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.
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.
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.
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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