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Environment

The growing movement to end UK waste incineration

Waste incineration rates are increasing around the UK – but climate campaigners say burning rubbish is a threat to human and planetary health.

Since 2014, Andrew Watson has lived in the shadow of the Runcorn Incinerator in Cheshire: the UK’s largest waste incineration facility. 

It might seem a mundane landmark, but for Watson, whose name has been changed at his request, the proximity of his home to the facility has been an impossible fact to ignore. 

From loud noises late in the night to intrusive lighting, vermin, air pollution and smells akin to “rotting cheese”, he and other local residents allege the incinerator has caused them years of misery.

“In the summer you can’t even sit out in your garden, the smell is so bad…vermin are attracted to the smell. We’ve found dead rats in our pond [before],” Watson says. 

The incinerator’s owners, Viridor, who did not respond to a request for comment, have previously refuted all these claims. Nonetheless, a group of residents have now launched a class action against the company, claiming the facility has blighted their lives. 

Residents in Runcorn are not alone in feeling disgruntled about the UK’s rubbish-burning habit. While incinerator proponents say that burning waste saves on emissions by diverting it from landfill, a Channel 4 investigation earlier this year found incineration emissions are still significant – and now higher than those produced by coal.

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According to data collected by anti-incineration group United Kingdom Without Incineration Network (UKWIN) and government figures, there are at least 90 incinerators in the UK already, with 50 more proposed or being developed. 

Yet in the face of this projected growth, local opposition to incinerators is growing. 

Campaign groups argue that incinerators present not only a danger to human health and wellbeing, but an unjustifiable threat to the climate and environment at a time when we should be reducing greenhouse gas emissions and encouraging a circular, low-waste economy.

Millions of us already recycle household waste. But when we put a milk carton into the green bin, some would be shocked to discover there’s a chance it won’t end up being processed and re-used.

According to a dispatches investigation by Channel 4 earlier this year, the UK is now burning more waste than it recycles, with, on average, 11 per cent of the waste we think we’re recycling actually ending up in an incinerator. 

So why send waste to be burned when it could be recycled? According to Shlomo Dowen, national coordinator of UKWIN, it’s because councils are currently incentivised to incinerate waste in various ways. 

The foremost of which, he says, is an absence of taxation on incineration, while there are taxes on landfill and fees associated with recycling. 

“If you’ve already paid for incineration capacity, it becomes hard to justify paying the incinerator bill and then also paying another bill for recycling.

“I suppose it’s a bit like if you’re already paying a monthly charge for central heating – you would be hesitant to use your electric heaters and pay extra,” he explains.

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Dowen adds that contracts between incineration companies and councils are often long-term, and contain “mechanisms to encourage incineration at the expense of recycling and composting”. 

When contracts were initially drawn up, he adds, it was estimated that waste would increase dramatically – but this never happened. 

As a result, incinerator capacity is now too high for the amount of waste being produced. Dowen says this has landed many local authorities in a situation where there simply isn’t enough non-recyclable waste to feed into the incinerators, which, unlike landfill, must be continuously fed material to burn. 

“Most of what is used as incinerator feedstock could and should have been recycled or composted,” he says. 

Dowen’s account is refuted by the North London Waste Authority, who presided over a decision to expand an incinerator in Edmonton, North London, this week.

“There is absolutely no incentive for us to produce more rubbish as it costs councils less to recycle materials than sending it to energy from waste facilities,” a spokesperson said.

“It is unsustainable consumption that needs urgent attention. It is exacerbating the Climate Emergency as well as causing nature to decline.

“NLWA is urging the Government to make recycling compulsory and to ban many more unecological products such as single-use, unrecyclable plastics among a raft of measures.”

UKWIN has helped campaign groups across the country mount successful opposition to incinerators, with complaints broadly the same wherever incinerators are: fears over disruption, air pollution and the climate implications of burning rubbish. 

The Environment Agency, local authorities and waste incineration operators insist that the facilities are not a danger to human health, with Public Health England (PHE) recently assessing that “PHE’s risk assessment remains that modern, well run and regulated municipal waste incinerators are not a significant risk to public health.”

Stakeholders also say that incineration is preferable to landfill, not least because burning waste can produce energy to be reused elsewhere. The Environment Agency told The Big Issue, moreover, that the government would not issue a permit for an incinerator where a “significant impact on the environment or harm to human health” would result. 

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Yet campaign groups and even some MPs disagree, with the all-party parliamentary group on air pollution calling for an end to incinerator expansion in a report published this week.

The MPs heard evidence of health impacts associated with living near incinerators, including testimony from oncologist Ruggero Ridolfi, who suggested a link between living near incinerators and acute childhood leukaemia. Others giving evidence highlighted the health risks of air pollution for those living near plants. 

The report came just days ahead of a decision to expand incinerator facilities in Edmonton, London, where strong local opposition and protests resulted in two arrests this week. 

Carina Millstone, leading the campaign against the incinerator, says the injustice of the facility goes beyond health and climate impacts, pointing out that the facility is situated in an ethnically diverse and economically disadvantaged area of London.

“It’s being sited in a community where people might not notice it’s happening, with leaflets produced in a language that people might not be able to read.

“Even if you can read the leaflets, you also need to know how things work – the planning system, who your MP is, how to contact your MP,” she says.

It’s a pattern that’s emerged around the country, with a 2020 investigation by Greenpeace revealing that incinerators are three times more likely to be sited in the UK’s most deprived areas than the richest areas.

“They once tried to site [an incinerator] in Muswell Hill and were unsuccessful because the community there had lots of resources – access to lawyers and councillors,” says Millstone, pointing out that less affluent communities are unlikely to have these same advantages.

The North London Waste Authority says fears over the plant’s climate, environmental and social impacts are “unfounded”, tellingThe Big Issue: “North London Waste Authority has already had extensive exchanges with the group opposed to the project and has pointed out that criticisms of the project are unfounded.

“For example, our project helps tackle the climate emergency by diverting household waste from landfill – saving up to 215,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide every year, and Public Health England is completely clear that modern facilities like ours do not have a significant impact on air quality or people’s health.”

Millstone says residents remain unconvinced, fearing for their health and worrying that an expansion of facilities will undermine recycling efforts and increase the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions

Just months ago, the Environment Bill pledged to improve recycling targets and encourage a more circular economy, but campaigners fear the expansion of incineration is incompatible with such goals.

The success of the bill’s measures will depend on how local councils respond, says Dowen.

“If Local Authorities embrace the spirit as well as the letter of the law, we will see a reduction in the material available for use as incinerator feedstock, we’ll be on our way towards an incineration exit strategy.”

“But if councils direct their efforts towards getting around the law, making excuses, putting up barriers to the circular economy, etc instead, then the Environment Act will have failed us all,” he says.

To campaigners like Millstone, burning tonnes of recyclable rubbish and producing tonnes of greenhouse gases simply seems incongruous in an age of dramatic climate change and environmental destruction.

“Knowing what we know about the health impacts of air pollution, the need to decarbonise the economy, reduce plastic packaging and waste – it just seems like a really outdated technology,” she says.

“Knowing all these things, how can anyone conclude that what we need is another big incineration plant?”

This article was amended on 17th December 2021 to include a response from the North London Waste Authority to the claim that local authorities are incentivised to incinerate waste rather than recycle it.

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