York Residents Against Incineration

Burning Issues

Incinerate OR recycle

If an incinerator is built, the City of York Council and North Yorkshire County Councils will have to sign a contract tying us into burning a certain amount of waste for a number of years. Yet at the same time the Councils want us to reduce the amount of waste we produce in the first place. Both York and North Yorkshire Councils have waste minimisation programmes including ‘Rotters’ home compost promotion as well as Love Food Hate Waste programmes, and Zero Waste York was launched in September 2011.

Waste going into an incinerator has to include calorific materials such as paper and plastics – and to a lesser extent, food waste, otherwise it simply would not burn. But those materials could and should be recycled or composted. You can’t have a successful waste reduction and waste incineration programme going at the same time. This has been demonstrated again and again – by Cleveland Council’s Associate Director of Environmental Services who said of their waste disposal contract “essentially we are into waste maximization”, or by Sheffield who are now having to truck in waste to meet their incinerator contract.

AmeyCespa, in trying to reassure us about future recycling levels, talk about the possibility of achieving 55% recycling:

“We expect the Allerton Waste Recovery Park to help us achieve and exceed our 2020 50% recycling target early. We could further increase our recycling figure if we could include the recycled incinerator bottom ash (IBA) in our figures…. If we achieved 55% recycling and could then add in IBA it would take our recycling performance up to 65%.” – from AmeyCespa’s Q&A Update, October 2010

And Council officers, in their abysmal ‘Best Practical Environmental Option‘ document – the pseudo-scientific study that sought to justify building an incinerator in the first place, seemed to thing that 50% was as much as we could manage:

“In the case of MSW … a rate of recycling and composting at a level of 50% and under is deemed practicable.” – Best Practicable Environmental [sic] Option report, pg. 3-39

This is frankly embarrassing – councils in the UK now are recycling over 60%. In July 2010 South Oxfordshire posted a 68% recycling rate (after deductions). Rochford Council has managed 65% and Staffordshire Moorlands Council 63%.

What does the City of York Council have to say about this potential conflict?

It is important to note that there is no commitment or statutory obligation on the waste collection authorities to improve recycling performance beyond current levels.
(Appendix 14 to Agenda item 127, CoYC Executive, November 30th 2010)

…how’s that for ambition?

This contract will last until 2040 – we’re just not setting our sights high enough. We need higher targets, and this plan will not provide that. There are no targets for recycling set beyond 2020 in this strategy!

Incineration doesn’t destroy waste

Incineration is the process of converting thousands of tonnes of potentially useful materials into toxic dust.

Every year in the UK, we produce millions of tonnes of domestic waste – over 100,000 tonnes in York. We chuck it in the bin and wait for the council to collect it. The majority is landfilled or burnt in one of the 15 municipal incinerators around the country. Many people assume it has been destroyed.

But it is one of the fundamental principles of science that matter can never be destroyed; it can only ever be transformed. Incinerators do not destroy waste. They simply turn it into ash and gases. Our rubbish still exists. We may see less of it, but we still have to bury the remains – or breathe it in.

Incineration is waste of energy

According to Friends of the Earth “incinerators are extremely inefficient generators of energy producing more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than old-fashioned coal-fired power station.” You preserve far more energy by reuse and recycling than you could ever generate by incineration.

Greenpeace says that “incinerators are about 20% efficient in converting heat into electricity. The puny output is a tiny fraction of the energy required to remake the products and packaging they destroy. Most of the heat generated in the incinerator comes from burning plastic and paper. Burning plastics is effectively burning fossil fuels. Burning paper wastes energy and natural resources. Energy from waste is a waste of energy.”

Incineration is a known health hazard

Burning waste releases a cocktail of dangerous chemicals. Some of the chemicals we cannot even name yet – let alone know their impact on human health and the environment. The Councils’ own analysis found that this option was the most damaging to human health of all options they examined.

Some of the effects of the chemicals that are known to be emitted by incineration include cancer, liver failure, abnormal sexual development, damage to the nervous, immune and respiratory systems, as well as acid rain and climate change.

A well-designed modern incinerator can keep the levels of many of these known toxins down to a very low level if it is well run. Unfortunately the recent history of incinerators in Britain demostrates that all too often, they are not very well run at all – see the case studies page for some examples.

And then there are the toxins we don’t know about – the ones not regulated by modern emissions standards. There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that nanoparticles emitted by incineration may pose a health risk. These are very fine particles whose size is of the order of 1 nm (nanometre – a millionth of a millimetre). Science is only just beginning to understand and investigate the unexpected properties of such small packets of matter. See, for instance, this video of Paul Connett, Professor of Chemistry, talking on the subject.

Perverse incentives

So why are Council’s considering it? Simple – they have been told to do so. The UK government has for the last decade or so has been – rightly- trying to reduce the use of landfill as waste disposal. But rather than tackle the difficult questions of waste generation or barriers to recycling, reuse and composting, governments across the EU have been pushing money at incineration as a solution. In the UK This is why we have ended up with ‘cleaner’ incinerators, rather than a truly sustainable waste policy. Read the GAIA report “When the EU Wastes the Climate” for more on how the EU and EU governments have funded incineration at the expense of recycling, reuse and composting.

The Solution – Aim for Zero Waste

We agree with York Council that not doing anything to solve our waste problem is not an option. The only sustainable long-term solution is to adopt a “Zero Waste Strategy”. This involves decreasing the amount of waste we produce in the first place whilst progressively increasing the amounts reused, recycled or composted year-on-year until there is almost nothing left. We will need to landfill the residue but this strategy allows us to minimise this residue to the point where there would not be any more landfill than that required after incineration.

How do we reduce & reuse our waste?

A raft of new EU directives on food packaging and recycle-ability of manufactured goods coming into force soon will help us reduce a lot of our waste. Traditional charity shops and second-hand dealers as well as various fast-emerging reuse schemes like Freecycle or Read It Swap It can help us find new homes for unwanted reusable items. Home-composting can remove between 20-30% of waste from our bins and can be done even in tiny gardens or back yards.

How do we recycle more?

Besides simply avoiding non-recyclable products, there are several technologies that can be employed to help us recycle more. Mechanical and Biological Treatment (MBT) – automated waste separation for further recycling and composting – seems to be the most reasonable option, which the council has included in its consultation but only coupled with incineration. While we wholeheartedly support the employment of MBT, we do not want it to produce fuel for an incinerator. Lancashire County Council (see case study) has decided that it can meet all its obligations without incineration. It is going to use MBT to produce a combination of bio-gas and a growing medium.

Who else wants Zero Waste?

Canberra in Australia aims to be zero-waste by 2010. New Zealand’s national policy is toward zero waste. Closer to home, Doncaster and Bath have adopted strategies which lead the districts toward a zero waste future.

We can do it too!

With the extension of doorstep recycling to nearly the whole of York, we will almost certainly meet the Waste Partnership’s 50% target by 2020. But we believe that we could do considerably better. With a bit of political will and ambition, York could join the ranks of the most progressive and environmentally responsible cities on the planet, reclaiming 60 to 70% of waste. Signing a contract to build an incinerator under a PFI scheme is signing away any chance to achieve zero waste for decades. Help us stop it now! Call on the York and North Yorkshire Councils to adopt a Zero Waste Strategy. It is ambitious, but it is the only sustainable option, and it is happening now all over the world.

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