Halt expansion of new waste incinerators, say MPs

MPs have called for an immediate halt to the expansion of new waste incinerators to protect human health, on the eve of a council vote which could see the approval of a huge plant in London.

The all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on air pollution has called for the application of the precautionary principle when approving new incinerators, and for more government action “to confront the single-use culture both for plastics and other materials”, in a new report

The MPs conclude that the existing evidence around air pollution caused by waste incinerators poses a question about the government’s “rationale” for granting development consent orders for such schemes “that will effectively double incineration by 2030, in particular in poorer neighbourhoods”. 

The report  comes days ahead of a vote by seven north London councils who make up the North London Waste Authority (NLWA) - Barnet, Camden, Enfield, Hackney, Haringey, Islington, and Waltham Forest - on whether or not to grant a controversial contract to build and expand the capacity of a huge incinerator in Edmonton which would have a capacity of up to 700,000 tonnes per annum. It would be run by the NWLA. 

In the foreword to the APPG report, Labour MP Geraint Davies, the group’s chair, said that while he was grateful to the NLWA for presenting its plans to the group to reduce the pollution impact of the plant, the emerging evidence did not support increases in incineration in London.

“North London’s recycling rate is just 30% with a target of 50%”, he wrote, adding that “effective technologies for carbon capture and storage are yet to materialize and the full picture regarding health harm from ultrafine particulates is still emerging”.

“If waste must be burnt, then it should be done in a way that minimizes harmful impacts, following mixed-waste sorting up front to ensure only truly non-recyclable waste is incinerated”, he said. 

READ MORE: More than half of recyclable household waste landfilled or burned

The report summarises the evidence presented by a series of experts, and concludes that the number of particulates, as opposed to their combined mass, is “of critical importance” when determining air pollution impact on human health.

The smallest particulates act like a gas and penetrate seamlessly into the bloodstream and organs, the report reads, and highlights that the World Health Organisation’s guideline to use just the mass of particulates “may not be sufficient to protect human health, especially if a lower mass of particulates masks a greater number of ultrafine particulates (which weigh almost nothing)”. 

One expert who presented evidence to the APPG, oncologist Ruggero Ridolfi, described having found heavy metals in the toenails of children living near incinerators and highlighted the link with acute childhood leukemia. 

Davies says in his foreword that there is a risk that carbon emissions reduced through the electrification of transport could be “more than offset” by waste incineration emissions and the growth of those from wood-burning stoves - which constitute 38% of urban PM2.5. 

The report suggests that waste incinerators should be part of the UK Emissions Trading Scheme and that there should be a tax on the pollutants the plants emit. 

Commenting to the Guardian, Clyde Loakes, chair of NLWA, said that the proposed facility in Edmonton would be “the safest and cleanest in the country”, using state-of-the-art technology to protect residents’ health and eliminate pollution to effectively zero.

He said that an incineration tax and inclusion within an Emissions Trading Scheme “would just hit cash-strapped local councils and not tackle the root cause of the problem”. Loakes added that systematic change was needed to reduce the waste being produced in the first place.