Incinerating waste, is this the best we can come up with?


Last year, the UK incinerated 10.9 million tonnes of waste.  The 44 UK incinerators burned through 42% of the UK’s waste. Arguably, the combination of increased landfill charges and Government incentives is encouraging the introduction of a further 100+ incinerators planned for the foreseeable future. The big benefit of incineration is energy recovery. In a country with an increasing energy demand, turning the waste we produce into electricity to be used in our homes appears genius. But it comes at a price with often overlooked downsides.

The best known argument against incineration is emissions causing air pollution, greenhouse gas CO2 and so on. Some argue UK incinerator emissions are more impactful annually than the 250,000 lorries on UK roads each year. The Environment Agency, who measure in Particulate Matter through its size and concentration, will tell you that incinerators produce .03% of PM10 particulates and .05% of PM2.5 particulates whereas in comparison wood fires and stoves produces 22.4% and 34.3% respectively. Yes, your wood stove offers a greater emission impact than your local incinerator. This is why the UK Government are introducing legislation discouraging wood stoves being installed in your home.

A Public Health England study found no concerning levels of Particulate Matter around incinerators. However, incinerators are still emitting particles. Don’t forget that!

All incinerators new or old are licensed with the regulation originally born out of the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED) - a piece of European 2010 legislation interpreted by the UK Government for England and Wales. Front and centre of this directive is this sentence, “The IED allows competent authorities some flexibility to set less strict emission limit values.” going on to confirm that incinerator emission levels can be raised if this “would lead to disproportionately higher costs compared to the environmental benefits”. So if the cost of putting in place an environmentally friendly incinerator is too much, we can lower the cost by raising the emission levels they can emit. Whoever thought of that should hang their head in shame.

The additional problem with emissions is Air Pollution Control Residues or Fly Ash. These are the particles that are captured before leaving the incinerator. There is regulation and, as ever, the scientific standards are very complicated. Particles per cubic metre? Not exactly a dinner party conversation topic! However, the next fact may be worth a quick chat over pudding. Did you know that emissions from incinerators can be used to make walls in your home? A bi-product of filtering an incinerator’s emissions is Gypsum which is used to make plasterboard. The materials used in your next DIY project may have originated from a waste incinerator. 

The above paragraphs highlight the second problem I have with incineration, the language. What are they all talking about?!?!?!? The terminology used is difficult to understand and when used in sentences cures insomniacs! Faced with this technical information it is easy to switch off, to accept incineration is a sensible way to tackle the waste challenge we have and move on with our lives. However, that acceptance means the negative impacts of incineration will get overlooked and this will remove the public scrutiny this subject demands.

Thirdly, incinerators need to be kept busy. You cannot switch them on when needed and off when not. They need feeding with waste. So councils, with a responsibility to voters/tax payers, can be encouraged to use incineration as opposed to recycling. It’s cheaper and who likes a Council Tax increase? Earlier this year, Brighton and Hove Council were accused of incinerating waste that could be recycled. Looking at the media coverage, it’s easy to understand why. If recyclable plastic is presented to a waste disposal company in a contaminated state, it becomes general waste and will therefore become incinerated. Unless addressed, and please bear in mind the UK recycling infrastructure is very stretched; incineration of recyclable plastics may become the easier and only waste disposal option.  

The fourth problem is Incinerator Bottom Ash or IBA. Many reading this may not be aware this even exists! Some may think it’s a tease from a school playground. I’m afraid not. IBA is the waste left over after the incineration process and can be very hazardous stuff. In England and Wales we generate over 1 million tonnes of this waste annually from incineration. So, would it surprise you to learn that bottom ash is used for construction? Left untreated, most bottom ash is hazardous. Treated it can be used in as a building aggregate. Yes your child’s newly built school walls could be made from breeze blocks containing bottom ash. Let the giggles begin!

So, what can we conclude? With the amount of waste increasing, recycling infrastructure stretched, recyclable waste exporting becoming increasingly difficult and landfill not an option, incineration may be the logical way forward. But for the love of Gypsum, is this the best we can do? Something must change. 

I believe that change is within our control. Each of us need to look at the waste we are creating daily and make the necessary changes to reduce this. Perhaps, it’s a reusable water bottle or coffee cup, choosing loose unwrapped produce when shopping, gifting experiences not plastic covered presents, buying only what we need and so on. When consumers change behaviour, the businesses who serve us will follow suit. If we can reduce the waste we create then our incinerators will have less waste to burn.

The problem is not incineration, the problem is us.     

Andrew Cross