Britain is the landfill king of western Europe – more than half our rubbish goes into the ground. That’s almost 20 million tonnes a year and far more than our close neighbours. This practice produces vast amounts of methane, is dirty and expensive.
By 2020 the UK must more than halve the amount of rubbish it buries, to just 25% of its total waste disposal. Recycling will only go some of the way to ease the burden, but there is another alternative to burying – burning. So why don’t we?
When you visit the pretty village of Capel in Surrey with its substantial beamed houses, cricket club and woodland, you realise why. Inside a handsome home with Italian flourishes on the outskirts of the village Paul Garber, a former planning executive with George Wimpey, shows me the plans for the incinerator Surrey council wants to build on the outskirts of Capel.
“What you have is a building with a chimney stack alone which is higher than Nelson’s column,” says Mr Garber.
He is one of the key players in the Capel Action Group which has spent eight years fighting the plans. And it’s not been futile. The group hired some of the country’s best planning lawyers and last week got the scheme thrown out by the High Court.
As action groups go, it’s got some influential figures, such as Dino Adriano, former chief executive of Sainsbury’s. He says the opposition wasn’t on aesthetic grounds, so much as emissions from the plant’s chimney.
“There is no doubt incinerators do produce particles,” says Mr Adriano. “There has become much a greater understanding of what these particles are and what they do, and we don’t know how dangerous they are.”
Poacher turned gamekeeper
But environmental activist Ian Christie disagrees. He was sceptical too until he became Surrey council’s head of environment – a job he has since left – and began to look in detail at the technology.
“My assumption had been there were health problems,” he says. “But in the course of all the research we did we certainly discovered the objections on health grounds simply don’t stack up.”
A government-commissioned review of the health effects of waste in 2004 found no link between modern incinerators, or as they are more commonly known, “energy from waste plants”, and health problems.
But this doesn’t win over the sceptics – the public and some politicians remain suspicious, for a host of reasons.
Environmental campaigners like Michael Warhurst from Friends of the Earth say waste shouldn’t be burned if it can be reused.
“Incineration is a mistake in many different ways”, he says. “You’re taking things that can be recycled and you’re just burning them.”
Increasing incineration leads to a reduction in recycling, he believes, as you need to feed the plants with rubbish that could otherwise be recycled.
So is he right?
Denmark, a country synonymous for some with progressive environmental policies, is the poster child for incineration or energy from waste. It has 30 plants dotted around the country.
Just outside of the Danish capital, Copenhagen, I am at the top of the Nordforbraending incinerator where my guide, Jan Olsen, proudly shows me the houses, schools and shopping centre that surround the plant (see enlarge image, right).
“They are free to come at any time,” says Mr Olsen. “We have a lot of school classes coming here, its quite an efficient way to teach the community we are not that dangerous.”
This plant has one big selling point, not only does it generate electricity from the rubbish, it produces heat for thousands of local homes.
From the stylish home extension of blond wood floors and vast panes of glass, Kent Brun can clearly see the plant’s chimney which has been his neighbour for three decades. Having raised his children and now grandchildren here does Mr Brun have any worries about the health effects of the emissions?
He shoots back an unequivocal reply: “Absolutely not, never.”
Denmark incinerates about 40% of its rubbish, but it also has a recycling rate the UK can only envy and most importantly only a fraction of Denmark’s waste, about 10%, goes into landfill. Compare that to the UK which buries over half of its waste.
Nils Holm from the waste management company Ramboll doesn’t understand why Britain continues down this path.
“It’s all about energy self-sufficiency and solving landfill issues – waste from incineration is the key to tackling this,” he says.
This side of the North Sea, the clock is ticking. In 11 years, Britain will have to recycle half of all household waste, under tough EU targets. But that leaves a lot left over. A quarter will go to landfill, but that still leaves a quarter to be burned. Like it or not, that means Britain will need to burn more.
There are currently 18 incinerators in England and the Environment Agency has nine applications on its books from councils who want to build plants. Its head of industry regulation, Martin Bigg, says incinerators have an important role to play.
MBT (Mechanical biological treatment system): combines a sorting facility with a form of biological treatment such as composting or anaerobic digestion. MBT plants are designed to process mixed household waste as well as commercial and industrial waste. Anaerobic digestion: series of processes in which microorganisms break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen.
Plasma arc gasification: waste treatment technology that uses high electrical energy and high temperature to break down waste primarily into elemental gas and solid waste
“Ten to 15 years ago incinerators had a very bad reputation. [But] now there has been a radical difference in the design and operation of them… they are incredibly clean plants.”
In the last few years the message from government, councils and campaign groups has been recycle, recycle, recycle. But Mr Christie wants to know what it means for rubbish that can’t be recycled.
“Recycling can become a bit of a fetish. The higher the recycling rate the more virtuous we must be. But we must ask who’s going to buy the recycled materials otherwise you are simply creating a problem of disposal.”
The government realises the difficulty. In 2006 a senior civil servant told a waste conference it was difficult to see how the government could win the battle for hearts and minds, particularly of those living near incinerators.
No matter how good Britain’s recycling rate gets, or the other new technologies being developed (see factbox, above), to get energy from waste, says Mr Christie, we need incinerators.
“I was a reluctant convert to energy from waste incineration,” he confesses. “It’s a viable and sustainable alternative to landfill.”
Everyone agrees landfill is the worst place for our rubbish but currently the UK is addicted to it. If we are serious about drastically cutting this, we will have to get used to the dirty “I” word.