If the application is passed, the Eastcroft works, close to the city centre, will become one of Britain's biggest waste centres - able, say its proponents, to avoid landfill, to generate electricity, help the city meet national targets, and dispose of waste cheaply, efficiently and cleanly.
But Nottingham, like dozens of other British cities contemplating the expansion or introduction of incineration to cope with increasing mountains of commercial and household waste, has a strong community group virulently opposed to burning, which is pressing the local authority to do far more recycling.
"Nottingham city has an appallingly low recycling rate of just over 8%, one of the lowest in the country," according to John Beresford, of Nottingham Against Incineration and Landfill (Nail). It has more than 800 members and, it says, the support of thousands more.
"Over 80% of the city's waste could be recycled, but the council still wants to go down the incineration route, which will see a massive increase in traffic congestion, pollution and risks to human health," Beresford says.
The Nottingham objectors, like those in Newhaven, London, Guildford, Swansea and other places considering incineration, question the technology on many grounds. Because it costs so much to set up, they say, local government gets locked into ruinously expensive contracts, lasting up to 60 years in Nottingham's case. The plants, they claim, are poorly regulated, with frequent breaches of emission levels, and undermine efforts to recycle or compost waste. They also point out that the plants are often located near the poorest communities - in Nottingham's case, multicultural Sneinton. Like anti-incineration groups around the world, Nail argues that recycling is more cost-effective, and that burning waste is ecologically inefficient and dangerous.
"Incinerators basically turn rubbish into ash, particulate matter and poisonous fumes," Beresford says. "These poisons are spewed into the atmosphere, which we breathe. Over 35% of the waste remains. Some of this becomes contaminated with toxins, including dioxins and heavy metals, and has to be landfilled in a toxic waste landfill site."
Nail quotes studies showing health problems in communities living near incinerators all around the world, and says there is a direct correlation between ill health and the burning of municipal waste in Nottingham. Beresford says:
"We have matched incinerator and government health data, and it clearly shows that health is being damaged in some of the most deprived areas in the city, even before the proposed expansion. They call it the Sneinton cough."
A spokesperson for Nottingham city council says the Environment Agency is responsible for monitoring emissions from the incinerator and granting the operating licence. "The city council will consider the land use and that decision is likely to be taken at a planning meeting in April." But in the dash to meet tough European Union targets designed to reduce landfilling and increase recycling, incineration is being pushed as financially attractive and completely safe. "A lot of local authorities are panicking," says Anna Watson, Friends of the Earth's waste campaigner. "Incineration is being pushed by a few large companies as a simple, one-stop solution to waste that meets the government's demands."
There's money available for private finance initiative contracts, which can handle huge quantities of waste, she says. To large cities that have come to recycling late, incineration can seem like manna. Moreover, councils are fearful of government fines for not meeting landfill targets, a problem that incinerator companies say their technology can avoid.
"It's all about money - authorities that have an incinerator can divert waste from landfill, and sell their landfill quotas to others," says Watson, who has released research showing that 22 towns have incinerator plans pending, and that England could expect up to 50 major incinerators in the next 15 years.
At a review launch of England's waste strategy last week, local environment minister Ben Bradshaw proposed that incineration - the industry prefers the phrase "energy from waste" - capacity be trebled by 2020 to take roughly 27% of household waste. That is much less than was proposed in 2000 but much more than recyclers wanted. Bradshaw was unapologetic, saying other European countries incinerate far more. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has released a poll suggesting communities thought incineration was "sensible". Health concerns were dismissed as follows: "An independent health impacts review has concluded that, on the evidence so far, the treatment of municipal solid waste has at most a minor effect on health ... risks are small in comparison with other known risks faced by most people in their daily lives."
Meanwhile, a survey last week of recycling and waste management departments in local authorities across the UK showed how expensive it is becoming to recycle. On average, it says, councils will need almost twice as much money - £948,000 - as last year to meet statutory recycling targets in the next two to three years. Almost half of all local authorities said finances currently in place for recycling were inadequate.
But one group is delighted at the government's enthusiasm for incineration. "Our cleaner, greener European neighbours have long understood that energy from waste [incineration] is sensible," says Jan Bickerstaffe, director of the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment, which represents all Britain's major food, drink, pharmaceutical and retail groups, as well as makers of paper, plastic and cardboard. But it is these very companies, say critics, that have resisted designing goods that last longer or need fewer resources. According to the government, commercial waste is expected to increase by 50% in the next 15 years, while almost every other waste stream is expected to decline. Bickerstaffe says: "Along with most waste professionals, we have consistently said that incineration with energy recovery is part of the solution. We welcome the fact that the government now also seems to agree."
Posted on 22nd February 2006
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