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Public concerns around ERFs

Following very detailed and robust procurement, planning and environmental permitting processes, the Partnership is certain that the Beddington Energy Recovery Facility (ERF) will not only provide a cost-effective and environmentally sustainable alternative to landfill, but it will also be safe.

Two claims are frequently made by people who are opposed to Energy Recovery Facilities (ERFs).  The first is that they have a detrimental effect on human health.  The second is that they take away the incentive for people to reduce, re-use and recycle. Both of these claims are unfounded.

Health impacts of modern Energy from Waste plants

The Partnership remains one hundred per cent committed to encouraging residents to reduce, reuse and recycle as much waste as possible.

Campaign groups often challenge the development of ERF 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.

The technology is modern, safe and proven.  Viridor currently operates seven ERFs in the UK, with a further four under construction.  Across Europe, there are more than 400 ERFs in operation.

Health Protection Agency report published in November 2013 stated that ‘modern, well-managed incinerators make only a small contribution to local concentrations of air pollutants’ and that any potential health impacts, if they exist, are likely to be very small and not detectable.

The Beddington ERF will require an Environmental Permit in order to operate. This will require compliance with the requirements of all necessary standards protecting human health and the environment.

The facility will be closely monitored on a continual basis by the Environment Agency to ensure that it meets the strict emissions criteria set out in the European Union’s Industrial Emissions Directive.  In fact, in the case of NO2 (nitrogen dioxide), the limits at Beddington will be stricter than the European Industrial Emissions Directive limits.

Recycling and Energy from Waste can live happily side-by-side

Those opposed to Energy Recovery Facilities 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 40%, this will require a massive cultural change.

In striving for this target, the Partnership has negotiated an innovative Declining Tonnage Agreement with Viridor.  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.  In 2010 Austria achieved 70% recycling (including composting) alongside 30% waste which was incinerated; Germany achieved 62% recycling alongside 38% incineration; while Belgium achieved 62% recycling alongside 37% incineration.  This compares to the UK with 39% recycling and 12% incineration*.

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.  And 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 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.

* Figures based on 2013 data