Issue 254 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review
The seemingly mundane issue of how to dispose of household waste threatens to spark a wave of protests by environmental campaigners disgusted by New Labour's capitulation to the interests of big business. Instead of pumping the necessary resources into recycling to tackle Britain's burgeoning waste problem, Labour is poised to construct up to 100 incinerators around the country in the next ten to 15 years--and offer rich pickings for private companies in the process. Although these new incinerators are less polluting and more energy efficient than earlier models, each plant will still send plumes of toxic smoke over a substantial area and affect the health of thousands of people.
Most of the concern about air emissions centres on the release of dioxin. Experts now generally accept that this highly poisonous chemical is a human carcinogen and can affect children's growth. Even low level exposure is known to interfere with the reproductive and immune systems. And unlike the release of dioxin caused by the government's response to the foot and mouth crisis, incinerators represent a long term source of pollution. To be commercially viable any incinerator built by the private sector under the Private Finance Initiative would need to operate for at least 25 years.
The planned surge of investment in a new generation of incinerators got off to an inauspicious start in April when Worcestershire County Council rejected plans for a state of the art plant. Although the incinerator in Kidderminster would have filtered out much of the pollution and produced electricity, it was met by a rare display of local cross-party opposition and huge public concern. Around 15,000 people signed an anti-incinerator petition and the council received 1,500 letters of objection.
The campaign against the plant was organised by the Stop Kidderminster Incinerator (Ski) group. After the decision Bob Harris of Ski said, 'This shows that people power can really work. Kidderminster does not need a new incinerator. It needs a comprehensive plan of waste minimisation and recycling. Unfortunately, Blair is letting big business set policy for waste management. He needs to realise that there isn't a safe level of dioxins.'
Although modern incineration plants are more effective at filtering out toxic chemicals, this only displaces the problem, according to Greenpeace. Mark Strutt, the organisation's expert on toxic chemicals, said, 'The problem of dioxins doesn't go away even with the most advanced form of incinerators. Monitoring of dioxins is not carried out continuously. It is only tested once or twice a year so emissions are likely to be much higher than indicated by the recorded figures. And the dioxins removed by the filters and held in the fly ash then create a disposal problem.'
The problem of ash disposal hit the headlines recently when it was discovered that a highly toxic mix of ash from incinerators had been used as path material for allotments around Newcastle. The final report into the incident showed that on some sites the levels of dioxin in the ash were almost 800 times the background level in Newcastle.
Estimates of the number of incinerators that will be built vary enormously. Friends of the Earth, which is calling for a moratorium on the construction of new plants, fears that 'because the government's recycling targets are so unambitious, scores of new incinerators will be built', while the Department for the Environment claims that as few as 20 incinerators will be needed. But if the Environment Agency's estimate that up to 69 massive municipal incinerators will be needed is correct, the issue has the potential to spark widespread protest. Some environmental campaigners believe that the incinerator plans could provoke opposition comparable to that unleashed by the last Tory government's road building programme. Mr Harris warned, 'There will be a huge response if the government presses ahead with these proposals. Wherever incinerators are planned there is tremendous opposition. All the local politicians supported us because they realised that if they didn't they would lose their seats.'
At the heart of the conflict between the government and environmental campaigners is the question of how I much waste can realistically be recycled. Traditionally, Britain has disposed of most of its waste through landfill. However, the government is now committed to slashing the amount of household waste sent to landfill from its present level of 83 percent to a maximum of 33 percent by 2020. In order to do this the government published a national waste strategy last year in which it set out certain targets. These included a commitment to recycle 25 percent of household waste by 2005, 30 percent by 2010 and 33 Percent by 2015.
But Friends of the Earth believes that these targets are not sufficiently ambitious to meet the requirements of the directive without extensive use of incineration. They would also leave Britain near the bottom of the European Union's recycling league. Friends of the Earth argues that up to 80 percent of our bins can currently be recycled or composted, and many countries, such as Germany, Austria, Netherlands, Switzerland are already recycling over 50 percent compared to Britain's 9 percent. A greater emphasis on recycling would also create a huge number of jobs as the industry is highly labour intensive, while incineration offers private companies vast long term profits. Sarah Oppenheimer, of Friends of the Earth, said, 'Because the construction and operation of a major incineration plant represents a huge capital investment, the owners will require a guaranteed supply of waste over about 20 to 30 years to make a profit. Contracts drawn up with local authorities usually require a continued supply of large quantities of waste, and financial penalties are imposed if this is not provided. This undermines local authority commitments to reducing waste and recycling.'
To highlight the threat to health posed by incineration Greenpeace recently occupied two of Britain's 12 existing plants--in Sheffield and Edmonton, north London. The protests inspired local activists and even led, in Edmonton, to the Socialist Alliance standing a candidate in the constituency at the general election. 'It was the vibrancy of the campaign that convinced us that we should put up a Socialist Alliance candidate here,' said Howard Medwell, the Socialist Alliance's candidate in Edmonton. 'And we have made sure that pollution from the plant has been a big issue in the election. The campaign began when Greenpeace occupied the incinerator in the autumn and then held a local meeting. A demonstration of more than 100 people and a variety of publicity stunts followed, as well as regular meetings of activists. There is real anger that a former industrial area like Edmonton, with relatively high unemployment, is now being used as a dustbin. If Labour presses ahead with these plans around the country then they will be in trouble. I think the protests will be bigger than those over the Tories' road building programme. People had mixed feeling about cars, but you would have to be stupid to want an incinerator in your area.'