Sunday 2 January 2011

Can Norfolk stop the ‘Dash for Ash’?

This blog is dedicated to the memory of Norwich environmental campaigner, Sue Pollard, who died last month. Sue was dedicated to many causes: she always fought for human scale, local environmental solutions, and against large scale technofixes such as biofuels and waste incineration.

The Independent reported last week that up to 24 incinerator schemes are in UK planning: a ‘dash for ash’ facing widespread opposition.

People in Norfolk are all too familiar with this. Back in 2006, an incinerator was proposed by Norfolk County Council on the outskirts of Norwich – upwind of the city. Although a land ownership technicality saw the end of this proposal after the loss of several million pounds of taxpayer’s money, it would have never been accepted following a fierce local campaign.

However, Norfolk County Council always planned an even bigger waste processing facility – the incinerator now being proposed upwind of Kings Lynn that could burn a quarter of million of tonnes of waste each year.

(photo: mock-up of 80m incinerator flue tower when placed alongside Norwich Cathedral)

The cause of this surge of nationally planned incineration plants lies with DEFRA more than local councils. For a decade, national government has been unambitious in pushing the zero waste policies that would favour recycling and reuse, and has failed completely to set stronger rules on packaging to prevent waste at source. At the same time, they have offered Private Finance Initiative (PFI) credits for councils to go for large scale, hi tech waste projects, effectively opening up UK plc to large multinational waste companies as in Norfolk.

A key factor here that swung things in favour of the incinerator has been the Council’s gaining over Private Finance Initiative (PFI) credits worth over £150m by 2040. Although, these PFI credits were offered for a ‘technology neutral’ waste solution, incineration has been favoured by government and companies. Local government, with the few exceptions of those councils who have adopted zero waste strategies, has looked for the easiest options to meet the EU’s Landfill Directive that seeks to eliminate landfill. There was an inevitability that an incineration proposal would win in the end following what in essence is a bribe from national government.

However, Norfolk could have “done different” if there had been the right vision ten years ago when strong EU legislation on reducing landfill first loomed. At this stage, the Council should have created a Zero Waste strategy and started a very strong drive to push up recycling rates. Zero Waste would mean encouraging reclamation and re-use of materials, as well as recycling. This would have helped establish Green sector business and jobs too: yet, there have been innovative proposals for reclamation parks that sadly have not been taken up in Norfolk.

With slow uptake of recycling, the Council already has a shortfall in waste treatment facilities and is proposing to export waste to Kent for incineration from next year. If Norfolk had gone for Zero Waste, yes, there would still be residual waste, but much less. The question would still be what to do with it, but it would be a smaller problem.

The choice has been misrepresented by those behind the Kings Lynn incinerator as between ONLY landfill or incineration. However, since 2005, I and others have proposed that a network of treatment sites were implemented across the County instead of one large, humongous plant. These could have been medium scale for example, each processing between 10,000 and 40,000 tonnes a year of the food and organic waste that is responsible for the climate damaging methane emissions from landfill. They could have been developed incrementally, brought considerable employment and based around more environmentally friendly technologies such as Anaerobic Digestion. This is another form of good, old fashioned composting, and, of course, that should be strongly promoted too.

Such a localised network would also save a lot of transporting rubbish around that a large plant at Kings Lynn will generate. The treatment sites would have been much more local and also encouraged people to recycle more. If you see your rubbish being processed close to you, you are much more likely to care about recycling more.

The drive to push up recycling in Norfolk has been pedestrian – though it has improved in recent years - and momentum has been lost as the Council has looked only to incineration as the way to deal with the problem. Rather than really push up recycling, reclamation and reuse, the Council has taken the lazy option – ‘we can solve the problem with one big bang of technology’ – whilst large, waste companies benefit from a £10bn plus industry.

So now the people of Kings Lynn are faced with an incinerator upwind of their town. The Council and the preferred incineration company are now undertaking a publicity drive on how this shouldn’t be seen as a threat to their health and livelihoods.

