XR protest demands the closure of Beddington incinerator

Croydon and Sutton councils have both declared a ‘climate emergency’. Both send rubbish to the incinerator

Extinction Rebellion activists from across south London joined forces in Beddington Park yesterday to highlight the daily destruction and toxic pollution inflicted on the capital by the Viridor incinerator. They issued a set of demands, including that the incinerator plant should be shut down as soon as possible.

The Beddington Lane incinerator was built for the boroughs of Croydon, Sutton, Merton and Kingston, who jointly handed Viridor a £1billion contract to burn their rubbish, potentially including radioactive waste, for 25 years.

Politicians in Labour-run Croydon and LibDem-controlled Sutton last year went through the motions of declaring a “climate emergency” and pledging that they would reduce their boroughs’ climate emissions to zero over time. Yet both remain committed to burning rubbish at Beddington, with all its polluting and environmentally damaging consequences, at least until 2045.

Viridor’s Beddington Lane incinerator has already exceeded the legal limits on emissions 25 times since March 2019 – 20 times over the limit on carbon monoxide, four times for volatile organic compounds and once for the highly toxic sulphur dioxide.

And then, of course, there was the Beddington blaze at the plant in July 2014.

Some activists took their protest to the gates of the Beddington Lane incinerator

As much as 100 tonnes of waste was involved in the fire, according to the official reports into the incident. Present among the poisonous mix likely to have been released into the atmosphere during the blaze, unchecked and uncontrolled by Viridor, it is suggested that there was hydrogen cyanide, carcinogens such as nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, ammonia, carbon monoxide and dioxide, PM2.5 and other particulates, chromium and arsenic.

The local politicians in charge of the South London Waste Partnership boroughs appear ignorant of the dangers, or they act as apologists for Viridor, or they are profoundly stupid. One LibDem councillor in Sutton has, apparently in all seriousness, told residents that the plumes of potentially polluting smoke rising from the incinerator’s twin chimneys are benign “grey steam”.

Beddington’s blaze last July was the 14th fire at a Viridor plant in Britain in just four years.

The Environment Agency, which is supposed to police Viridor’s activities, has taken no action over any of the incidents arising from Viridor’s management of the Beddington incinerator.

Part of the protest highlighted Viridors failure to maintain the habitats in Beddington Farmlands

Extinction Rebellion is now calling for the Beddington plant to be subject to immediate reforms of its operation to address environmental and safety concerns, and for the incinerator to be closed down completely by 2030.

That would bring to an end the annual burning of 300,000 ton of rubbish that is trucked in by road from across London to be burnt for profit, at the expense of residents’ health.

Extinction Rebellion said, “The incinerator is the largest single source of CO2 in Sutton and will need to close by 2030 for Sutton Council to meet its commitment to zero carbon.

“XR is calling on the South London Waste Partnership to begin negotiations with operator Viridor immediately, to ensure the site closes by 2030. The incinerator continues to cause daily ecological destruction with the release of particulates damaging human health, and exacerbating the climate emergency.”

Part of yesterday’s protest focused on slow and deadly destruction of habitat in the neighbouring Beddington Farmlands nature reserve, which Viridor is contracted to maintain and enhance, but where work has been slow to complete and neglected, leading to the deaths of entire colonies of nesting birds.

“Within Beddington Farmlands, the tree sparrow was made locally extinct due to the destruction of its habitat whilst the site was constructed and developed. A population of lapwings are also threatened with local extinction due to neglect and a lack of management plans for water levels.

Viridor, a company worth £4.2bn, called out the police – on publicly funded bank holiday overtime, no doubt – to supplement their security at the Beddington Lane incinerator yesterday

“Incinerators are incompatible with sustainability.

“The Beddington incinerator was knowingly located so that the greatest impact would be upon people living in areas of high deprivation.

