The Partnership is one hundred per cent committed to reducing the amount of waste each household generates and encouraging residents to recycle and compost as much as possible.
Energy from waste technologies have a particularly poor public image. Environmental campaigners have challenged the development of these facilities by exploiting ill-conceived perceptions of how emissions adversely affect public health.
The majority of published studies concentrate on the health effects from the older generation of incinerators. Since the end of 2005, all energy from waste plants must meet stringent criteria set out in the European Waste Incineration Directive. This means that much tighter controls are now in place.
Modern, well-managed Energy from Waste plants release far fewer chemicals than the old incinerators of yesteryear and, therefore, only make a very small contribution to background levels of air pollution.
A review of the evidence on the health effects of household waste treatment and disposal was published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in 2004. It considered 23 high quality studies of the patterns of disease around modern Energy from Waste plants and also four review papers looking at the health effects of Energy from Waste plants.
The report considered cancer, respiratory disease and birth defects and found no evidence for a link between the incidence of these diseases and modern Energy from Waste plants.
The Health Protection Agency has also published a position statement on incineration of municipal waste: “Modern, well-managed waste incinerators will only make a very small contribution to background levels of air pollution”; “provided they comply with modern regulatory requirements, such as the Waste Incineration Directive, they should contribute little to the concentrations of monitored pollutants in ambient air.”
Most recently, the Health Protection Agency (2009) has stated that a review of scientific evidence suggests air pollution from modern incinerators make up less than one per cent of the country’s particulate emissions, while industry and traffic accounts for more than 50 per cent.
Those opposed to Energy from Waste plants often claim that they reduce the need and the inclination of residents to reduce, re-use and recycle and that waste that could be recycled is used instead to ‘feed the burn’.
This could not be further from the truth. The South London Waste Partnership has committed to increasing recycling and composting to at least 50% and is considering how they can go even higher.
The Partnership is committed to meeting and exceeding the very latest targets for London, contained within the Mayor of London’s draft London Plan. That means achieving recycling and composting rate of 60% within 20 years. With current levels of recycling at 37%, this will require a massive cultural change.
In striving for this target, the Partnership has negotiated an innovative Declining Tonnage Agreement with Viridor (our Preferred Bidder for the Residual Waste Treatment Contract). This agreement will enable the Partnership to send declining amounts of household waste to Viridor for treatment over the 25 year life of the contract. It ensures that the four Partner Boroughs can continue to encourage residents to reduce, reuse and recycle. The Partner Boroughs will never be inclined to treat waste that could simply be re-used, recycled or composted. Minimising and recycling waste will always be the priority.
Many other European countries have shown that a vigorous Energy from Waste policy is compatible with high recycling rates. It should not be forgotten that Defra research shows that recovering energy from residual waste (including by incineration) is a much better environmental option than landfill. The recovery of electricity also has financial benefits which are fed directly back into offsetting the costs of waste treatment and so lower the costs to residents and the impacts on council tax.
It should also be noted that if the South London Waste Partnership did not award a contract to build a facility to treat residual waste, the Partner Boroughs would have an enormous financial and environmental problem. The extremely high costs of landfill and limited availability of landfill space means this waste must be treated. This is a short, medium and long term problem for every council in the country.
Those who believe waste treatment facilities are not needed because we can have a ‘zero waste’ society are well intentioned but misguided. Given current recycling levels, this could only ever be a very long term aspiration goal. What would we do in the short and medium term?
At this moment in time, there is not a single large, diverse community on the planet that generates ‘zero waste’. It would be enormously irresponsible and unprecedented for the Partner Boroughs to refuse to develop waste treatment facilities in the belief that waste minimisation and recycling activities alone would wipe out all waste almost overnight.
No matter what residual waste treatment facilities are built in the years to come, the South London Waste Partnership is one hundred per cent committed to reducing the amount of waste each household generates and encouraging residents to recycle and compost as much as possible.