Britain's sitting on a waste time bomb - we must recycle more and bury less... and quickly. But there is a third option, which those models of eco-awareness, the Danes, don't even blink at: burning it. Simon Cox finds out whether the British can ever be won over.
Britain is the landfill king of western Europe - more than half our rubbish goes into the ground. That's almost 20 million tonnes a year and far more than our close neighbours. This practice produces vast amounts of methane, is dirty and expensive.
By 2020 the UK must more than halve the amount of rubbish it buries, to just 25% of its total waste disposal. Recycling will only go some of the way to ease the burden, but there is another alternative to burying - burning. So why don't we?
FIND OUT MORE...
The Investigation is on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, 5 February, at 2000 GMT
When you visit the pretty village of Capel in Surrey with its substantial beamed houses, cricket club and woodland, you realise why. Inside a handsome home with Italian flourishes on the outskirts of the village Paul Garber, a former planning executive with George Wimpey, shows me the plans for the incinerator Surrey council wants to build on the outskirts of Capel.
"What you have is a building with a chimney stack alone which is higher than Nelson's column," says Mr Garber.
He is one of the key players in the Capel Action Group which has spent eight years fighting the plans. And it's not been futile. The group hired some of the country's best planning lawyers and last week got the scheme thrown out by the High Court.
As action groups go, it's got some influential figures, such as Dino Adriano, former chief executive of Sainsbury's. He says the opposition wasn't on aesthetic grounds, so much as emissions from the plant's chimney.
"There is no doubt incinerators do produce particles," says Mr Adriano. "There has become much a greater understanding of what these particles are and what they do, and we don't know how dangerous they are."
Poacher turned gamekeeper
But environmental activist Ian Christie disagrees. He was sceptical too until he became Surrey council's head of environment - a job he has since left - and began to look in detail at the technology.
England sends 54% of household waste to landfill; more in Scotland and Wales
"My assumption had been there were health problems," he says. "But in the course of all the research we did we certainly discovered the objections on health grounds simply don't stack up."
A government-commissioned review of the health effects of waste in 2004 found no link between modern incinerators, or as they are more commonly known, "energy from waste plants", and health problems.
But this doesn't win over the sceptics - the public and some politicians remain suspicious, for a host of reasons.
Environmental campaigners like Michael Warhurst from Friends of the Earth say waste shouldn't be burned if it can be reused.
"Incineration is a mistake in many different ways", he says. "You're taking things that can be recycled and you're just burning them."
Increasing incineration leads to a reduction in recycling, he believes, as you need to feed the plants with rubbish that could otherwise be recycled.
So is he right?
Denmark, a country synonymous for some with progressive environmental policies, is the poster child for incineration or energy from waste. It has 30 plants dotted around the country.
Just outside of the Danish capital, Copenhagen, I am at the top of the Nordforbraending incinerator where my guide, Jan Olsen, proudly shows me the houses, schools and shopping centre that surround the plant (see enlarge image, right).
"They are free to come at any time," says Mr Olsen. "We have a lot of school classes coming here, its quite an efficient way to teach the community we are not that dangerous."
This plant has one big selling point, not only does it generate electricity from the rubbish, it produces heat for thousands of local homes.
From the stylish home extension of blond wood floors and vast panes of glass, Kent Brun can clearly see the plant's chimney which has been his neighbour for three decades. Having raised his children and now grandchildren here does Mr Brun have any worries about the health effects of the emissions?
He shoots back an unequivocal reply: "Absolutely not, never."
Denmark incinerates about 40% of its rubbish, but it also has a recycling rate the UK can only envy and most importantly only a fraction of Denmark's waste, about 10%, goes into landfill. Compare that to the UK which buries over half of its waste.
Nils Holm from the waste management company Ramboll doesn't understand why Britain continues down this path.
"It's all about energy self-sufficiency and solving landfill issues - waste from incineration is the key to tackling this," he says.
This side of the North Sea, the clock is ticking. In 11 years, Britain will have to recycle half of all household waste, under tough EU targets. But that leaves a lot left over. A quarter will go to landfill, but that still leaves a quarter to be burned. Like it or not, that means Britain will need to burn more.
