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Avoid the obvious

Comment

For all the talk and consultation, the government's position on waste management appears to be as simplistic as its position on energy supply.

I fear that in both cases we are set to be hurried down a dangerous path towards the nonexistent and unattainable nirvana of 'something for nothing'.

Yet the engineering profession, with its desire to build, seems happy to take us there - new nuclear power stations to solve the energy problem; new incinerators to solve the waste problem.

As with the energy debate, I cannot help thinking that now is the time to think beyond big, shiny new capital projects as the sole solutions. When it comes to the management of waste, we really do need to be careful about pressing ahead with a raft of new incineration plants.

In his foreword to the latest consultation on waste management strategy, waste minister Ben Bradshaw rightly sets out the need to treat waste more clearly as a resource rather than a problem.

He also highlights his ambitions to boost the amount of energy recovered from waste - in lay terms to increase the use of waste incineration, albeit with the proviso that this 'must not compromise our greater ambitions on waste prevention or recycling'.

Which is all good and sensible - until he starts to attach incineration targets to his aspirations showing a threefold increase in incineration by 2020.

On the face of it waste incineration is very seductive as an alternative to landfill. In goes all the waste that would normally be buried. Out comes free (or at least very cheap) heat and power for local communities.

And no question, if it is done correctly as part of a larger overarching waste strategy, there is a strong case to make.

The problem is that, just as we see with energy policy, getting the over-arching strategy sorted out and setting in place all the pieces in the jigsaw, is unlikely to be achieved.

With energy policy it is already clear that measures to boost energy efficiency, assist investment in fledgling and underdeveloped generation technologies or aid local generation will be quickly cast aside the moment power station construction starts.

And similarly - regardless of stated objectives - the political reality of needing to show results and the commercial realities of needing to keep incinerators fuelled, will rapidly consign waste reduction, reuse, and recycling strategies to the too-dif. cult basket.

Perhaps this view is too pessimistic. After all, there are many other European examples of recycling and incineration sitting side by side. But it cannot be achieved overnight or without substantial commitment and stratedgy from central and local government.

I simply do not see this commitment and strategy forthcoming in the UK. And with only targets and commercial contracts to satisfy, we risk condemning waste as just that - waste - and not the resource it should become.

For engineers it is difficult because, certainly from a macro point of view, large scale infrastructure projects are exciting, technically challenging, perhaps even sexy. And we do them well.

Besides, politicians will always prefer a grand opening of new infrastructure to the launch of a waste reduction initiative.

But 21st century professional engineers must move beyond the obvious solutions. We must curb our willingness and enthusiasm to build for the short term until we have thought long and hard about strategy for the long term.

Antony Oliver is editor of NCE

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