Incineration considerations…

The Gloucester incinerator (AKA: energy from waste facility). Well, my heart says ‘no’ but my head says ‘maybe’.

It’s useful sometimes to analyse each part of the argument, rather than focussing on any single area. I’m reading the Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes right now, so the great detectives’s methods must be wearing off on me!

This is mainly for my own benefit to try and work through the issues so I have a better understanding of the process. I want to be able to get to a point where I can say I either support or oppose the building of the incinerator to the south of Gloucester.

This stage of the process involves using the very good UKWIN (United Kingdom Without Incineration Network) website as a basis for dealing with the main issues. I’m using their headings to make it easier to follow.

1) Incineration depresses recycling and wastes resources: I watched a Panorama documentary maybe a year ago which reported on the huge quantities of plastics which were being shipped to China (to go into landfill there), because there is not enough re-use of plastics in this country to provide the market needed to recycle it. Until the Government passes actual laws to stop companies using new plastic over recycled plastic, this will carry on being the case, or until it becomes cheaper to use the recycled plastic.

In terms of recycling being depressed, it appears that this isn’t the case. Various sources point to the fact that countries who favour incineration over landfill have the highest recycling rates. This is a good article on this subject from David North (a freelance sustainability writer) on

‘Surprising as it may seem the data from across Europe shows that where incineration rates are high so too are rates of recycling compared to those countries that favour landfill.’

The issue which I do have still is that incinerating the material does mean that material cannot be used again, therefore wasting the resource forever, particulalrly if the material is derived from a non-renewable source, such as oil in plastics. A kind of balance to this is harnessing the power from the burning of the waste, which could be enough to power 10,000 homes, or equivalent to 10 of the Ecotricity M4 Reading wind turbines – see my previous post on this subject.

The recycling rate which the Gloucester incinerator’s functioning is based on is 70% – equal to Austria which is the European leader. All the information i’ve read so far indicates some range of operations, which is possible, but the design is based on the upper end of the rates.

The final point to consider is that materials put into landfill could remain there forever, essentially removing the useful recovery of those materials for use in other products. There does, however, remain the possibility of ‘landfill mining’ which could conceivably work in the future if the availability of natural resources become even more constrained.

2) Incineration releases greenhouse gases: Yes it does, but so does landfill. In fact, most human activity does. The figures released so far by the bidders suggests a significant NET reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, compared to landfill, but I will need to see the WRATE submissions to get the figures for this, when the planning application is submitted.

A very good report produced for the European Commission Environment Directorate General gives some data and comparisons on the issue: climate change impacts. I found the Executive Summary of the report and the following are some of the quotes from that.

‘Overall, emissions of greenhouse gas associated with transportation of waste, residues and recovered materials are small in comparison with the much larger greenhouse gas fluxes in the system, such as those related to avoided energy / materials, landfill gas emissions and carbon sequestration. Variations in emissions due to alternative assumptions about transport routes and modalities will therefore have a negligible impact on the overall greenhouse gas fluxes of the waste management options.’ (point 17, page vi)

The report talks about ‘positive’ greenhouse gas fluxes, which the release of more harmful emissions (including CO2, NO2 etc), while negative fluxes involve the avoidance or reduction of potentially harmful emissions.

MBT = mechanical biological treatment, MSW = municipal solid waste, AD = anaerobic digestion

‘The relative performance of the two options depends crucially on the effectiveness of landfill gas control and, in the case of MBT with incineration, the energy source that is displaced by recovering energy from incineration. In the analysis performed here, we have assumed that electricity only is recovered, although in some cases there may be opportunities for recovering heat as well. This would further enhance the performance of MBT with incineration compared with MBT with landfill. It appears therefore that the choice
between these options will largely depend on local circumstances, although either will
offer a major improvement over current practices of landfilling untreated bulk MSW.’ (point 10, page iv)

‘Overall, the study finds that source-segregation of various waste components from MSW,
followed by recycling or composting or AD of putrescibles offers the lowest net flux of
greenhouse gases under assumed baseline conditions. Improved gas management at
landfills can do much to reduce the greenhouse gas flux from the landfilling of bulk
MSW, but this option remains essentially an ‘end of pipe’ solution. Incineration with
energy recovery (especially as CHP) provides a net saving in greenhouse gas emissions
from bulk MSW incineration, but the robustness of this option depends crucially on the
energy source replaced. MBT offers significant advantages over landfilling of bulk MSW
or contaminated putrescible wastes in terms of net greenhouse gas flux.’ (point 20, page vii)

If I understand the methodology used here correctly, it is impossible to know what the NET comparative benefits are, in terms of GHG emissions, unless the emissions are known for the existing landfill. So, I would be very interested to see how both of the bidders worked out their NET figures. The report does point out that combining recycling at source with incineration provides a NET saving on emissions over just incineration.

