Waste: a burning issue

A lot of rubbish is talked in the heated debate over Nottingham's incinerator.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

I’ve been living in Nottingham for six months and always wondered what the big chimney on the skyline was. Then I got the leaflet.

The chimney belongs to Eastcroft incinerator (or ‘energy-from-waste facility’ as they say in the trade). The leaflet was from the Waste Recycling Group (WRG), the owners of the incinerator, who are consulting local residents about plans to expand the plant. The incinerator currently processes 150,000 tons of waste from Nottingham and the surrounding area. The plan, supported by the local council, is to increase this by a further 100,000 tons. It could well turn out to be a heated debate.

The first thing you notice as you walk around Eastcroft is just how much rubbish we generate. Eastcroft takes the equivalent of about 25 per cent of Nottinghamshire’s household waste. I watched as the wagons came in to dump their loads in a chamber perhaps 60 feet deep and at least as wide.

‘That’s two days’ worth’, I was assured as I looked at the half-full chamber. Considering that many times more waste goes directly to landfill, you start to get a sense of just how a big hole in the ground is required to accept it all, even when it has been compacted (1).

The wonder is we don’t burn more of it. Incineration at Eastcroft reduces the volume of waste going to landfill by 90 per cent. In the process, energy is produced which heats many homes in the local area through a district heating scheme – essentially, it is the mother of all central heating systems. The energy also heats local businesses, including the Ice Rink and a large shopping centre, and generates electricity too.

Not all of the material goes up in smoke. In the process of burning, a lot of metal is left behind. Eastcroft produces about 3,000 tons of iron and steel each year, which goes for recycling into girders. Even the ash gets reused to make the roads at landfill sites and might be used for other construction purposes in the future. Surprisingly, this doesn’t count as ‘recycling’ in government statistics.

Fiona McIntosh of WRG calls this the ‘second bite of the cherry’ mentality. Very little of the waste sent to Eastcroft ends up being wasted. ‘This is not a destructive process’, she says. As her colleague David Harper pointed out to me, there is a double standard as regards energy-from-waste plants. ‘Paper is now an agricultural product’, he says. ‘If I were to grow willow trees to create biomass, then burn them to produce energy, I’d be hailed for reducing global warming. But if I grow trees for paper, use the paper, then burn it, I’m the devil incarnate.’

Doesn’t this incinerating process have a polluting effect? The plant certainly produces plenty of carbon dioxide – but since it produces a lot of energy in the process, it replaces the coal or gas that might have been burned instead. Noxious substances might be produced by incomplete combustion, so the plant burns at between 850 and 1100 degrees Celsius to ensure that material is, as much as possible, burned down to its most basic constituents. Then, any really nasty toxins and particles that survive are stripped out, leaving air that has less soot in it than the air sucked in to the burning process from the outside.

However, there are others who see Eastcroft as extremely wasteful. Nigel Lee of Nottingham Friends of the Earth is coordinator of a local campaign against the expansion of the incinerator. ‘The best thing is not to produce waste in the first place’, he says, arguing that if things were produced in a less wasteful fashion, and built to last, there would be less need for waste disposal. ‘When [goods] come to the end of their useful life, they can be dismantled and the components reused, or if the material can be recycled then that is a lot more efficient from an environmental point of view.’

Lee argues that the energy produced at an incinerator like Eastcroft isn’t as much of a bonus as it appears. ‘It’s better to recycle material, whether it is paper, steel, aluminium, whatever, than it is to burn it. The energy you save in recycling waste, compared to what you use in making things from virgin materials, is actually more than you get from burning the waste.’ Environmentalists are concerned that expanding incineration will require a guaranteed flow of waste such that recycling schemes are rendered uneconomic.

The WRG sees things differently, arguing that incineration is suitable for the kind of waste that can’t be economically recycled. ‘This is the ultimate form of recycling, in thermally extracting the last amount of beneficial re-use from the waste stream that would otherwise be landfilled.’ WRG isn’t alone in believing incineration has a useful role to play. In 2003, Valfrid Paulsson, the former director-general of the Swedish environmental protection agency, co-wrote an article for the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, arguing that the new, cleaner generation of incinerators are ‘best for the environment, the economy and the management of natural resources’.

At that time, the UK Department for Environment, Food and the Regions (DEFRA) dismissed the suggestion, claiming that incineration ’causes dangerous emissions, raises public concern and sends out a negative message about re-use’ (2). Nonetheless, with tough European Union targets to meet on landfill, the government would like to see more waste directed to incinerators. Yet nearly half of proposed incinerator schemes have been refused planning permission by local authorities in recent years (3). Given that modern incinerators face stricter environmental standards than factories or power stations, it seems such concern is misplaced.

Recycling would make perfect sense if what we needed was to preserve the last remnants of scarce resources. But, as Julian Simon famously bet in 1980, prices of raw materials have fallen in recent years, indicating increasing supplies and increasing efficiency of use, not shortages (4). Moreover, materials that become expensive because of scarcity tend to be substituted for cheaper and more widely available alternatives. So, resources are hardly a pressing problem.

What seems to have become unfashionable in this debate is the issue of labour time. Traditionally, a key measure of economic progress was the ability to improve productivity – that is, to increase the amount that can be produced with the same amount of labour. On the other hand, the emphasis in the waste debate, and in environmentalist thought more generally, is on resource productivity – using less, and reusing and recycling what is used. While excess waste has always been regarded as bad for the ‘bottom line’, environmentalists argue that resources should be preserved even if we actually have to use more labour in doing so. The result would be that society would do less than it might otherwise be capable of, in order to conserve raw materials.

But recycling isn’t saving precious resources, as Simon demonstrated, and it isn’t needed to reduce the level of material going to landfill. In the rush to promote waste separation at home, and extra refuse collections to pick it all up, aren’t we wasting time, as well as money? There are specific examples of items that can be recycled economically – like aluminium cans – but these are few and far between. The rest of what we throw away isn’t really wasted because it really is rubbish.

Conversely, the increasing production of waste is, in many ways, a sign that things are better now than they were in the past. Waste is often seen as a bad thing, but we should remember that it is a side effect of some positive things – progress, development, the production of more goods. If you want to see real recycling in action, look at shanty-town children picking through rubbish dumps for anything that might be saleable.

What should be a technical discussion, about how to achieve the best balance between making use of waste and disposing of it with the minimum of fuss, has been distorted by placing recycling on a pedestal. It seems to have become unacceptable to criticise recycling, even if the arguments for it are weak.

I can rest easy knowing that the incinerator chimney down the road from me is producing little more than hot air. Which is a fair description of the debate about incineration too.

Read on:

spiked-debate: Waste away

(1) In fact, the issue of land-use if frequently overstated. According to Bjørn Lomborg in The Skeptical Environmentalist, all of the waste produced until the end of the twenty-first century in the USA, buried to a depth of 100 feet, would occupy a square 18 miles long on each side, or 0.009 per cent of the total land area of the country. And once full, the land can be covered and used for something else.

(2) Swedes trash myth of refuse recycling, Daily Telegraph, 2 March 2003

(3) Opposition to incinerators is rising, Today, BBC Radio 4

(4) Wager between Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich, Wikipedia

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Topics Science & Tech


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