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Incineration of Waste

By Gordon Shaw

Incineration must be one of the biggest NIMBYs; beaten only by Nuclear.


Incineration is seen by some to be an attractive alternative to Landfill for waste disposal. As with other environmental processes there are strong emotional expressions of support or opposition from groups and individuals, apparently based on scientific and logical reasoning. From our observations of the arguments, the strongest pointer is that the 'punch up' illustrates that efforts, attitudes and resources would be better directed towards minimising waste and facilitating recycling. Nowhere was this more true than in the UK, several years ago, which had a dismal record for its' low level of recycling. Fortunately our observations in Surrey show considerable advances, over the recent past, in attempts to make it more convenient for individuals to recycle household waste. That doesn't mean that incinerators have gone away. They have the apparent allure of a quick, cheap fix and nothing appeals to politicians more than quick and cheap.

Current Perceived Policies in the UK:

It does seem that the national and some regional administrations saw the development of existing incinerators and the creation of many new ones, around the UK as a strategy to reduce the need for landfill sites. Landfill sites are expensive and have a short life-cycle (eg 15 years), they do have a potential for energy reclamation but not on a large scale with current technologies. In some areas there is no space left and presumably this state of affairs will get worse as existing ones become full. An estimate of the size of of the problem could be seen from predictions by Friends of the Earth several years ago, as to how many new or expansions of existing incinerators would be needed in England alone. We stopped counting at 70 sites and no doubt this was not an accurate figure but it gave us some feel about the scale.
More recently, however, the official view may have to change in the face of research by the US Environmental Protection Agency. The Agency reported dioxins, produced by waste incineration have been identified as the cause of many cancers, the worst component being TCDD (aka Agent Orange). It did appear at that stage that John Prescott and therefore Michael Meacher were somewhat ruffled by the news. Several proposals for the introduction of incinerators in the UK were blocked, mainly by arguments put forward by local residents in formal legal proceedings. It seemed from these cases that the benefits of incinerators were not as great as had been claimed and the dangers were being acknowledged. Some case studies can be seen on the Friends of the Earth web-site.

Some Arguments For Incineration:

Claimed advantages of incineration include the reduction of landfill space needed, length of useful life, cost effectiveness, safe disposal of some toxic pollutants, production of energy from the burning waste (and CHP has been used in European cities ), ability to reclaim metals such as aluminium, and the usefulness of the residue eg for road building. The arguments are largely defensive because incineration in the past has been justifiably criticised. However, these criticisms have led to an undeniable improvement in the technology, regulation and processes used, making incineration safer and more environmentally friendly. It also seems to be true that a waste incinerator designed, built and operated to the new standards (which could also produce energy) would be much better at controlling pollution than a site built primarily to produce energy. Sheffield University Waste Incineration Centre (SUWIC) is central to the Engineering Research Network funded by the UK Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). They say that although it is increasingly agreed in the clean technology community that the thermal treatment of the waste materials represents one of the best overall environmental options, this view is not generally accepted by the public because of the fear of the unknown effects of dioxins/furans. The network aims to place industrial expertise in this field on a firm and rigorously based foundation.

Some Arguments Against Incineration:

Antagonists of incineration counter the arguments strongly and those people living near to an incinerator plant or a proposed site are particularly concerned. That is not surprising and even those who do not feel threatened by proximity might heed the Camelot slogan 'it could be you'. For sure in the future, if expansion occurs as predicted, you are more likely to be in the vicinity of an incinerator than to win a major prize in the lottery. The opponents argue that toxic gases will escape, especially when temperatures are not exactly maintained, and very fine particulates will be discharged despite the promised filtering and scrubbing which ideally should take place. These are extremely pernicious contaminates which pass from the atmosphere into animal systems, including humans (bio concentration). The toxic gases include dioxins which are regarded as carcinogenic and also oestrogenic (leading to lowered fertility in males). There will also be large quantities of greenhouse gases, not normally classed as toxic, such as carbon dioxide emitted. Further, it is argued, the ash (and fly-ash from the filters) will contain poisonous compounds containing heavy metals and this has to be disposed of some way. These residues may account for about 25% of the original waste. If it is used for road and path construction it poses a definite risk especially where water allows the compounds to be leached into the the ground. Even if deposited in landfill sites similar dangers exist.
Our view is that where the dangers are so clear the implementation of incinerators should be strenuously opposed. The installation of an incinerator is a major capital project and will undoubtedly be carried out by companies with commercial motives. Thus driven the investors will need to be assured of long term profits which may lead to guarantees of ongoing activity and could well lead to the incineration of waste that could be dealt with in other ways and even result in the importation of waste to make the business viable. We would expect that the installation of an incinerator would detract from the development of other remedies and with the profit motive being so important we are cynical enough to expect firms to be tempted to cut corners and allow the release of toxic byproducts in the process. There is an organisation which opposes the development of incinerators in the UK it is called the United Kingdom Without Incineration Network (UKWIN). In Q1 of 2013 UKWIN boasts well over 300 members, including more than 100 groups campaigning for sustainable waste management and against waste incineration. We suggest you visit the United Kingdom Without Incineration Network web-site to see the arguments for yourselves.

What Should be Done?

Such a stand-off, when both methods (Landfill and Incineration) appear to be unacceptable, requires some lateral thinking. Not that the imagination needs to be stretched very far. Way back in 1993 a Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution issued a four stage decision procedure of which the first two stages state: 1 Wherever possible, avoid creating wastes, 2 Where wastes are unavoidable, recycle them if possible. We cannot find any fault with these strategic recommendations but would you know about them? It is interesting to look at how the UK has compared with other countries in the recycling stakes. In 1998, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Austria, Norway, Sweden, the USA, Germany, Finland, Canada and Denmark had household recycling rates ranging from 28% to 52% (some figures predate 1998) and by comparison the England/Wales figure was 8%. Statistics for glass and steel recycling also put the UK at or near the bottom of similar lists (Canada and US not quoted). We take some consolation from our observations that recently local councils are taking minimisation of waste and recycling much more seriously. However, complacency is not an option and this trend must be followed up with vigour.


Never have we seen a better argument for national leadership to provide a strategy, backed with the resources, to foster a culture which reduces waste and provides facilities for recycling. We have seen little evidence or arguments which prove that incineration contributes significant renewable energy to the economy and if that is true the main advantage of industrial incineration seems to be an arguable reduction in waste destined for landfill. The cost of building and operating incinerators or providing landfill sites is very significant. If substantial parts of these funds were to be diverted towards waste minimisation and encouraging recycling, the need for waste disposal could be enormously reduced, apart from reducing the dangers which arise from both incineration and landfill.

An historic note:

In Newcastle upon Tyne grassroots groups and trade unions were celebrating a success in 'community democracy', writes Hilary Wainwright (Guardian, Environment, 26 Nov 2003). A coalition of individuals and groups known as the 'Ban Waste' partnership was formed after the 1999 Byker incinerator scandal (high levels of toxicity in the city's allotments) and it appears that in Nov 2003 they convinced the city council that incineration should not form part of its waste strategy but it should commit to expanding recycling. The strategy included winning householders over and also proposing that the ubiquitous SITA should be replaced by the local firm Holystones.
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Originated: December 2000,  Last Amended: 29 October, 2013