There are currently 18 incinerators in England and the Environment Agency has nine applications on its books from councils who want to build plants. Its head of industry regulation, Martin Bigg, says incinerators have an important role to play.
MBT (Mechanical biological treatment system): combines a sorting facility with a form of biological treatment such as composting or anaerobic digestion. MBT plants are designed to process mixed household waste as well as commercial and industrial waste
Anaerobic digestion: series of processes in which microorganisms break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen.
Plasma arc gasification: waste treatment technology that uses high electrical energy and high temperature to break down waste primarily into elemental gas and solid waste e
"Ten to 15 years ago incinerators had a very bad reputation. [But] now there has been a radical difference in the design and operation of them... they are incredibly clean plants."
In the last few years the message from government, councils and campaign groups has been recycle, recycle, recycle. But Mr Christie wants to know what it means for rubbish that can't be recycled.
"Recycling can become a bit of a fetish. The higher the recycling rate the more virtuous we must be. But we must ask who's going to buy the recycled materials otherwise you are simply creating a problem of disposal."
The government realises the difficulty. In 2006 a senior civil servant told a waste conference it was difficult to see how the government could win the battle for hearts and minds, particularly of those living near incinerators.
No matter how good Britain's recycling rate gets, or the other new technologies being developed (see factbox, above), to get energy from waste, says Mr Christie, we need incinerators.
"I was a reluctant convert to energy from waste incineration," he confesses. "It's a viable and sustainable alternative to landfill."
Everyone agrees landfill is the worst place for our rubbish but currently the UK is addicted to it. If we are serious about drastically cutting this, we will have to get used to the dirty "I" word.
HOW IT WORKS: MASS WASTE INCINERATOR
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).
Below is a selection of your comments:
A good article. As an environmental scientist, I'd have no problem with living next to a modern energy from waste facility at all. I've looked at the science behind it in quite some detail, and the claims by those against EfW just don't stack up. Provided that you recover energy optimally from the smallest amount of residual waste possible (in other words, use the technology to complement recycling as the Danes are doing) then it is a technology option that should be embraced, not feared. There are even better options available - small scale gasification or pyrolysis units, for example - but what the Danes are doing is a good and very pragmatic compromise. When our recycling rate matches theirs we can question the logic behind it - I think that until then they've rather won the argument here.
Ade Jones, Lydney, Glos
Sound like a great idea, why don't we do it? Probably the same reason we wont put up windfarms, because a small minority object because of aesthetics. What would they rather, no chimneys or no planet?
Joe W, Diss, Uk
This whole story just made me laugh. Landfills are cheaper than recycling, and don't even begin to say we're running out of space! As for methane, this can easily be harnessed and used to produce electricity that can be used locally or put into the main grid. The technology is already there. Really just wish the government would stop wasting vast amounts of money on producing renewable energy with current technology and instead invest that money into developing the technology into something viable. Pandering to the vocal minority as always.
Recycling does not work without localised and regionalised reprocessing. The fact is Government has relied on back filling to the Far East and has invested little in the reprocessing industry. WRAP would not even talk about the plastic recycling problem for years and have only recently got on board. Deal with plastics and waste to energy becomes un economic. The failure to engage with our lack of a reprocessing industry has forced us to consider waste to energy plants even though this will impact on health and climate change issues. I lay the blame squarely on the Government who left policy and planning decisions to local councils and they were seduced by PFI, have now pay through the nose later, expensive incineration options. I do endorse the thoughts of Peter Jones ex Biffa London Waste Guru that all decisions need to be examined on a carbon footprint format. This should make some pyrolysis anaerobic digestion and in vessel composting options very favourable. As an individual with environmental concerns I would advise that all solutions be sought at point of concern or within a county distance. The cost benefit of small scale plant that can be scaled up to large scale modular has been the approach I have been trying to promote for the past decade. The concept is as good now as it was when I raised the issues with Wiltshire County Council
Chair The Air That We Breathe Group
Executive UK WIN
dr levy, westbury wiltshire
EfW incinerators don't work and are past technology for several reasons; 70% "Skyfilling", with no monitoring of unfiltered 2.5 micron size fine particles (PM2.5) incinerator emission. The PM2.5 epidemiology proves a clear health pathway, especially to infants downwind of 20+ UK incinerators, with high carbon emissions and physical footprints. They have high energy inefficiencies compared to newer alternative best available technologies (BAT). Both plasma gasification and Gasplasma technologies facilitate Combined Heat and Power (CHP) much better; whilst incinerators have higher capital costs and higher 25 year gate fees, low jobs creation, conflicts and caps recycling above the 50% legal threshold level, 10% blight on property prices to 4.5km proximity, problematic landfill requirements of 25% Incinerator Bottom Ash (IBA) and 5% toxic fly ashes.
