I am looking forward to the European Commission’s communication on energy from waste (EfW) due later this year – assuming it will still be relevant to the UK.
Environment commissioner Karmenu Vella has stated that EfW is an area with considerable potential.
I don’t think many in the waste and resource sector would disagree with his statement: “You can never eliminate all waste and you can never recycle all of it. However you can still gain by recovering energy from the non-recyclable materials.”
Yet many campaigners see recycling and EfW as contradictory terms. Despite the evidence, they will not accept that EfW can be utilised without compromising higher reuse and recycling rates and respecting the principles of the waste hierarchy.
Lobby group UK Without Incineration Network stated: “Incineration depresses recycling, destroys valuable resources, releases greenhouse gases and is a waste of money. Incineration has no place in the zero-waste closed-loop circular economy (CE) we should be working towards.”
The 65% recycling target in the Commission’s emerging CE package is considered by many councils to be challenging, and I have heard council officers state that they are unlikely to meet them. Even if all local authorities achieve the targets, we still have 35% of our waste for which we will need to find a disposal route, and I believe that an EfW solution is the sensible and sustainable way forward.
EfW does not need to drive away recycling – there are countries where significant EfW capacity sits alongside high levels of recycling. In countries with some of the highest recycling rates (Switzerland, Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark), more than 30% of total municipal waste is processed in EfW plants. At the same time, EfW contributes both to the UK’s renewable energy performance and improves its energy diversity and security.
In recent weeks, I have been supporting residents’ groups as an independent expert while an EfW facility is being considered for Northampton. I have been saddened by the approach adopted by some of those opposing the plant, who seem to be unwilling to let evidence get in the way of a political point.
Errors about levels of landfill tax, alternative technologies, current energy sources and sustainability have been presented as facts, and all add to confusion for the residents who want to make informed and safe choices. If they search on the internet, most of the information available is about the ‘horrors’ of incineration, with very little science or other information to balance the argument.
I don’t think the industry always helps itself; it spends a lot of effort explaining the differences between gasification, pyrolysis and incineration. Instead of differentiating between the technologies, would it not be better to dispel the myths and concerns? If the public hears that they should not be concerned about pyrolysis and gasification because they are not incineration, does that not therefore imply that they should be concerned about incineration?
When an EfW facility is proposed, we should not have to go through the same discussions about technology and emissions – we should be able to focus on the suitability of that particular facility in the specific location.
There is easily understandable information about the benefits of recycling and the problems with landfill, and it would be good if there was a clear, publicly accessible knowledge bank of similar information about EfW technologies. When talking about emissions, for example, what does 0.1ng TEQ/Nm3 mean to the general public? Do they know what TEQ is? Is this a huge number or a very small number?
We need to find better ways of communicating this in ways the public can understand and relate to, for instance, how the concentration of mercury from a regulated EfW stack compares with the mercury concentration in a can of tuna.
Margaret Bates is University of Northampton professor