Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Energy from waste: the burning question

The government wants more energy from waste, but the public doesn’t, Mark Hansford reports.

England’s latest waste strategy, out for consultation until the end of this month, contains big plans to increase the amount of waste converted to energy by incinertion.

By 2020, the Department of the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) wants to increase the amount of municipal waste burned to produce energy from 9% of the total produced to 27%.

Incineration reduces the volume of waste solids by up to 90%, around 40% of which can be recycled for use in road building or breeze-blocks.

Energy captured in the process is carbon neutral, whereas methane - one of the main constituents of landfill gas - has a global warming potential 21 times greater than the carbon dioxide emitted as waste is burnt.

The ICE and the Chartered Institution for Wastes Management (CIWM) are both convinced of the need to explore incineration.

‘Energy from waste is a clean, viable and internationally established waste management technology, ’ says CIWM. ‘It is needed to help reduce our reliance on landll, our greenhouse gas emissions and reliance on other fuel sources.’ And the ICE last month told the government in its submission to the Energy Review that 10% of Britain’s future energy should come from incinerated waste.

‘A substantial quantity of residual waste will continue to be available after recycling targets are met, ’ it says.

However, it is not that clear cut. For every expert promoting the technique’s environmental benets, there is another decrying it.

Statistics highlighting incinerators’ toxic fumes are bandied about wildly, and environmentalists call for waste to be recycled. Friends of the Earth (FoE) wants the UK to recycle at least 75% of its household rubbish.

London Mayor Ken Livingstone has been convinced by the doubters and has categorically stated his opposition to incineration. And, as the man with the right to veto all major planning applications in the capital, his opinion counts.

So what is a confused local authority to do? Twenty-two are heeding DEFRA’s advice and have plans to join the 12 energy from waste sites currently operating in England and Wales. But many more will need to embrace energy from waste if DEFRA’s target is to be met.

The first step is to accept that high diversion, as the high rates of recycling sought by FoE are termed, are simply unattainable, says Hyder’s UK head of waste management, Adam Read.

‘High diversion recycling? you’re having a laugh, ’ he says.’I tell authorities that they need to have some kind of incinerator as they are only going to divert 50% on a good day.’ DEFRA’s latest recycling target is 50%, which London aims to exceed. The UK’s current performance is 17%, one of the worst in Europe.

‘How are you going to get 50% recycling in inner cities?’ asks Read. ‘It works in Licheld [one of the UK’s top recycling performers] because it’s in suburbia with big gardens and big roads. But you need a little bit of realism - not everyone can have four bins in their garden.’ ‘How can environmentalists set a target of 75% when the maximum you can possibly achieve is 62%?’ he asks. Re-do the sum for inner cities - where surveys show that only 50% of residents bother to recycle and those that do are less than 50% efcient - and the gure is nearer 20%.

“I used to be a member of FoE and Greenpeace. Now I’m a member of neither. I’m a scientist, and am tired of hearing arguments made with 1970s data.”

Adam Read, Hyder

CIWM also sees 50% as a realistic recycling target. It argues that experience from Europe proves that high recycling performance is compatible with efcient energy from waste.

So, accepting that recycling can only go so far, the next issue is health. Read claims the public is against incinerators because it has never been given the full facts.

“I used to be a member of FoE and Greenpeace,” he says.

“Now I’m a member of neither.

“I’m a scientist, and am tired of hearing arguments made with 1970s data.”

The Environment Agency regulates all waste facilities. It says that over the past decade new emissions reduction technology has greatly reduced health risks.

A study carried out for DEFRA by Enviros Consulting in 2004 found ‘no consistent evidence of adverse health effects from energy from waste facilities’, adding that ‘if there are any effects, they are much smaller than other inuences on our health such as passive smoking, diet, or accidents at home’.

European experience tallies with this view. Last year the German environment ministry reported that as a consequence of tightened EU regulations, total dioxin emissions from its 66 waste incineration plants have dropped from 400g to less than 0.5g.

So what of the argument that incinerators have to be giant beasts, stealing recyclable waste to feed their furnaces?

Enviros’ 2004 report admits that incinerators can end up competing for waste streams that could otherwise be recycled or re-used.

The government has recognised this problem, turning down waste opearar SITA’s application for an incinerator in Edmonton, North London, on the grounds that meeting or bettering recycling targets would lead to a shortfall in the waste stream for the plant.

An incinerator in Kidderminster was rejected on similar grounds.

Read takes issue with this approach. ‘Politicians are talking about 1970s facilities, ’ he says.

‘But the world has moved on.

Plants don’t have to be 500,000t.

There are some big plants being built - at Allington in Kent and in Shefeld - but Grimsby is building a 60,000t plant, only dealing with waste in their area.

It’s about local energy from waste operating at an appropriate scale.’ He also stresses the need to look 10 to 15 years ahead.

‘People have got to wake up and smell the coffee. If your waste is going to keep growing at 3% per annum, 50,000t is 100,000t by 2020 - and that’s assuming recycling keeps pace.

One way of tackling the problem of exibility is to go down the road of emerging ‘alternative technologies’ such as mechanical/biological treatment (MBT), pyrolysis and gasication (see box).

This is the option favoured by Livingstone, and Earth Tech - builder of incinerators in Shefeld and Grimsby and an MBT plant in Scotland’s Western Isles.

The full spectrum being considered, it says.

Earth Tech disagrees with the argument that these technologies are unproven.

‘The so-called ‘alternative technologies’ are fairly well established in the EU, even if they are new for the UK, ’ explains managing director Tony White.

Nevertheless, these alternatives are not a panacea, and they come with their own inherent problems - not least that incineration processes all produce some sort of residue that requires disposal.

CIWM sees the technologies as ‘still being assessed’, and believes that government needs to stimulate short and medium term solutions in the meantime. .

The best solution would, of course, be to produce less waste in the rst place.

But although the government predicts that volumes of waste produced will rise by between 0.75% and 2.25% year on year, it says there is insufcient evidence for the introduction of a waste minimalisation strategy.

FoE says this is nonsense.

Waste and resource use campaigner Anna Watson says: ‘Recycling targets have led to a substantial increase in our recycling rates. Why can’t we do the same with waste prevention? ‘

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Please note comments made online may also be published in the print edition of New Civil Engineer. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.