineration of MSW and its possible use in road construction. This concluded that due to the high concentration of soluble metals (eg lead, zinc and arsenic) and sulphates, incinerator wastes were not suitable for use in road works in their unbound state. However, the current specification used by the Highways Agency permits incinerator bottom ash to be used for road maintenance and construction in cement bound, lower strength road materials. Government research is continuing to extend the use of incinerator bottom ash in construction.
Serious concerns have been expressed that incinerator bottom ash is far from inert and contains dangerous levels of toxic heavy metals and dioxins which can leach out into the surrounding soils posing a threat to the water table, food produce and human health. There is insufficient evidence that the leaching of dioxins and heavy metals from these construction uses can be adequately monitored or controlled, especially when rain, snow, ice and wind come into contact with the ash.
Despite these concerns, incinerator ash is still being used by Birmingham City Council for road building, and is being spread by the thousands of tonnes. In London, it has already been spread in Greenwich, Enfield, Waltham Forest and out into Essex. It is also being spread in Dudley and Stoke from the incinerators in these areas. Friends of the Earth believes that the precautionary principle should apply to its usage, and that spreading or using incinerator ash in roads or for construction poses an unacceptable threat to human health and the environment.
6: Lost job potential
Incinerators offer very few jobs. The recycling industry however offers enormous potential for substantial job creation.
The development of a recycling or secondary resources industry offers enormous potential for sustainable job creation. A recent study by Waste Watch and UK Waste (Jobs in Waste, October 1999) suggested that up to 45,000 jobs could be created in recycling and composting if the Government were just to meet its recycling target of 30 per cent by 2010. Such sustainable ‘green collar’ jobs can play a vital part in local economic development, and reprocessing plants for the materials collected, such as paper, plastics and metals, can encourage regional regeneration. In Germany where the recycling industry is huge, the merchant bankers Dresdner Kleinwort Benson commented that “By 1995, recycling had become a giant industry.. .on a par with the insurance industry in Germany and well ahead of sectors, such as telecommunications and engineering. It dwarfs the retail and steel sectors.
Incinerators by comparison offer just a few jobs during construction, and even less for maintenance once they are built. By pursuing an incineration policy, local authorities are cutting themselves off from not only the environmental, but also the employment benefits that a recycling industry offers.
Incineration is a much more capital-intensive and costly approach than recycling
Recycling is a reducing cost industry, and although initial investment is required to fund the transition to a new system, these costs decrease year on year as the collection schemes and new reprocessing capacity become established. The more that is recycled, the less money is wasted paying for disposal.
In the short term, incineration may appear a cheaper option than recycling but overall it is a much more capital-intensive and costly approach. Incinerator developers claw back their investment and make a financial gain through their long term contracts with local authorities. This means that ultimately the local tax payer is contributing to their profits, while the local and wider environment is degraded.
Environmental costs are not usually included in financial calculations, but a report by consultants ECOTEC for Friends of the Earth, Waste Watch, and UK Waste (Beyond the Bin, 2000) suggests that when environmental costs are considered, recycling just 20 per cent of municipal solid waste reduces the cost of environmental damage by as much as £200 per tonne.
8: Noise, traffic and visual impact
Incinerators can be very noisy operations, with the loading and unloading of wastes and ash, noise from the furnace, and the loud drone of fans. This noise can be a significant nuisance to people living or working nearby.
Increased traffic moving waste and ash to and from the incinerator may also be a big headache for local residents, with many lorries going past each day. An average sized plant handling 200,000 tonnes of rubbish per annum will mean 13,000 lorry loads a year. The impact on local roads will also be severe, and there may be a need for some sort of road works to provide trucks with access to and from the plant. This can also result in increased use of the road by any user.
Inappropriate siting of an incinerator can result in damage to the landscape, and it may be regarded as an eyesore. The tall chimney stack could wreck a landscape or townscape view.
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