(Photo: Anti-incinerator protest in Downham Market, first published by EDP)

However, most people when faced with an industrial scale plant on their doorstep – quite rightly feel fear. There’s enough evidence from other plants of breaches in regulations for people to be fearful of a large industrial incinerator on their doorstep. They have the support of the local MP too.

The safety of this plant has not been demonstrated: the jury is still out - particularly in the area of the PM2.5s and PM10 particulates. These are produced by any burning process: the PM2.5’s of size 2.5microns and below have the capacity to cross the blood/air barrier in the lungs and thus enter the bloodstream and the internal organs. Incinerator emissions including dioxins, heavy metals and the particulates all originate from a single point source. This concentrates them much more for the immediate local area – housing and agricultural land could be adversely affected.

A recent parliamentary question on carbon emissions associated with UK incinerators indicated that they produce 2.5m tonnes of CO2 equivalents annually – around 0.5% of the national total. This will grow significantly if the ‘dash to ash’ happens creating more long term emissions than the methane landfill emissions it is supposed to prevent as carbon dioxide(half-life 100 years) hangs around much longer than methane (half-life 10 years) in the atmosphere.

There’s another aspect of this proposal that is sad. The Council has created a divisive issue. Rather than getting everybody behind moving to a Zero Waste culture, and encouraging responsibility, after 10 years of prevarication, we see a deeply contentious scheme that is going to continue to create division through consultations and planning. In moving a project that was deeply unpopular in Norwich to Kings Lynn, the Council hasn’t learnt the lessons from the large expression of public feeling demonstrated against incineration in Norwich.

This is what I think Norfolk County Council should do - abandon this single industrial scale solution and to urgently rethink policy.

The Council should start by establishing a Zero Waste policy and building on the success of small to medium scale Anaerobic Digestion waste plants already happening in Norfolk. Build on the food waste schemes happening in Norwich and elsewhere. They should be developing plans with providers who have been ‘roaring to go’ for years on creating reclamation and re-use schemes – we should create several of these sites across Norfolk. We should be aiming on achieving a recycling rate of 70% within a couple of years, and achieving higher than that over the rest of the decade. In complement, Norfolk should be aiming for residual household waste to come down under the 6 figure tonnage by mid decade and below 50,000 by end of the decade.

Then we wouldn’t need an incinerator burning a quarter of a million tonnes of waste up to 2040. This would be true ‘sustainable development’ and we would have created a good few jobs along the way rather than the few in this proposed large scale plant.

In the lack of a clear Zero Waste policy and the lack of concrete and undisputed evidence that there are no health risks associated, we must try to prevent incineration coming to Norfolk and work for Zero Waste methods across the UK. See these links for more details of campaigns against incineration ,

I had intended to make a speech, based on content similar to the above, at the Norfolk County Council Environment, Transport and Development committee on November 2nd 2010 when it was deciding the incinerator contract: along with another councillor, I was prevented from doing so by the Committee chairman.

Andrew Boswell


  1. It is depressing that so much money is likely to be spent on an incinerator when better alternatives are staring us in the face. For me, what this demonstrates is the need for us all to get involved in local government (particularly Parish councils which are not usually contested on party lines and where most seats are never put to an election).

    I believe that it is possible to make the democratic process serve our true needs but it requires a lot more hard work by a lot more people.

    Nominations for this year's elections need to be in before the end of March! It is a good time to ask candidates what they stand for.

  2. I totally agree we must change and not mass burn.
    At UEA we now have our pay by weight contract giving us the incentives to change.
    Food waste is now being rolled out to all residences, catering and academic buildings.
    Glass bins are at all residences and a lot of academic buildings
    Facilities are now available for WEEE, clothes, batteries, wood, metal recycling and all skips being sent for recycling.
    We have a target of 70% diversion from landfill by 2015
    Martyn Newton Head of Sustainability