Rob Whittle, Nail2, Norwich
I live near a landfill site and it's not pleasant. I approve of incineration, but why do the sites chosen always seem to be in rural settings, creating local objections? These sites should be in industrial areas closer to the source of waste.
Christopher Beard, Oldham, Lancs
There is only one reason why the Government is dragging its heals over the issue of incinerators - it would result in less tax revenue from landfill.
Surely burning is the more sensible solution? I would rather live near an incinerator, that helped to produce power using materials that would otherwise be left to rot, then live near a landfill. This way the waste is being put to use, and not just decomposing for centuries causing a smelly, disgusting eyesore, and wasting land that could be used for other purposes.
S, North West, England
Zurich also burns all rubbish and it's generally accepted and not an issue at all.
Craig Shenton, Zurich, Switzerland
What about the carbon emissions of such plants? They must be absolutely colossal. What happens to the residue of incinerated matter? No doubt the Danish have considered these things, but what guarantee is there that the British plants will be planned in a similar way? Given the UK's track record, none.
In my former hometown, we had a small incinerator that provided electricity to a prison and a hospital. For the most part the city accepted it as a good alternative to landfills. However, I don't think you mentioned in your article what happens to the ash left over. That goes into landfills, at least in this plant, built 20 years ago. But it still takes 10 trucks of garbage to make one truck of ash.
Renee, New York, NY
As a newly-graduated process engineer, and having been lectured in waste and incineration in some detail, I am happy to read a much less emotive article on waste to energy. I think the issue has a lot to do with a lack of trust between the public and the engineering community. People are not educated in how different modern plants and regulations are to those that are perceived from history, and this lies largely at the feet of the engineers who typically remain quiet.
Ed Scrase, Weybridge, Surrey
Why, throughout the article, do you refer to waste processing plants as 'incinerators'? Do you refer to coal burning plants as 'incinerators'? All we are talking about is recycling rubbish as useful energy.
Frank Adey, Wolverhampton
Our European neighbours have been burning waste that CANNOT be reused or recycled since the early 1960; Germany, Denmark and Sweden have exceptional experience in Combined Heat & Power (CHP)from waste. They have a much better reuse and recycling history, better air quality than the UK and happier children! Nearly half of the UK CO2 emissions comes from heating with fossil fuels which can be replaced in a large part by CHP from waste, not only household waste but also agricultural waste can be used creating a new market for farms etc. CHP from waste has been a victim of dogma and ignorance for too long and we now need action based on rational and scientific assessments. It is quite possible that one day our children will 'mine' our old landfill sites for resources and fuels.
G McCredie, Norwich
With incinerators, we are now going to take our natural resources out of the earth and after a brief use just burn them. I am astounded how the proponents of incinerators don't see it that way. We should be recycling all our paper, cardboard, metal, glass and recyclable plastics. It's a pity the 'market' does not pay well for the recyclable things from our dustbins ca using councils to stockpile it while these things (such as sand for wine bottles) continue to be mined). So carry on with extracting as much form the earth and consuming as much as we can. We might as well not bother conserving the earth and keep it for future generations. We might as well carry on destroying it as we have too many individuals who are so narrow minded and just are totally incapable of seeing the bigger picture outside the sphere of their personal interest. These individuals quite often wield somehow too much power over the righteously thinking people such as those who don't want incinerators and know why they don't want them.
George Chmielewski, Reading