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NIL:No Incinerator, Leeds

 With the combined issues of waste disposal and energy production high on the council’s agenda, any solution that seems to tackle both these issues with a single solution has got to be a safe bet. Only one capital investment, development of one site, a single round of planning and appeals. All these concerns are addressed by the new generation of incinerators, which burn more efficiently and at higher temperatures, which create less toxic emissions. These plants exist across Europe; they prevent waste entering landfill and create power for homes and industry.


So why is FoE opposed to them?


Incinerator and the burning of waste commit society to the continued production of high levels of waste. How is this?


Incinerators require fuel to burn, they must be constantly fed with a sufficient source of fuel to burn at high enough temperatures to destroy the toxic element of the waste.


 Incineration Relies on exaggerating future quantities of waste instead of strongly increased recycling and composting. Many Waste PFI contracts are entered into as a response to predictions of huge increases in the quantity of household waste (often calculated five to ten years ago) when in fact household waste has actually fallen in many areas. According to Defra statistics, the average annual increase in municipal waste from 2001/02 to 2006/07 was just 0.2%, far short of the 3% year on year rises that were predicted. These flawed and exaggerated predictions are still being used to try to justify the building of unnecessary incinerators.

This discourages the structured reduction of waste across the board. Organic materials that could be composted will be used as fuel to burn other materials, materials which burn well like plastics will not be phased out but encouraged to increase the volatility of the mix. Contracts for incinerators also tend to be long-term, requiring waste for 20 years, so they are very inflexible to changing components and quantity of the waste stream.

Recycling allows embodied energy to be reused rather than the construction of items from new materials.

 There are alternatives that are cheaper, more flexible, quicker to implement and better for the environment. Rather than incinerating waste, local authorities should focus on maximising recycling and providing a weekly separate food waste collection for treatment by composting or anaerobic digestion (AD). Recyclables and biodegradables should be separated from the small amount of residue material. This residue should be stabilised by composting and then sent to landfill.

Leeds City Council publicly states has a neutral stance on technology when it comes to waste processing but Leeds FoE believes that 7 out of the 10 companies it is currently in discussions with favour an incineration based solution.

Incineration releases greenhouse gasses
Incineration involves the release of high levels of CO2, the main climate warming gas. Accounting for recovered energy, incineration is accompanied by twice or more the CO2 per unit of power than the same energy (as electricity or combined heat-and-power) produced from fossil fuel (Stop Trashing the Climate report, June 2008). The Environment Agency’s WRATE software is used to claim energy-from-waste is beneficial, but this depends on faulty assumptions on efficiency and bio-carbon. Proper lifecycle calculations using the better ATROPOS model found that “scenarios using incineration were amongst the poorest performing” while those using Mechanical Biological Treatment were much better (Greenhouse Gas Balances of Waste Management Scenarios, Eunomia Consulting report plus errata to the Greater London Authority, January 2008).

Studies show that for electricity-only incinerators (incinerators that do not optimise the use of the heat they produce), energy production is so inefficient that, from a climate change perspective, incineration is worse than gas- or coal-fired power stations! See Dirty Truths: Incineration and Climate Change.


Incineration is often forced through against strong public opposition
Incineration is not the way that householders want their discarded material to be managed. Despite this, Defra was given a further £2 billion of funding through PFI credits in the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review (including £600 million in 2008/09, £700 million in 2009/10 and another £700 million in 2010/11). Defra have issued guidelines for the granting of Waste Private Finance initiative (PFI) funding, but the process is not transparent. Although Local Authorities do not appear to follow Defra’s rules, public funding (in the form of PFI credits) is still being made available to them.

For example, Guideline 6 states: “Proposals should demonstrate that other relevant authorities, the public, and interested parties have been consulted and that there is a broad consensus supporting a recognised long term waste management strategy which is reflected in the proposed solution”, yet it would appear that, for instance, Waste Officers from Hull and East Riding Councils submitted an Expression of Interest for funding, and that Waste PFI funding was approved by Defra, without the knowledge of the democratically elected members (Councillors), and certainly without reaching “a broad consensus” to support their incinerator proposals.


Incineration creates toxic emissions and hazardous ash
While everyone agrees that incinerators do not improve air quality, there is a great deal of controversy over that extent and nature of the harm resulting from releases into the air (and indeed releases to land and water). Although incinerator fumes pass through expensive filter systems, modern incinerators still emit significant levels of NOx and of ultrafine particles. The latter includes nano-particles which are of great concern because they can pass through the lung lining, causing internal inflammation and penetrating to organs (even to the foetus in a pregnant mother) [1].

Dioxins still an issue: officially these most toxic products are restricted to very low emission levels by incinerator filters. But studies overseas show that high levels are emitted during start-up and close-down when dioxins are not monitored in the UK [2].


Incineration poses significant health risks
UKWIN calls for the adoption of a more precautionary approach while better scientific research is conducted into the extent of the damage to human and animal health (and to ecosystems and fragile habitats) caused by the release of these harmful toxins. The scientific evidence is quite sufficient, UKWIN argues, to trigger the precautionary principle. Government and regulators should compel the waste industry to measure, assess and suppress all of their suspect emissions of harmful toxins.

There is plenty of evidence that emissions from incinerators and their ashes are potentially harmful. The licensed emissions of NOx and particulates cause a level of harm that is included in the EU assessments of industrial and traffic emissions. Incinerators also have emissions unlimited by license, during start-up and close-down, and from ash dispersing during transfer to landfill or construction sites [3].

5-7% of the mass of incinerated waste becomes “fly ash” (also known as APC). The fly ash is trapped by filters, and is classed as hazardous waste. Because fly ash is strongly alkaline and also high in dioxins and heavy metals, it has to be transferred to landfill. The Bishops Cleeve hazardous landfill site in Gloucestershire takes fly ash from many incinerators; the residents see the ash literally blowing around. UKWIN believe residents are fully justified in fearing the health impacts. Indeed, the health risks have been shown as significant by an official study (Duarte-Davidson et al.).

Grate-ash (bottom ash) forms another fraction, 25-30% of the mass of incinerated waste. This ash also contains levels of dioxins and metals. Because of their commitment to incineration, the authorities are encouraging the use of bottom ash as construction fill and as an aggregate substitute. But some of this ash spreads around during construction, and the toxins leach into groundwater. During new construction, in decades to come, the metals and dioxins will get into the environment.


The favoured site for a new incinerator would be on the Council owned site in the Cross Green industrial estate. This are already suffers from atmospheric pollution which is likely to get worse with the new the East Leeds Link road. The prospect of toxic cocktails in the atmosphere is very real and a major concern to local residents.


[1] Nano-particles arise in huge numbers from vehicles, most being carbonaceous. But high temperature combustion processes such as incineration generate nano-particles with metallic, dioxin and aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) coatings, which may be much worse for health. The review by Cormier et al (Origin and Health Impacts of Emissions of Toxic By-Products and Fine particles from Combustion, 2006) is strong evidence, while various research papers are establishing tangible public health impacts (Univ. of California study 2008 - Air Pollution may Cause Heart Disease; shows nano-sized particles are the most damaging). See FOE’s workshop paper for wider discussion and specific references.

[2] A 2007 Japanese study (Characteristics of dioxin emissions at startup and shutdown of MSW incinerators) implies that dioxins from a few start ups each year can be very significant, while incinerators operated in batch modes would emit a high proportion of the total when starting up. Other studies show dioxin-like products are also emitted, but again these are not controlled or monitored. Also see Peter Montague’s article entitled The Deadliest Air Pollution Isn’t Being Regulated or Even Measured
This article is based on the website ukwin.org.uk.