Rash of new waste incinerators prompts fears for health and recycling

Eleven huge new waste incinerators are being planned across Scotland, prompting warnings they will endanger health, pollute the environment and breach government recycling policy.

Controversial new plants proposed in Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Ayrshire, Lothian, Fife, Aberdeen and elsewhere could burn nearly two million tonnes of waste a year, more than a third of all Scotland’s household and business refuse.

But community and environmental groups fear that plumes of pollution will put children’s heath at risk. They warn that Scotland is “sleepwalking away from recycling” and failing to abide by its “zero waste” strategy.

Developers, however, argue that recycling has “stagnated” and that incinerators are needed to get rid of “residual” waste. The latest technology will ensure that waste burning is “safe, reliable and environmentally beneficial”, they say.

The Scottish Government policy for a “circular economy” in 2016 stressed that the role of ‘energy from waste’ incinerators should be limited. It was important to ensure that all other options were exhausted first, it said.

But an investigation by The Ferret has found that there are four new incinerators already under construction, four that have planning permission and three that have made planning applications. This is in addition to the two operational incinerators in Dundee and Shetland.

If all the proposals come to fruition, they will have the capacity to burn nearly two million tonnes of waste annually. The total amount of waste produced every year by Scottish households and businesses is around 5.5 million tonnes, not including construction debris.

Friends of the Earth Scotland called on ministers to block the building of so many incinerators. “We are about to be locked into decades of having to feed incinerators instead of doing something more sensible with our resources,” said the environmental group’s director, Dr Richard Dixon.

“The choices we make in the next few years will determine whether we spend the next three decades in a polluted, wasteful Scotland or change to the kind of resource-efficient, recycling society we deserve in the 21st century.”

The choice was to go for incineration or for less waste and high recycling, Dixon argued. “The Scottish Government has fine plans but they will come to naught unless they stop this rush to incineration before it is too late.”

Shlomo Dowen, coordinator of the UK Without Incineration Network, accused the Scottish Government of putting its zero waste ambitions at risk. “Existing incinerators in Scotland are already burning material that could and should be recycled or composted,” he said.

Hargreaves Services, the company behind two of the proposed incinerators in Fife and Falkirk, pointed out in a planning submission that Scottish recycling targets had been missed. “The rate of increase has effectively stagnated,” it said, suggesting that recycling rates were unlikely to increase significantly.

The company argued that there was “a significant structural shortage of residual waste disposal” in Scotland. It also contended that not every incinerator that had planning permission would end up being built.

“The few plants that will both receive permits and be financed will be the ones that are well conceived, well financed and that use proven technology that achieves the highest levels of efficiency and environmental standards,” said Hargreaves group financial director, Iain Cockburn.

“Even with the most aggressive re-cycling rates, there will still be residual waste that needs long term disposal solutions. The challenge is to dispose of it to the highest environmental standards in an efficient and cost effective fashion, and plants such as the ones we are developing will achieve that.”

The Scottish Government stressed that it was illegal to incinerate waste that could be recycled. Many of the plants currently under consideration were “unlikely to be built”, said a spokesperson.

“Energy from waste schemes have a role to play but only when efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle have been exhausted. These schemes are required to meet strict environmental standards and are subject to rigorous monitoring and enforcement activities.”

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) also doubted whether all the proposed plants would be built. “Scottish waste policy recognises a small but important role for energy from residual waste,” said waste manager, Rebecca Walker.

“Where new facilities do come forward, Sepa will ensure they are designed and operated to high technical standards and meet strict emission limits to protect the environment and human health.”

Opposition to incinerators

A plan for a new £150 million waste incinerator at Westfield in Fife is facing fierce opposition from local residents as the council prepares to decide whether or not to give it the go-ahead .

Hargreaves Services is applying to build a plant capable of burning up to 200,000 tonnes of waste a year on the site. It also plans another £150m incinerator capable of burning 236,000 tonnes of waste a year at Grangemouth.

But community groups are objecting. “I think Scotland is sleepwalking away from recycling and down the incineration route, which is now being dressed up as green and beneficial,” said local resident and former BBC Scotland environment correspondent, Louise Batchelor.

“At Westfield, not far from me, we’re being offered the vision of a solar energy park with cycle paths and greenhouses growing herbs. In reality, we’re looking at a big, dirty development including an incinerator and over 500 lorries a day along the B9097 beside Loch Leven.”

She added: “As well as bringing waste, the developers want to bring ash from another incinerator planned for Grangemouth. I’m extremely concerned about the impact of all the noise and pollution on people living near the site.”

She was backed by the Green MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife, Mark Ruskell.”It would worry me greatly if the renewable generation at the site was merely greenwashing to try and push through the incinerator.”

Hargreaves, however, insisted its incinerators would use the latest “grate combustion” technology. This had been widely used elsewhere and “in a number of government studies has been proven safe, reliable and environmentally beneficial,” said the group’s chief financial officer, Iain Cockburn.

“We have engaged widely with local communities as part of the planning processes for the Grangemouth and Westfield facilities. Neither proposal has given rise to any material level of local concern in respect of health or environmental impact.”

There is also controversy over a 150,000-tonne waste incinerator being proposed by Aberdeen City Council and other local authorities at East Tullos. “We firmly believe that there is no need or place for incinerators in Scotland or elsewhere,” said David Fryer, a member of Torry Community Council.

“Mounting independent and academic evidence points to the cumulative and harmful effects of plumes from incinerators for our children’s and our children’s children future health.”

Aberdeen City Council argued that burning waste locally would provide heat and power here, instead of exporting it to plants heating other northern European communities. “These plants are accepted and recognised by their communities as energy production plants,” said a council spokeswoman.

“There is no evidence that their operation has caused any risk to health despite numerous and continuous studies and the new plant in Aberdeen will be no different.”

Photo thanks to  Antoine Taveneaux, GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0, via Wikimedia Commons. A version of this story was published in the Sunday Herald on 22 October 2017.

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