Page last updated at 15:09 GMT, Wednesday, 18 January 2006

Is energy from waste viable?

By Tom Heap
BBC environment correspondent

The BBC has learned that the government is likely to push for a steep increase in the amount of rubbish that is burnt instead of buried.

A draft Defra consultation document, expected to be published next month, makes it clear that - while the priority should be waste avoidance and recycling - once it's binned it's better to burn than to bury.

Incinerating waste, it argues, treats it as a useful resource because the energy doesn't just go up in smoke but goes to generate electricity and in the most efficient schemes heating as well.

There have traditionally been two main objections to waste burning: the potential risk to health from breathing in the fumes from the chimney; and the fear that a waste-hungry fire undermines efforts to recycle.

This consultation document clearly shows an awareness of those concerns and while the health issues are dealt with quite rapidly, the language is shot through with caveats warning that reuse is still preferred to combustion.

Greater ambitions

The full report is some 100 pages long, and it poses the question: "Do you have any comments on the proposal to encourage diversion of wastes from landfill to 'energy from waste (EFW)'."?

Environment minister Ben Bradshaw says in the introduction he believes "that energy from waste should have a much clearer role to play in obtaining environmental value from some of our waste resources".

But he adds that EFW "must not compromise our greater ambitions on waste prevention".

The main points made in the document are:

  • National targets for recycling and composting of household waste should rise to 40% by 2010 and 50% by 2020

  • Energy recovery should be encouraged as an alternative to landfill, but not at the expense of practicable waste prevention, recycling and composting

  • Energy from waste can reduce our dependency on foreign fuel suppliers and can reduce emissions of greenhouse gases

  • Energy from waste is not likely to account for more than 25% of the municipal waste stream by 2020 nationally, compared to 9% now

  • Dioxin emissions from modern EFW plant are very small compared with other common environment sources such as domestic gas cookers and even fireworks

But persuading the public of the case for incineration will be a real battle.

1) Lerwick
2) Dundee
3) Billingham
4) Bolton
5) Huddersfield
6) Grimsby
7) Sheffield
8) Stoke
9) Nottingham
10) Wolverhampton
11) Dudley
12) Tyseley
13) Coventry
14) Swansea
15) Edmonton
16) Lewisham
17) Chineham
18) Marchwood
19) Portsmouth
Most of the country's burners are, or were, met by vigorous local opposition.

Many more plans have been abandoned due to protest and planning failure.

Opposition to incineration is one of the most resonant battle cries of environmental groups.

It appears the government is trying to weaken this opposition by stressing how current pollution rules make incinerator chimneys cleaner than most other factories and authoritative scientific work hasn't found that burning rubbish leads to ill-health.

On the question of recycling versus incineration, they point to a number of European countries that have very high levels of both.

There is a place in Britain where the neighbours warm to their local incinerator - Lerwick in the Shetlands.

They set up a burner there in 1998 that takes in waste from Shetland Orkney and the oil rigs.

It now supplies hot water to 700 homes and 90 businesses including a hospital and leisure centre.

Prices are attractive and there is a three-year waiting list to get hooked up.

That's the trick. Whether the risk is perceived or real, the best way to neutralise a fear is to provide a hope.

Waste is tipped into a holding area (1) where it is picked up by grabs and dropped into a hopper (2).
The waste is pushed gradually into the incinerator (3) which runs at a temperature of 750 degrees Celsius.
Heat from the burning waste is used in a boiler (4) and steam from this is piped to a turbine generator to create electricity.
The heaviest ash falls into a collection point (5) and is passed over with an electromagnet to extract metal content for recycling.
Flue gases containing fine ash then pass through a scrubber reactor (6) to treat acid pollutants such as SO2 and also dioxins.
The gases then pass through a fine particulate removal system (7) and are released through the chimney stack (8).

Recycling around the world
25 Jun 05 |  Europe
Waste mountain 'must be tackled'
24 Jun 05 |  Science/Nature
UK go-ahead to more waste burning
06 May 04 |  Science/Nature

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