“In the Croydon wards most impacted by the incinerator plume, there is a higher proportion of BAME residents compared to Croydon and London as a whole. This represents an even greater injustice, as communities locally are paying with their health to subsidise the higher levels of consumerism and consumption wrought by the more affluent areas of south London.

One councillor seriously suggested that smoke from the incinerator is ‘99% steam’

“Beddington Lane incinerator exceeds legal pollution limits on a monthly basis, and in 2019 had a major fire at the site which burned for hours spreading toxic fumes across much of London.

“With much of London now affected with illegal levels of air pollution, proven to cause 10,000s premature deaths annually, the incinerator emissions also impact those infected with respiratory disease covid-19, worsening its impact and extending recovery times.”

During their protests yesterday, Extinction Rebellion groups from Sutton, Croydon, Kingston and Merton issued three demand.

They called for:

  • a plan to decommission the incinerator by 2030 or earlier in conjunction with implementing a zero waste strategy;
  • water management plans put in place to safeguard animals’ habitat on Beddington Farmlands nature reserve; and
  • Beddington Farmlands restoration plans – already seriously delayed – should be enforced by the local authority (Sutton)

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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11 Responses to XR protest demands the closure of Beddington incinerator

  1. pwrapurley says:

    What do they want, more landfill? If so where? Then we have methane instead!

    Just make Viridor do the job propetly. Does SLHP have this problem in SE London ?

    • As if there is no alternative to incineration but landfill. It’s worrying that someone posting on behalf of Purley and Woodcote Residents’ Association is so ill-informed.

      Instead of sending valuable resources up the chimney and into our lungs, we need to see a focus on waste prevention, reuse and recycling

      As a nation we can tax the companies that foist all the crap on us that right now we have to pay to throw away. There’s been a dramatic drop in the number of plastic bags littering our streets since people had to pay for them. The government can also introduce deposits on bottles and cans so that consumers have an incentive to return them for re-use.

      Sadly, incineration has been ignored by Croydon’s MPs who have shirked their responsibilities to protect our environment. They see this as a local issue and conveniently leave it to local authorities who are picked off by global corporations who know what they’re doing and are skilled in fooling lazy gullible councillors.

      Talking of whom, Croydon council could increase its recycling rates by taking enforcement action against those households that don’t bother to play their part. They’re easy to identify; they leave their overflowing stinking black wheely bins on the pavement 24/7, and if they do put out the ones meant for recycling, they’re filled with all sorts of crap, including nappies.

  2. Moya Gordon says:

    I wouldn’t want to live near to that thing. I don’t see why other people should have to. Surely we should be trying to reduce non recyclable waste or re-use it in some way. Invest in science to find new uses. Plastics are being used to fill potholes in roads, etc

    • Anyone living in Croydon does live near that thing, Moya: its fallout heads this way on prevailing winds. A true triumph for Conservative, Labour and LibDem administrations dealing with the most demanding issue of our times.

  3. croydonres says:

    Most weeks, my “unrecyclable waste” wheely bin has very little inside it, other than plastic bags ( although we try to take clean ones back to the supermarket that has a not well-publicised “taking back your bags” service), the bagged contents of the vacuum cleaner, plus the miscellaneous residue of small stuff that results from ongoing “DIY” activities. The waste paper / card bin is usually only about 1/3 full, due to our contribution to the decline of the UK newspaper industry, and the bottle and plastic container bin is alarmlingly full of real ale and wine bottles. We are now a 2 person household with a garden and compost bins that take care of all kitchen vegetable waste and much of the garden prunings too. We have a garden waste wheely too.

    The fact that even a “conservation conscious” family creates a significant amount of unrecyclable waste means that that residue of stuff has to be taken away. We are part of the problem– the waste mountain.

    So– it used to be landfilled. The UK brick and sand / gravel industry created a large number of big holes in the landscape, which became valuable as a graveyard for the rubbish of the South East. London’s rubbish also ended up in Thames-side Essex, and North Kent, where once flat marshland became mountains. The Thames now erodes the base of these mountains, exposing things like car batteries which fall into the estauary, and dump their nasties into the sea as they degrade.

