Report: Incinerator is ‘as polluting as coal-fired power stations’

Costly white elephant: The Beddington incinerator was built based on false claims about energy production, and dodgy deals over planning

An investigation published by the Daily Telegraph reports that hundreds of millions of pounds of public money has been handed over to the incinerator industry based on false claims that burning waste generates cheap, green energy.

The Telegraph investigation, published jointly with SourceMaterial, reports that incinerators – or what the operators, such as Viridor at Beddington – like to call “Energy from Waste” or EfW plants, have almost the same carbon emissions per unit of electricity as the kind of coal-fired power plants which are being shut down around Europe for being too polluting.

The Beddington incinerator was built at a cost of around £210million, paid jointly by four south London councils, including Croydon, through the arms-length and unaccountable South London Waste Partnership.

Croydon and each of the other three councils – Kingston, Merton and Sutton – is paying £10million per year to Viridor to burn the boroughs’ rubbish, part of a £1billion contract through the SLWP which sees public money being used to pollute the atmosphere across south London for the next two decades.

A LibDem ‘Focus’ leaflet from 2013 from Hackbridge. Sutton, encouraged by Cllr Drage, backed the incinerator from day one and emphasised its ‘green’ claims

The SourceMaterial report – which quotes extensively from previous investigations by Inside Croydon – says that the incinerator business is “riddled with conflicts of interest, and far less green or cost-effective than it appears”, and says that Viridor and Veolia, another major player in the rubbish business, benefit “from tax breaks and subsidies worth billions”.

Beddington is one of 48 working incinerators in the UK. There are plans for almost 100 more, which the SourceMaterial report says would “undermine recycling and poison the air”. It describes the incinerators as “costly white elephants”.

Viridor and Veolia, the report states, “explicitly stated in planning applications last year that their proposed plants would generate low-carbon energy”.

This has proved to be significant locally because of controversies over the planning process in Sutton for the Beddington incinerator, where John Drage, a senior Liberal Democrat councillor, forgot to mention that he was a lifelong chum of the Viridor chief executive.

Drage is no longer a councillor in Sutton, having moved away from the area. His conduct over planning permission that secured a £1billion contract for his mate’s business has never been subject to the criminal investigation which it deserves.

Drage refused to speak to the reporters from SourceMaterial.

“Exaggerating the climate benefits of incineration helps mask a darker underside to an industry beset by misleading planning applications, bullying and back-room deals,” SourceMaterial says.

John Drage: for five years, forgot to mention he knew Viridor’s CEO

But the fundamental myth about waste incinerators is that they are, in any way, generators of “clean” energy. SourceMaterial’s analysis of the companies’ own data shows that in 2019 their incinerators produced almost the same carbon emissions per unit of electricity as a coal-fired power plant.

“This is because a significant portion — around 12 per cent — of the black bin bag waste that incinerators burn is plastics made from fossil fuels,” they say.

And the report quotes an academic from Denmark, Anders Damgaard, who said, “There is no doubt that an energy-from-waste plant is not low-carbon if it burns plastics.”

Another expert quoted in the report, Ann Ballinger of Eunomia, a sustainability consultancy whose clients include the government, said it is “misleading” to call the electricity low-carbon.

“You are still burning a lot of plastic to get your energy in an incinerator, so that is pretty similar to burning oil,” Ballinger said.

At Beddington, the incinerator only fired up properly in 2019, 18 months later than planned. The one “customer” for any energy generated by Viridor, the Barratt-built South Mill Quarter development in Hackbridge, has not yet been connected to the incinerator plant for the supposed supply of hot water and heating.

According to SourceMaterial, in 2019, Viridor’s plants averaged 889 grams of CO2 equivalent emissions for every kilowatt hour of electricity exported to the grid. The UK’s coal-fired power plants emitted an average of 985g.

A large part of the argument made in favour of the Beddington incinerator on behalf of Viridor by politicians from all major parties was that it would divert rubbish from the nearby landfill, where it would release harmful greenhouse gases.

This claim is rejected by scientists. “Energy-from-waste is not low-carbon,” Piers Forster, an atmospheric physicist at University of Leeds who sits on the UK Committee on Climate Change, told SourceMaterial. “In recent years the amount of biogenic waste sent to landfill has declined and many landfill sites are introducing methane capture, so claims of low-carbon energy are looking less and less supportable.”

What perhaps makes this deliberate environmental destruction so much worse is that you are paying for it, as Viridor and other operators profit handsomely.