It’s worth noting that you will always be able to find research that favours a specific argument. This is true for virtually any topic. This is why I follow a approach which takes the most general view, in the case of climate change, this is following a path which leads to the least impact on the environment and which will ultimately lead to the least amount of global warming. If the NET emissions are lower, this would go a long way to persuading me.

Comparing what we do right now to what is proposed is the only logical approach. This discounts all the unrealistic options which just aren’t going to happen and focusses the mind a bit, otherwise I just drown in the possibilities and get depressed when the ‘best’ option isn’t taken up.

3) Incineration is often forced through against strong public opposition: According the the figures, roughly 300 people attended the first consultation event. Out of a population of more than 100,000 people for Gloucester City, this is hardly a mass uprising of clamouring citizens demanding the process is halted.

The vast majority of people don’t know about the facts behind the issues and can often base their opinions on emotional responses. Just look at the aversion to land based wind turbines – getting any of these schemes through local planning committees is very difficult. Most people will say tackling climate change and developing renewable power is a good thing, but not when it’s in their area!

4) Incineration relies on exaggerating future quantities of waste instead of strongly increased recycling and composting: From what i’ve seen so far during the consultation event and the fact sheets on-line, the opposite is true. I would like to see figures which support either case to make a conclusion. The Gloucestershire target of a 70% recycling rate by 2030 is certainly achieveable, given the rate right now is just below 50%. This gives us 8 years to boost the rate by 20%. Just switching to ‘co-mingling’ of materials could itself boost the rate by more than 10%.

The example cited in the Gloucestershire County Council leaflet ‘Zero Waste to Landfill’ is for tewkesbury Borough Council, which went from 32% to 54% in a single year, after introducing the co-mingling method.

5) Incineration creates toxic emissions and hazardous ash: Again, from what i’ve seen so far, the ash is to be recycled into aggregate uses and the UBB proposal was to process the ash inside the building envelope.

The other emissions for two of the existing plants are well below the EU Directive limit.

I would like to know what the comparisons are between the total emissions from the proposed incinerator and the existing M5 motorway traffic. As it stands, it’s hard to visualise or put into context the suggested emissions, without something to compare it with.

6) Incineration poses significant health risks: The Health Protection Agency thinks otherwise and an independent study published by DEFRA in 2004 found that Energy From Waste facilities are not a major contributor to air pollution.

DEFRA report: DEFRA health impacts 2004

The Foreward by the DEFRA Chief Scientific Advisor, including the references to the critique carried out by the Royal Society, concludes that, ‘the effects on health from emissions from incineration, largely to air, are likely to be small in relation to other known risks to health.’

It’s always useful to use relative information to help decide on things. For example, which is worse for your health, being 5km away from an incinerator (which releases emissions from the top of it’s chimney 85 metres above ground level) or sitting in a traffic jam on a busy road on the way to work. How many toxic and dangerous fumes are you breathing by sitting in that car? I wonder what the relative health impacts are for all these types of things. Anything can be argued to be negative for health when considered on its own.

The last thing i’ll very very briefly cover, or at least acknowledge, is the nano-particle issue. This relates to high-temperature combustion, which can generate nano-particles with metallic and dioxin coatings, which some studies have found to be worse for health.

In my view, the NET greenhouse gas emission issue trumps the localised nano-particle issue, given the global implications of greenhouse gas emissions, with particular impacts on the world’s poorest and most vunerable people. Ideally, no emissions would be the target, but this isn’t realistic.

I also note the visual impact issue hasn’t been dealt with by the UKWIN front page. I believe this is much less of an issue than the others listed above, mostly because the aesthetics of the incinerator have a static influence, on a small population, as opposed to a huge wind turbine which moves most of the time, therefore having an active influence. The designs i’ve seen aren’t too bad either and both bidders are considering the visual impact in their own ways.

On some level, I believe that people should be confronted with the results of their own decisions. In this case, its a huge incinerator which is processing Gloucestershire’s waste. If virtually no waste was produced in the first place, there would be no need to build this thing. Recycling and ‘recovering’ the energy in waste should be the very last steps of the cycle, with the emphasis being on reducing and reusing as much as possible.

So, my remaining concern is about NET greenhouse gas emissions. Will the incinerator lower NET emissions, and if so, by how much? The WRATE assessment will compare the environmental impacts of the various waste management options and i’ll be having a look at this when it goes public.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s