    It is well-known that landfill also creates a toxic concentrate of “leachate”. Landfills are now lined with plastic liners and capped off with soil and clay caps, imprisoning the nasty contents for how many hundreds or thousands of years ? How much leachate actually leaks out into the aquifer?
    Cearly, landfill is unacceptable. Scientists–government– we all eventually got round to acknowledging that landfill is not good for the environment and ground water.

    So- burning came along. “Incineration” makes it sound … less dirty. The miracle solution to waste reduction. In London, incinerators have been around for decades.

    I worked for Lewisham Council in the 1980’s when the council built SELCHiP incinerator in West Deptford. It seemed a wonderful solution, reducing the volume on the sort of “5 loads of rubbish in, one load of ash out” basis. (I assume that the ash went somewhere and became an ingredient for making building blocks, or ended up in a landfill too). I went to the plant a week after opening. We all felt very proud! The reduction in volume of waste was a miracle. Sadly, the burning process pollutes the air as not all of the smoke goes upwards –it can come down to ground level, and tower block level, very often , depending on weather conditions. My Ladybird Book of the Weather (1962) has almost a page devoted to “temperatue inversions” where smoke does not rise up, but comes down. I wonder if DEFRA scienists have read this seminal book. If not, they should do.

    In the intervening years, I have smelled the smell of burning plastic that hangs like a fug on some mornings over Deptford and New Cross, near SELCHiP. I have experienced the same smell when driving past an incinerator at Maidstone, when the car has filled with choking fumes. Lilewise, in Croydon Town Centre. My breathing was affected, I felt acute physical distress, and started wheezing. Undoubtedly, I was experiencing a small amount of something that residents of Deptford and North Maidstone , and now Beddington/ Waddon/ W Croydon , must be experiencing–suffering–too,. But they must be experiencing this every day or few days, depending on wind direction. It cannot be right nor fair that these residents are suffering as a result of the burning of MY waste –and the waste not only of Croydon and Sutton, on whose boundary the incinerator sits, but also the waste of all of Merton and Kingston. Plus an unknown quantity of waste from construction and commerce and industry from Surrey and London. The latter is considerable, and I would like to see figures of tonnage burned, braken down into each cateogory of wate, and where it actually comes from.

    It is deeply sad that Government — all forms, National–London Assembly- and Boroughs– has until very recently cast a blind eye over the obvious– that air pollution from incineration is bad for health of those who are subjected to breathing it– such as poor people living in tower blocks downwind from London incinerators who are living up at the level where the chimneys top out. Incidentally, incinerators are not built in the average to posh areas of Surrey or London, but in the poorest wards already likely to have a lot of traffic and industrial grime. Edmonton in North London is a classic example. Deptford another.

    The problem is, politicians , scientists and we, the general public, all know that waste is a toxic issue. But eliminating it costs money. More than burning it. Unless you take into consideartion the human health costs in the form of asthma, long-term lung damage and heart damage. yes, hearts and lungs. Our key organs.

    What really is the solution? It has got to be a range of solutions, all homing in on waste reduction through recycling and elimination of products that are unrecyclable. We should also be eliminating plastics as far as possible if they are not biodegradeable.

    My guess is that the recycling of plastics itself creates air pollution, just as the making of smoke-free “coke” (clean-burning compared with coal) is an incredibly polluting activity. Someone ends up breathing in the fumes.

    The current “shopping bags for life for 10pence” initiative sounds great, but 10p is not enough. And it still delivers a much thicker plastic bag into the waste bin at the end of its use. Suerly, it would be a better way forward to ensure that ALL shopping bags sold in supermarkets should be biodegradeable– of recycled paper, or bio plastic. In the US, paper bags are a tradition.

    The cost of the bag should not only cover its manufacture but its safe disposal, and, a non-polluting diposal too.