Pictures taken inside the sorting hall at the Viridor incinerator at Beddington Lane show how much black bag rubbish – including plastic – gets burned there

The SourceMaterial report says, “The UK’s shift towards burning waste instead of burying it was triggered in the late 1990s when lavish incentives saw waste companies flock to the sector like seagulls to a landfill… While landfills are encouraged to limit emissions through heavy taxes on the pollution they cause, waste-to-energy plants are exempt.”

Using Westminster lobbyists, the incinerator industry has been excluded from the emissions trading scheme that charges polluters for burning fossil fuels, despite burning large amounts of highly polluting plastic, saving Viridor and other operators more than £80million in 2019.

“On top of this, the operators, who argue that half of the power generated is renewable because half of what they burn is organic material, have already received more than £60million in renewable energy subsidies and are on course to receive a further £600million of public money during the incinerators’ lifetime.

“These inducements have pushed the amount of waste burned in England up by 44 per cent in the five years to 2019. Recycling, meanwhile, has flatlined and is lowest in areas where incineration rates are highest.”

So much for the “green” boasts and environmental strategies of Croydon and other south London boroughs.

In 2019, confronted by the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations in London, Sutton and Croydon both set carbon-neutral targets for their boroughs and trumpeted their green credentials to the public, when local politicians will have known that their carbon targets were impossible to achieve as long as they were in a 25-year contract for the Viridor incinerator.

But then, lying to the public and fixing the planning system to favour the interests of big business is nothing new among politicians on Sutton and Croydon councils.

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4 Responses to Report: Incinerator is ‘as polluting as coal-fired power stations’

  1. moyagordon says:

    FFS, you can’t move for assholes lining their pockets at someone else’s expense. Whatever happened to doing an honest day’s work?

  2. Desmond FitzGerald says:

    This is all very worrying, but sadly predictable. What is often missed, is the fact that the traffic of heavy lorries driving rubbish / waste from a wider area of the southeast than ever before, has virtually doubled the traffic passing where I and many others live facing Ampere Way.

    Additionally, the ‘sweetner’ that Viridor gained in being able to develop the marsh-beds facing Beddington Lane, in front of their much vaunted incinerator, into a Freight Distribution business park (currently completing construction, will exacerbate this.

    The construction of such a Freight Distribution business park was not even a discussion point in the bid to have the incinerator installed, as far as I know and there is zero environmental gain to its institution, only greater environmental harm, both on-site and in the already struggling road system.
    As part of this, Ampere Way has not been resurfaced in over 20 years and now has about 5-10 times the industrial traffic that it had then and now 24 hours a day.

  3. Lewis White says:

    Having initially (in the 1980’s) supported incineration as reducing landfill, I changed my mind when I realised that one person’s pleasure at this desirable is actually another person’s bad air quality. The latter person being the person who lives nearby to an incinerator, or the person living in a tower block at the hieight of the incinerator chimney, maybe a few miles away , “down-wind”.

    The tang of burning plastic is obvious, and intolerable, but the less- obvious chemical compounds and gases are also another serious health-destroyers.

    So– if landfill is bad, and incineration is bad, what can, should, must we do?

    Waste reduction is the thing that I have come to the conclusion we MUST do. This includes “money back on drink cans and bottles ” machines in every supermarket.

    Recycling is great, and we also MUST do it, but sadly, the amount of recyclable material that actually gets recycled is far too low. Far too much is exported an ends up being burned in Asian and African countries. No prizes for knowing that the destitute and poor end up breathing the toxic smoke

    I suspect that much recycling of plastics can also cause air pollution at the places it is undertaken.

    Minimisation of packaging is happening–it is really great to see how major corporations who make electrical goods and domestic appliances are packing their products in cardboard , with far less polystyrene. It seems scandalous that the pristine white blocks of the latter are never recycled, so we have some way to go. Rather like the scandal of electrical waste like cables and lamps.

    I sense that there is now, thanks to the Telegraph, Inside Croydon, and other exposees in the press, plus the recent reports from Imperial College and GLA, that there is a rising groundswell of realisation about the health damage being caused by incineration.

    If only one could “reverse engineer” plastics to end up with some oil, without causing environmental damage.

    Sadly, I can’t see any solution that does not involve some incinerartion of residual waste, after waste minimisation, and recycling. But how and where (and if) this can be conducted safely is a key “wonder”

  4. says:

    I wish I could get into this plant to see what the problem is with the waste and their emissions mixing of waste is crucial and using the best products like lime, ammonia and carbon.

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