“PFI is distorting the decision-making process because big incinerator plants are more attractive to investors than small-scale recycling projects.”
That was Tom Brake, speaking in 2001, when he was the LibDems’ environment spokesman. Then, the Carshalton and Wallington MP described government policy of the time as likely to reduce recycling and encourage incineration, which he said was “clearly a serious problem”. He also said that toxic ash from incinerators had “turned up in some weird and wonderful places”. So prescient.
Fifteen years later, and these days Brake is an ardent advocate of incinerators. He has never explained his change of mind, though it may be that a generous £275,000 “gift” from incinerator operators Viridor to a church in Wallington where he and his local party activists regularly held meetings was persuasive.
Indeed, two other LibDem MPs in south-west London, including St Vince Cable, also saw their constituencies receive “donations” from Viridor’s charity arm, which with the Wallington “gift” totalled more than £1.5 million while their party was in government.
Entirely coincidentally, of course, construction work is well advanced in the heart of Brake’s constituency, in an area designated as Metropolitan Open Land, to build an industrial-scale incinerator for Viridor, who have a £1billion, 25-year publicly funded contract with Sutton, and three other south London councils to burn mountains of rubbish, rather than try to recycle it. Croydon is one of those other boroughs paying for the Beddington incinerator.
It’s a pity for the residents, schools and hospitals close to the Beddington incinerator that Brake did not follow up on his wise words all those years ago, because as incinerator schemes in South Wales and Derby are showing, as well as damaging air quality, burning waste is an eye-wateringly expensive waste of money.
Two years since it started operation, the Splott incinerator in Cardiff is already causing problems for Viridor. The “energy from waste” plant, as its advocates like to call it, is unable to generate enough power to deliver the flow of constant hot water at affordable prices to 50,000 homes, as had been promised as a key condition in achieving planning consent.
The Beddington scheme is also supposed to provide “cheap” heat, though evidence in suppressed reports commissioned for Sutton Council indicate that the piping and other retro-engineering of the project would make it financially unsustainable. Commercial housebuilders, such as Barratts, have been decidedly lukewarm about the heating deals on offer, even for new homes.
Viridor’s business model, whether in south London or in South Wales, is always the same: get rubbish, weigh it, charge it, burn it, and sell the power generated. If they’re not generating enough heat, then they won’t generate the power that they are contracted to supply.
Apparently, it’s the poor quality of Welsh rubbish that’s to blame at Splott. When burned, it does not generate enough heat, even though they are already setting fire to 350,000 tons of waste a year.
Environmentalists and sceptical locals maintain that their blot on the landscape is much too large for the amount of rubbish available.
Things are getting urgent for Viridor in Wales, because they need to fulfil some strict conditions attached to the £110 million loan for the project from the European Investment Bank. Things could be so bad at the plant that they are failing to meet the EU’s R1 efficiency threshold, which means that it will be known as a waste disposal facility, and no carbon offset can be claimed.
For the incinerator to go full steam ahead, Viridor’s solution is to burn an extra 20 per cent – around 75,000 tons a year – to guarantee that the boilers work at full efficiency. This means an equivalent increase in the number of heavy goods vehicles on the roads to Splott, trucking the rubbish to the incinerator and also carrying away tens of thousands of tons of ash.
There’s a problem with this proposal: Wales’s commendably high recycling rates, which are about 55 per cent.
Waste paper and plastics, which councils in South Wales recycle so well, are the “high calorific feedstock” which Viridor needs to feed its ever-hungry incinerator.
So Viridor is planning to truck in rubbish from more than 100 miles away, and the Welsh Assembly is even considering offering a subsidy to councils who opt to pay Viridor to burn their rubbish. Which might be good for Viridor’s shareholders, but it will do nothing for the environment or Wales’s recycling rates.
Oh, and the idea that incineration replaces the use of landfill? Splott’s disproving that on a daily basis, as ash from the incinerator is now being trucked to and disposed of at the very landfill sites it was meant to replace. Meaning more HGV journeys, more pollution, and increasing concerns about the safety of the ash that is being sorted at the landfill site without adequate safety precautions.
If Viridor’s Welsh operation is unravelling so quickly, what does this say about the financial and environment consequences in south London?
Back in 2014, Tony Newman and the Croydon Labour Party won control of the Town Hall with a manifesto commitment to become the cleanest and greenest borough in London. It’s beginning to look like another manifesto pledge broken.
Then, Newman promised that, “A Labour council will continue to reduce the amount that is sent to landfill sites by doing more to reduce waste, encourage re-use and increase recycling.” Newman’s manifesto also stated that “Labour has always opposed” the Beddington Lane incinerator.
Yet two years on, and after a term when Newman’s deputy leader, Stuart Collins, served as the chair of the South London Waste Partnership, the body which commissioned Viridor for the Beddington incinerator, Croydon’s Labour council has done nothing to extricate the borough’s residents from a scheme which looks potentially disastrous, financially as well as environmentally.
As the latest issue of Private Eye magazine reports, there’s mounting evidence that burning rubbish is an expensive waste of public money, and that it reduces the amount of recycling.
Contracts and the PFI bid documents prepared by Derby city and county councils eight years ago, obtained by a whistleblower, admit as much. The city and county had recycling rates at 50 per cent. And then they signed an incineration contract under which they have to procure more than 150,000 tons per year of residual waste of a certain “calorific” value (mainly fossil fuel-based plastics) and “organic” (biomass, biowaste, paper and card) values.
Common sense tells us that residual waste does not have such energy values, as it should comprise the waste left over after the recyclables and compostables have been removed by the householder and placed into the recycling bins, just as is the current practice in Croydon. But that may have to change once their fire up the incinerator at Beddington.
Much like in Wales, in Derby it soon dawned on the local authorities that they would not have enough burnable materials to fulfil their contract. So they decided to dismantle their recycling collections, forcing people to throw away previously recycled and composted materials.
In Derby, recycling collections have been removed from many streets and the brown bin – for “organic” waste – which used to be emptied for free, paid for out of Council Tax, now has to be paid for. Derby’s black bins are now bulging, with previously recycled and composted material, ready for the day – possibly in September 2017 – that the incinerator is fired into action.
Derby City Council deny that they are in breach of various pieces of waste legislation – well, they would, wouldn’t they? – but recycling rates have dropped to 34 per cent, so that their residents can pay more to have their rubbish burned instead.
Trebles all round!
- Tom Brake link to £275,000 church donation from incinerator company
- Secretive incinerator scheme is a bad deal, say Sutton Tories
- Sutton official tried to influence vote at incinerator meeting
- Infant death rates on the rise where incinerators operate
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