    In such small ways, pollution of air, land and water can be reduced. It all adds up. We are still dumping on the planet, while our well-paid governments are generally, sitting on their hands.
    It’s just not good enough. What we need is solutions and action.

  4. Moya Gordon says:

    Let’s hope someone is monitoring the incidence of cancer, breathing illnesses, developmental problems in children in areas close to incinerators. These are some of the common illnesses Indonesians experience when living close to sites where plastics (Imported from the west) are burnt as a means of disposal.

  5. Lewis White says:

    Thanks Moya for highlighting these scandals. Your last point also spotlights the terrible fact that the UK (and no doubt other “1st World” nations) are exporting waste in the guise of “selling recyclable material” , some of which might end up being recycled , but in the main, is fly-tipped in the countyside, in wetlands and water courses, and on the outskirts of big cities in the countries that accept our waste, like the country you mention.

    We are still exporting our plastic waste, and know that most of it will not be recycled.

    Should we not be expecting the UK Governments to be coming up with real plans to get as far as possible to “total Recycling” and “maximum waste reduction” as part of national post -covid reconstruction ?. And within a 10 year timescale ? A national strategy is needed. Almost every local authority in the UK has different recycling intiatives. It’s bonkers.

    There are many signs of hope, mainly as a result of supermarkets and manufacturers listening to public concerns, and reducing packaging, and, for example, using biodegradeable foamed packaging and cardboard instead of polystyrene. Bamboo toothbrushes — another great idea. Mine is perfect !

    Things are getting better, but incineration should be reserved for destroying things that are otherwise impossible to dispose of safely, not to burn recyclables.

  6. Dan Maertens says:

    The UK has been particularly poor at managing air quality over many years due to political negligence. The EU used to complain annually with threats to impose fines because of the UKs failure to meet European minimum air quality standards, and successive DEFRA ministers seemed to wear this failure as some kind of badge of honour, not fully understanding either their wider responsibility to the environment or the detrimental health effects of poor air quality on the citizens that they purport to represent. Whilst there is greater understanding of the link between poor air quality and ill health (remember Ella Kissi-Debrah?), we seem unable (or unwilling?) to significantly improve things for those who are most affected.

    What does this mean for Sutton and Croydon? Both boroughs are part of the ‘South London Cluster Group’ which formed ‘Love Clean Air’ (https://lovecleanair.org) to promote air quality in the wider South London region. The website provides links back to the individual council’s air quality action plans (2017-2022 in the case of Croydon), and Air Quality Annual Status Report (Croydon’s most recent is the ‘draft’ 2018 report that still awaits GLA sign off!) that provides little more than the basic measurement data for five atmospheric pollutants – NO2, NOx, SO2, PM10 & PM2.5 sized particles, and then only at a small number of monitoring stations scattered across the boroughs, that’s if they’re actually working, rather than where they actually live. Sure, there are lots of locations across Croydon measuring Nitrogen Dioxide and intermittent measurement of PM10s but very little monitoring of anything else that isn’t linked directly to any premises that has to have an EA permit to release emissions – usually from some kind of stack or chimney. Because the pollutants released from the Beddington facility are directly related to what is being burned, and we’re not entirely sure what that is, how can we possibly know what the long term health effects are?

    We really need a proper strategy to measure the air quality indicators that affect long term human health downwind of the incinerator, not the current hotchpotch of monitoring points located next to some of the busier transport routes that may not be at all representative of the low levels of pollution that people are exposed to day in and day out across the whole of the Borough, whose effects may very possibly be cumulative. I don’t want a hollow reassurance from a local or national politician that it’s all harmless, or that 99% is ok when I want to know what’s in the 1%, or that we weren’t aware of anything because we didn’t look. Wasn’t that what they said about asbestos, lead, dioxins, radiation, VOCs, plastics ………….?

