6 May 2009

Money to burn

Hertfordshire County Council has recently been celebrating the award of £115m of Private Finance money to build an incinerator in the county (see www.hertsdirect.org/newwasteplant). They are not calling it an incinerator of course, as that would be controversial. In line with similar projects around the country, the facility we are promised is an ‘energy-from-waste’ plant.

It is unclear in whose interests MEPs were acting when they voted to allow incineration to be rebranded as 'energy-from-waste' plants in new EU-wide legislation passed last year. The Green group in Europe challenged this decision as misleading.

Incinerators are unpopular, and understandably so. Even the modern ones produce pollution, particulates and a large residue of toxic ash. But this is a global issue as well as a local one. Burning rubbish is twice as climate-polluting as coal fired power stations. It is a waste of potential resources, and one that cannot continue for ever: if everyone lived like we do then we would need three planets to support us.

The move back to incineration is a reaction to the problem of landfill. As most people know by now, space for landfill is running out, and as a result the price of dumping our waste there is going up sharply.

But councils up and down the country are persisting with a “balance” of burying and burning our waste. They are encouraged by central government, which uses the notoriously uneconomical Private Finance Initiative to subsidise incineration by around £25 a tonne. The government, in the form of minister Yvette Cooper, confirmed its commitment to this as recently as March this year.

In this day and age, burning and burying cannot continue to be the backbone of our waste policy. We need a new approach to transform how we deal with waste in the UK.

The EU's own guidance shows that for every job burying waste at landfill sites and burning it in incinerators there are ten potential jobs in recycling and reusing our resources. This is because source-separation (so-called 'real recycling') does not involve spending vast amounts on plant and soon-to-be-out-of-date technology. Its main cost is on creating jobs in local communities. Jobs, of course, are precisely what are needed at the moment. By following this approach, and pushing for a massive reduction of waste in the first place, we could avoid the pressure to incinerate.

The government is literally choosing to burn our money rather than investing in new jobs and a sustainable future.

Across the UK people are campaigning against incinerators. In Surrey, residents scored a recent victory in appealing against their council's decision to build an incinerator in the east of the county. At the public inquiry the local Green Party challenged the County Council about the way that sites were chosen by asking the public where 'waste management' would be acceptable, with no mention of the word ‘incinerator’.

A similar process has been followed here in Hertfordshire, with no mention of the “i” word. These councils know that the public would reject incinerators if they knew what was going on, and it is dishonest to try and cloak the truth about their plans. It is doubly dishonest to be doing so at the same time as trumpeting the supposed success of recycling. The fact is that private incineration plants lock councils into long-term contracts to provide the waste to be burnt. This has the effect of actually discouraging improvements in recycling.

Meanwhile the recycling that our council does do is far from perfect. At one end of the chain residents are confused and annoyed by multitudes of boxes and bins. At the other end of the chain the recyclable material is not properly dealt with. For example, mixing different coloured glass together prevents glass being separated and being sold to make new glass bottles. Instead it is sold for lower value applications, such as a material for constructing roads. In most countries in Europe this not even classified as recycling. And the government’s own Waste and Resources Action Programme has reported that mixing glass in this way actually results in a net increase in CO2 emissions, while recycling glass in separate colours saves around 300kg of CO2 per tonne.

A genuine commitment to reduce, repair, reuse and recycle could change all this, and make new incinerators redundant. And this should not just be for our doorstep waste, but for businesses and construction waste too.

We must ask ourselves: when we throw something away, where is 'away'? There is an opportunity to invest in jobs and a sustainable future, instead of simply reducing what we have to ashes.

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