The imperative to reduce waste sent to landfill could make incineration a vote winner.
The government's eagerly awaited waste strategy report is expected to recommend construction of new incinerators. How else should Britain achieve the 65% cut in 1995 levels of municipal waste sent to landfill demanded by the EU Landfill Directive?
An estimated 60 incinerators will be needed by 2015 to halve 1995 levels of municipal waste to landfill, costing £1.5bn.
Considering it takes on average eight years to build an incinerator from conception to commissioning, the industry argues that the incinerator production line needs to get rolling.
According to waste trade body the Environmental Services Association (ESA), the incinerator building regime should go something like this: 12 medium sized incinerators treating 200,000t a year need to be operating by 2005. Another four are needed by 2010, disposing of 700,000t waste; and 46 by 2015 with 9.2Mt capacity. Recycling would make up the shortfall to meet the government's Landfill Directive target by 2020.
But the current horizon looks more like this: A 90,000t plant near Basingstoke should be built by the end of the year. A 56,000t plant at Grimsby and a 156,000t plant at Marchwood, Hampshire, should be operating by the end of 2004. A 500,000t plant in Allington, Kent, should be operating by 2005 and a 400,000t plant near Heathrow by 2006.
Planning permission has been granted for five others and a further eight are going through planning. But 'it's very unlikely that sufficient plants will be given planning permission in time to meet the targets', reckons ESA's policy executive Debbie Dorkin.
The battle for the hearts and minds of a hostile public still needs to be won. Emissions to the atmosphere have been brought under strict control following introduction of the EU Waste Incineration Directive (WID), Dorkin argues. A second WID, taking effect in 2005, will clean up flue gas emissions of the 11 operating incinerators further, to 0.1 nanograms of dioxins per cubic metre of exhaust.
But new technologies, such as pyrolysis and gasification, are rapidly coming on stream and are likely to win wider public acceptance - particularly if used to generate electricity or provide heat. Pyrolysis involves burning waste at extremely high temperatures in an oxygen-starved furnace, destroying the carbonbased toxins that are released by conventional incinerators. Flue gases, which are rich in methane and hydrogen, can be recovered for use as high energy fuel.
Meanwhile, a recent Environment Agency study found that the count of dioxins in ash resulting from incineration is similar to that found in urban soil.