    Now, we’re in that place where the limited protections that have been afforded to UK citizens by EU directives are about to disappear, possibly as fast as the ink on that thermally printed receipt that you were relying on as ‘proof of purchase’, all we’ve got left is the ‘promise’ from the current government that “we will continue to do even more to tackle air pollution” (whatever that means) – which if you’ve been watching anything this year suggests that it’s another one that really isn’t worth the cost of paper it was printed on. But as they’ve done nothing so far it ought to be a very easy win. Unfortunately, we can’t even be sure we’ll get that.

    And as for a joined up waste strategy for England I won’t be holding my breath, however taking more personal responsibility to reduce non-recyclable purchases, sort and recycle the waste that we produce, and put pressure on suppliers to reduce all plastics is something we can all do. So all power to XR.

  7. Croydonneighbour says:

    I can see that a lot of persons are very concerned with incinerators and I would like to provide my insight as I am involved in this industry which seems to suffer from a bad reputation. In my opinion it is not always based on facts.

    First of all I am myself very concerned by topics such as climate emergency and the sustainable use of resource. Ideally, there would be no need for incineration facilities and indeed the solution is to reduce waste production at the source… but at the moment there is a lot of waste around so they are needed.

    Recycling of mixed waste is a very energy demanding activity because of all the processes involves with separating materials and only a very low fraction of the material is recoverable at the end of it. Then, they are also very few buyers for such recovered materials. So the best solution is to separate at home. It is everyone’s responsibility to do it and it is the council that need to monitor and communicate so that these practices improve.
    Incineration is not meant to replace recycling but landfilling and the rate of incineration has no impact on recycling rate in European countries.
    Yes, incineration used to a very polluting industry, I did a review of health impact studies myself. There was a detectable health impact before the 90sin near several incinerators. There has been a lot of regulations put in place at the end of the 90s by the EU. It is now probably the most regulated industry in terms of air emissions. A very large portion of the running cost is related to maintaining emission below limits. The UK needs to make sure that after Brexit these regulatory requirements are maintained.

    While it is clear that incineration facilities are located in industrial areas and / or far away from the more affluent areas in the UK, in the Nordic countries which I think are more advance than most in the subject of resource management, incineration plants are built within the cities. They are 2 reasons for this: reduce waste transportation and this allow the connection of heat network that dramatically increase the energy efficiency of incinerators from about 27% to 80% (= waste to energy!). https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/municipal-waste-incinerators-emissions-impact-on-health/phe-statement-on-modern-municipal-waste-incinerators-mwi-study

    I would much prefer live near an incinerator than any major road or highway!

    My last point would be that if anyone wishes to improve the carbon impact of these plants, a good way to do this would be to put pressure on the public and private developers so they are obliged to commit to use the heat that is generated by the facilities in a Combined Heat and Power network rather than produce electricity only. Due to the lack of drive from politicians, it is rarely the case… We know as well that to become carbon efficient and carbon neutral at some point, the biggest challenge will be domestic heating!

    I hope that one day incinerators will not be necessary anymore. I understand why people want to keep an eye on these facilities but in the meantime, I believe that they are many many more problematic issues.

  8. jimvangogh says:

    Croydonneighbour makes some reasonable points, however many are subject to challenge.

    We’re agreed that ideally there should be no incinerators. The point made about mixed recycling is correct. The four boroughs that supply Beddington do have separate bins for different wastes. But we could benefit from more streams for recycling such as for batteries, electronics, oil, paint and metals. We could hugely benefit from more recycling areas too, which could also take larger items. It was a shame the recycling area was removed from Beddington park car park for example as it usefully served the flats across London Road.

    Also Viridor broke up its own mechanical recycling machinery which might have been valuable in minimising waste going to incineration.

    But the author is right to say too much waste is produced at source in the form of packaging and single use plastic and gadgets which can’t be repaired. This is a huge issue which needs to be tackled at Government level to bring on a circular economy.

