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Debate; Waste incineration

At least 100 waste incineration plants are said to be needed to cut the amount of waste put into landfill sites under European Union legislation. But is this swapping one unsustainable solution for another? This week we ask: Is building 100 or more incinerators to meet the requirements of the EU Landfill Directive a sustainable waste management solution?


Ian Avery waste manager, Hampshire County Council.

The facts are that 85% of municipal waste is landfilled and arisings could double over the next 20 years. To rise to the challenge we need to employ a range of options. This will mean dramatically improving our performance on waste minimisation, recycling and composting.

But these options alone will not provide a complete solution, particularly in the more densely populated areas. In such circumstances incineration can play a vital role in recovering value, in the form of energy for district heating and/or electricity generation, from waste that cannot practicably be avoided, recycled or composted. Thus when properly planned, incineration complements recycling and composting as part of an integrated, sustainable waste management system.

Energy recovery incineration assists with reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Although carbon dioxide is produced, the use of waste to generate heat displaces the need for the use of more polluting fossil fuels. Energy from waste is therefore potentially an important component of the UK's renewable energy strategy. Furnace ash from the incineration process can also be recycled as a construction material, reducing the demand for virgin aggregates.

Concern is sometimes expressed about emissions from incinerators and their effect on health. The facts are that the emissions from incinerators have dramatically decreased in recent years and this trend will continue. Incineration is one of the most tightly regulated of all industrial processes and can be judged safe - certainly in the context of the risks we accept without question, daily in our lives.

While there is a strong argument that the western world needs to fundamentally rethink how it utilises and consumes the earth's resources, until that happens the UK will need many more new incinerators as part of progressive switch to integrated, sunstainable waste management.


Richard Hanley principal engineer, American International Group.

There is a role for incineration as part of an integrated waste management solution, but the scale about to be embarked upon by the UK would, in my opinion, impede our ability to move up the environmental policy hierarchy towards real sustainability

The typical length of an Energy from Waste contract is 25 years - the time needed to recoup the high initial capital investment. Predominantly, financing of EfW plants also requires guaranteed minimum tonnages. Therefore, local authorities could be penalised for exceeding anticipated levels of waste minimisation, and alternative competition could effectively be ruled out for a whole generation. Furthermore, until the monetary benefits of energy saving are balanced against energy recovery, high calorific value wastes could be under intense pressure not to be reprocessed.

The hierarchy of profitability in the waste management industry is almost the exact opposite of the Government's environmental policy hierarchy. The industry is still geared towards disposal, with these activities continuing to be the most profitable. Recycling is the least profitable activity. Monopoly locations aside, the true cost to the environment of not reusing materials is not reflected in disposal costs. Only the internal costs are visible, not the externalities. The UK's ability to remain competitive in the global economy may be one reason why the true cost is hidden.

An alternative to adopting an incineration based strategy would be to develop the landfill tax into a fiscal measure to reflect the environmental dis-benefit of all disposal routes, and accurately represent the true cost to the environment of not reusing materials. Similarly, subsidies for incineration could be transferred to composting, and anaerobic digestion, to redress market incentives and bring profitability into line with the Government's environmental policy hierarchy.

Finally, a system to stabilise market prices for recyclates, and secondary materials, could be underwritten by Government to encourage investment in collection and reprocessing infrastructure. That way, the cost of large- scale municipal recycling could be made profitable by resultant economies of scale and economies of experience.

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