To incinerate or not to incinerate, that is the question.
Kent County Council (KCC) is proud of their waste disposal, i.e. their low landfill use. In 2019/2020 an average across the country for landfill was 8.5 percent (reducing to 7.8 percent in 2021) whereas Kent only sent 1.5 percent into landfill.
Total tonnage in 2019/2020 was 685 300 tonnes, of which 75.8 percent stayed in Kent, 16.8 percent stayed in the UK and 7.4 percent was sent abroad. Waste was processed by around 65 private companies and charities of which Kent Enviropower Ltd is the largest, taking almost 50 percent of the Kent waste which was divided almost equally between recycling/composting and electricity from waste (EfW).
In England, nine authorities had household waste recycling rates greater than 60 percent. 72 authorities had recycling rates greater than 50 percent. Dartford has the lowest recycling rate in the South East at 24.3 percent and only Ashford and Tunbridge Wells scraped past the 50 percent rate. It is possible that the existence of a large incinerator in the county at Allington could be depressing recycling rates.
In July 2021, Canterbury City Council stopped recycling Tetra Paks despite being fully recyclable. The excuse was that they are becoming increasingly difficult to recycle, although the recycling centres are still in operation. The Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE) argued that the UK has ‘both the infrastructure and capacity’ to recycle the material and that, as Defra are imposing mandatory collection and sorting of cartons from 2023, KCC will have to reverse the decision. It’s unlikely that KCC would have stopped recycling Tetra Paks if there was only landfill instead of incineration.
Incineration and energy from waste
The Government’s Waste Management Plan for England states:
‘We are targeting energy from waste incinerators to produce heat for heat networks as this substantially reduces their emissions by making use of the otherwise wasted heat to displace gas boiler heating. This will support a shift from using high carbon gas generation to lower carbon generation in heat networks’. p12
There are at least 90 incinerators in the UK, with another 50 proposed. Figure 9 of Defra’s statistics on waste managed by local authorities December 2021 (p21) shows a large percentage increase in waste incinerated with EfW.
Landfill sites emit large quantities of greenhouse gases. The switch to incineration is an attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The EfW incinerators convert waste to electricity which is then exported to the National Grid.
“During the combustion process the volume and weight of the waste is reduced and transformed into various hot gases. Prior to any of these gases being emitted to the atmosphere they are treated through numerous forms of emission reduction technologies, which result in an ash which can then go for further treatment or disposal. Energy is also produced from this process, which can be used for district heating and electricity generation. Where both electricity and heat are utilised from an incineration plant it may be termed a Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plant.”Chartered Institute of Waste Management
Kent Enviropower Ltd
This integrated waste management facility includes a waste incinerator and became operational in 2008. It is based at Allington quarry on the outskirts of Maidstone, Kent’s largest town. It has a 25-year contract with Kent County Council and takes almost half of all Kent’s waste. To date, over £150 million has been invested in the facility. It covers 84 acres (34ha), and up to 291 lorries visit the site every day. The facility takes up to 500k tonnes a year of mixed waste for energy recovery, although Kent Enviropower Ltd is looking to extend the facility to take another 350k tonnes of residual waste a year. If approved, it would be one of the largest incinerators in the country.
The energy from waste can generate up to 263 million kilowatts of electricity every year, most of which goes into the national grid, and the rest powers the facility. It also generates bottom ash, and flue gas treatment residues. According to Kent Enviropower Ltd, the facility is designed and operated to ensure that all emissions from the facility meet the strictest limits in the EU and UK.
Possible air pollution from incinerators has been a cause for concern. Public Health England commissioned studies from Imperial College which published in 2019 and came to the following conclusion:
“PHE’s risk assessment remains that modern, well run and regulated municipal waste incinerators are not a significant risk to public health. While it is not possible to rule out adverse health effects from these incinerators completely, any potential effect for people living close by is likely to be very small. This view is based on detailed assessments of the effects of air pollutants on health and on the fact that these incinerators make only a very small contribution to local concentrations of air pollutants.”HoC Library Waste Incineration Facilities P10
Discrimination, traffic, odour
Research by Greenpeace has found that incinerators are often sited in the poorest areas and often where people of colour are disproportionately represented. Local residents complain of high levels of traffic movement and smell. In the summer the odour can be bad enough to force local residents to keep windows closed.
Depression of recycling
There is also concern that the increase in incineration is leading to the flatlining of recycling. Evidence to a government enquiry found that authorities who incinerate more recycle less. Incinerator operators say that about half the waste they burn comes from organic renewable sources.
Another concern is caused by Brexit as pollution limits are set by EU law and, according to Greenpeace, the UK government and waste industry have a history of trying to weaken those laws.
Health issues – recent research
Concerns have recently been addressed by an All Party Parliamentary Group on Air Pollution (APPG on Air Pollution) which recently looked at the latest scientific research on the health issues of waste incineration.
- If incinerator filters allow ultrafine particulates into the local environment at scale that can cause significant hazards to health.
- A study in Italy by Dr Ruggero Ridolfi of ISDE (International Society of Doctors for the Environment) into the prevalence of heavy metals in the toenails of children living in the vicinity of incinerators found significantly higher levels of those heavy metals than in the control group.
- Tracking incinerator toxins with biomonitoring, finds that toxic chemicals are retained in the bottom ash which can then be used in construction materials. Eggs from chickens which are eating grain, grass, soil and worms up to 10km around an incinerator revealed a clear pattern of dioxin emissions. These chemicals find their way into egg yolks and were above safe limits for consumption.
As science has progressed with more understanding of pollutants and the effects of different particulates, it is becoming clear that incinerator pollutants are worse than expected. This is against a background of low regulation and permitted pollutant values that are far too high. Unlike landfill sites, they are not taxed nor do they have any economic instruments attached to their function or any climate change penalties. The All Party Group calls for a moratorium on additional incineration capacity and taxation on incinerated waste to be spent on compensating the localities dealing with the harm caused by incinerators.
In his summary, the chair of the APPG on Air Pollution, Geraint Davies MP, makes the following points:
“In the round, it is clear from these presentations that the UK Government’s strategy needs fundamental change to decrease not increase overall waste incineration, in line with efforts to drive down the production of waste and increase reuse and recycling, towards a sustainable future that fully respects human health and climate change. In particular, the emerging evidence does not support increases in incineration in London, but rather a need for the Government and investors to pause and reflect and not to allow excess capacity to drive the burning of recyclable waste. In the aftermath of a disappointing COP26, it is important to promote the improvement of air quality as a central strategy to combat climate change and to improve human health. This means that we should apply the precautionary principle to waste incineration and that Government and local authorities must take time to think again, in particular when considering the health risks of putting plants in urban locations with dense populations.”
A confusing situation
Some European countries are scaling back the incinerators they already have while others are investing heavily in them. It has been thought that EfW incinerators are the answer to many of our waste problems but, as research continues, the picture has become more complicated. Just how bad are the social and pollutant effects and does the ability to generate electricity from waste offset negative effects? If recycling levels are increased, could we live with a moderate number of incinerators and would you want one near you?
The waste hierarchy
If we really were to implement the waste hierarchy, then prevention would be our goal. Our long-term aim must be to produce less waste and move to a more sustainable society. Whether waste incineration will be part of that sustainable society is still unclear.