    Plastics which can’t be recycled could potentially be landfilled in order to be ‘mined’ when the technology exists to recycle it. Plastic is inert and does not produce methane or leachate as other landfilled waste can do. It currently accounts for about fifty percent of the waste burnt in the incinerator. It’s unlikely incinerators would be viable if they didn’t burn plastic.

    I’m afraid the link on recycling rates only goes to a general EU site but much has been written on how incineration is a disincentive to recycling. Our brown bins are a measure of that, as another commentator has noted.

    Incinerators do pour out many elements which are detrimental to health such as a host of heavy metals eg arsenic, chromium, lead and cobalt. Also NOX, particulates, SO2 and, in some circumstances, dioxins and furans. I understand that mattresses and sofas are not burnt at a high enough temperature to destroy the toxic flame retardants they are laced with, which contain hydrogen cyanide.

    A health study by Dr Tango in Japan in 2004 showed an excess of child mortality in populations living near incinerators. Another UK government study found excess cancers as did the Trieste and Ecomed studies. The UK study, by Elliott, was adjusted by enlarging the population circles around the incinerators and removing the liver cancer data and, lo and behold, the study then showed no cancers! A statistical manouevre known as ‘averaging’.

    Last year’s PHE study did in fact show infant abnormality near incinerators. And Michael Ryan, an independent researcher looked at the ONS figures for the communities near the 22 incinerators in the study and found excess infant mortality in twenty of them. He has also found the same increase when incinerators are built compared with normal figures beforehand.

    The last point about heat systems is misleading. Incineration is a very carbon intensive form of generating electricity and heat. The flats at New Mill Quarter which are due to be supplied with some heat from the incinerator would have benefited more by being built to higher insulation standards. There seem to be no other takers for the incinerator’s hot water, despite much pressure from the council, perhaps due to the inevitable high cost to consumers.

    The author is right to suggest we shouldn’t burn our waste, despite going on to give some reasons in its favour. Air pollution is not the solution.

  9. Lewis White says:

    Many thanks to fellow contributor Croydonneighbour above.
    Like you, I hope that one day incinerators will not be needed, although in reality, even if we get to a stage where we are minimising waste successfully, and recycling and composting the rest, my guess is that we will still have a residue of contaminated waste that is unprocessable safely, and that incineration will be the only way of dealing with these.

    With regard to good news on the recycling front, In the last year , I have been heartened by seeing supermarket Waitrose introducing biodegradeable bags for fruit and veg–a really worthwhile initiative. Some supermarkets are having more loose products, and many have replaced polystyrene trays with cardboard. I am sorry if I have not mentioned any others who have really been doing meaningful things to eliminate, reduce or substite plastic with other things, or who take such waste back from the customer–as long as they get it reprocessed here in the UK, not exported to other countries, where huge amounts get burned or fly-tipped.

    People like Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, and several charities, have likewise been engaging with companies and government, campaigning for plastic reduction and proper disposal. Others, like the charity Tearfund, have been working with the UK government and communities abroad to support grass-roots initiatives to deal with plastic waste, stop burning, and even, find wasy of recycling into products.

    My “beef” is with foot-dragging from the UK government when it comes to taking responsibility.
    Bottle deposit schemes for example, have been talked about ad infinitum, but nothing has happened.

    Re-watching Nordic Noir thriller “The Bridge in the last few days, I noticed- it was impossible to miss- a chimney on top of a blank, squat building, in the middle of the town, belching out a massive stream of smoke. Croydonneighbour’s response confimed my suspicion that this was an example of Nordic madness- an incinerator right in the city. It was not even slightly distanced from the urban mass around it.

    I hate to think what all those Danes or Swedes will be suffering in a few years as a result.
    I am sure that over the next few years, scientists and doctors will fully understand the health toll exacted by the incineration in the city.

    Landfill. Incineration. The downsides of both must make it a crucial imperative for UK Government to take recycling and waste minimisation by the horns. The public and even politicians seem to all know that, Post Covid, waste needs to be the next priority.

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