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EfW myths we help to keep smouldering

EfW vs landfill

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.

Margaret Bates

Margaret Bates

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



Readers' comments (2)

  • The experience of UKWIN and our members is that up and down the country incineration is harming recycling (and composting and AD), and our evidence to EFRACOM explains the mechanisms that give rise to this unacceptable situation.

    For example, incineration subsidies and put-or-pay contracts reduce the marginal cost of incineration compared to routes higher in the hierarchy, thus increasing the marginal costs of reduction, re-use and recycling and therefore discouraging investment higher in the waste hierarchy.

    EFRACOM's report notes that UKWIN provided "data showing an apparent correlation between high rates of incineration and low rates of recycling", and that: “When we asked the Minister how the Government ensures that only genuinely residual waste is sent to incinerators, he told us that the key pressure is gate fees...However, we are concerned about the effectiveness of this singular mechanism following evidence we received about ‘put or pay contracts’ and negative impacts on recycling rates.”

    Incinerators built today are designed to be with us for 25+ years, impeding the top tiers of the waste hierarchy for generations to come. What we need is a national and European effort to redesign products to increase their recyclability and extend their lifespans. The UK should learn the lessons from countries that drifted into significant incineration overcapacity and are now forced to import waste to keep their fires burning.

    Even if one took the view that incineration was the best way to treat genuinely residual waste, not all waste is combustible and the UK already has more incineration capacity existing and under construction than genuinely residual waste to burn.

    As William Neale, member of cabinet for European Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik with responsibility for waste put it: "We have to have a circular economy concept, so it’s highly important that we’re pumping back materials into the economy rather than burning or burying them".

    Incineration destroys valuable materials and nutrients, removing them from the circular economy. In addition to being a ‘leakage’ from this circular economy, incineration is also a serious barrier to achieving a more circular economy because incinerators are so expensive to build.

    Money invested in incineration cannot be invested in better collection, sorting and treatment infrastructure, and the presence of expensive infrastructure results in ‘lock-in’ into incineration that reduces the financial incentives to reduce, re-use, recycle, compost, and collect and send suitable material for anaerobic digestion.

    Whilst pyrolysis and gasification are similar to conventional incineration in terms of their adverse impacts on the circular economy, they also bring new problems to the table. These experimental technologies have a track record of failure, with facilities experiencing significant downtime and lower than predicted power output. Such issues do not bode well for those relying on them for waste management, electricity or heat.

    Even if gasification and pyrolysis facilities were to work as promised by the operators (and none have operated as promised to date), those promises are often only for plants that are so inefficient that they would fail to meet the un-ambitious R1 formula, classifying the facilities as disposal operations and placing them alongside landfill at the bottom of the EU's Waste Management Hierarchy.

    Rather than trying to find new ways to sugar-coat nasty outdated technologies, those who claim to be interested in good resource management should be focussed on how to move us beyond the distraction of expensive 'end of pipe' solutions and towards something that is actually sustainable.

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  • This is a rather patronising article and badly underestimates the intelligence of those opposed to incineration - as have so many of those promoting incinerators to their cost.

    How ironic, therefore, that when Bates asks for more science she shoots herself in the foot. She asks "When talking about emissions, for example, what does 0.1ng TEQ Nm3 mean to the general public?" Many of the 'general public' opposing incinerators will know that this should actually be 0.1ng TEQ /Nm3. WIthout the missing division bar it simply means that those who wrote the article don't properly understand what they are writing (and that the MRW editors are not doing their job properly!).

    Perhaps more importantly on the subject of dioxin emissions the 'general public' also know that technologies for the continuous sampling of dioxins have been available for nearly twenty years; that these techniques are well proven and are widely used internationally (being mandated in some areas); and that the literature demonstrates that this equipment shows that the typical twice yearly dioxin tests in the UK (for just 12-16 hours/year) can significantly underestimate the actual dioxin emissions of incinerators. When operators all use state of the art monitoring equipment like this then the public might be more inclined to trust their claims that the emissions are consistently low. Until then they have only themselves to blame for the high level of public mistrust

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  • Division bar inserted: production error by us. Apologies

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