Viridor incinerator breaks its toxic VOC permit for 40th time

MARK GALE reports on how the Environment Agency’s ‘strict limits’ on polluting emissions are not so strict after all

Something stinks: Viridor has broken its pollution permit 40 times in 42 months

The latest emission data for the polluting incinerator on Beddington Lane has just been released and yet again, operators Viridor have breached their Environment Agency-set limits.

The reports that used to be published fortnightly have become less reliably regular since a change of personnel at the facility earlier this year, making it less straightforward to keep a check on which part of their permit Viridor has broken most recently.

But the data made available this week shows that on September 15, the levels of volatile organic compounds, or “VOCs”, exceeded the “strict limits” by more than 10per cent.

For Viridor, the limits don’t seem to be too “strict” as this is the 40th time the Beddington incinerator has gone over those limits since the data started being publicly shared 42 months ago.

The high VOC releases are usually associated with the smell that is released by the incinerator. By definition, the gasses are unstable and when released in large amounts they can induce undesirable effects to those who have asthma or other chronic health problems. Health effects range from the relatively minor, such as itchy eyes, to headaches, fatigue, coughing, nausea through to serious conditions, like cancer.

Viridor operates the incinerator at Beddington under a £1billion, 25-year contract for the South London Waste Partnership, which comprises four boroughs: Kingston, Merton, Sutton and Croydon.

Ill wind: how pollution from the Viridor incinerator blew towards Croydon on the day of the latest emissions breach

While Viridor’s admittance of the breaches is a step in the right direction, perhaps a more responsible procedure would be to publish the current status of the emissions, live, so those in the more vulnerable positions such as infants and young children, older adults, and people with certain health conditions, can take some simple precautions to reduce their exposure to the pollution by staying indoors and closing windows.

On the day of Viridor’s latest breach of their permit conditions, the wind was blowing towards Croydon, in the direction of Harris Invictus Academy, Old Palace School and Wandle Park. Tens of thousands of people will have unwittingly taken in lungfuls of the toxic, polluted air, thanks to Viridor.

The excuse given by the polluter was that the crane that picks up the waste from their bunker had an issue, stopping processing…

Last week, the Environment Agency published EPR/GP3305LN/V002, the “Notice of variation and consolidation” for the incinerator after a permit review. It lists the status log of Viridor’s Beddington incinerator permit with details of each variation and change listed since the initial application was made 10 years ago. Viridor, despite their at best patchy record for complying with their permit requirements, has an outstanding application to burn more waste at Beddington, which the Environment Agency is due to consult on in the coming months.

Inside Croydon will, of course, bring news of the consultation once it has been announced.

There’s a running total of the breaches by Viridor’s Beddington incinerator at, which gives the date, emission type and link to a copy of the relevant page from the full 15-page emissions report that can be found at

About insidecroydon

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
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19 Responses to Viridor incinerator breaks its toxic VOC permit for 40th time

  1. What are the penalties? Have they been applied?

    • Jim Duffy says:

      The Environment Agency has a system where the number and scale of breaches incrementally increases the compulsory charge they apply to Viridor and other waste companies for regulating their activities.

  2. Ian Kierans says:

    Many people with asthma have had to use reliever inhalers a lot more frequently due to these toxins in the air. Many have had discussions with GPs and other respiratory Doctors and clinicians as to why their breathing issues are uncontrolled. There is usually no clear answer, but there is a theme for those unexplained changes and that is Viridor.

    It is not much use to those suffering and having lives disrupted that the EA fines culprits It will not bring back those lost days nor relieve past pain.

    It is also not much use to attempt to take the culprits to Court for compensation individually, as many are in no position or have the health for the long legal battle in proving that Viridor are the main culprits.

    What about the other triggers that are rampant like badly placed LTNs poorly controlled ”perfectly legal developments” with uncontrolled and unenforced codes and regulations by this planning department and its enforcement areas. Building dust clouds allowed to surround and envelop adjoining properties to those developments. Many with clinically vulnerable people resident including severe breathing issues.

    But is is not just the people affected. It is their families, their neighbors and the overall affect on demand for NHS intervention and treatment.

    One person alone that has been exposed to just the effects of Viridor and a bad builder and developer and their rampant abuse of the ”voluntary building code” building regulations, planning conditions and just plain manners and normal decent behaviors directly led to costs to the NHS in excess of £100k and counting as the permanent damage costs are ongoing.

    This would be made up of three life saving operations over 3 months in hospital and quite expensive heart/lung medication.

    Minor and well controlled conditions became acute and chronic when exposed to known and warned about impacts of badly controlled developments being ignored by authorities and polluting companies.

    So how much do they give back to the NHS for the additional costs they create via their actions? How much of the fines the EA imposes goes back to the local clinical commissioning groups to fund their impacts on residents?

    Can we not start with putting fines directly back into the Community impacted to reduce future pollution and to pay towards the medical costs?

    • Jim Duffy says:

      Agree. For the sake of our health we should just stop burning rubbish. It’s possible to achieve 85% recycling rates.

      • Thomas Windsor says:

        Switzerland is one of the best places for recycling…
        96% of glass is recycled
        86% of steel
        91% of tin cans
        83% of PET bottles
        70% of batteries
        0% of municipal waste is sent for landfill
        For municipal waste 50% is recycled and the other 50% is incinerated… So according to the Swiss incineration is a key part of the cycle.

        • Jim Duffy says:

          According to this study highlighted by Zero Waste Europe, MRBT or Mechanical Recycling, Biological Treatment offers the best solution with least environmental impact. Waste is sorted at source with a portion being recycled. The remainders go through a further process which extracts more recyclable and compostable waste before it is rendered inert and landfilled. As it’s inert it produces no methane, the biggest criticism of landfill. The approach has been adopted in several Italian cities including Milan and is being used in South America and elsewhere.

    • Michael Ryan says:

      The June 2005 report “SELCHP WASTE TO ENERGY PLANT HEALTH IMPACT ASSESSMENT”, which is no longer online, included a graph on page 51 showing that the Lewisham asthma death rate [Standardised mortality ratios, 1990 to 2000: asthma (ICD9 493)] rose t above the London average after SELCHP started in 1993.

      The abov reprt faild to look at rates of infant mortality stillbirth or low birthweight babies, all sensitive to industrial PM2.5 emissions.

      Here’s full text of page 33:

      Perceptions of health and the effect of SELCHP
      48. Following the review of the evidence base in the rapid HIA workshop, participants were asked about their perceptions of health in the local area and the ways in which it might be affected by the SELCHP plant. The issues which arose included:
      • a perception of increasingly poor health related to
      • poor air quality and heavy traffic; and 

      • a perception of SELCHP as a cause of pollution; 

      • wider concerns about environmental quality; 

      • a throwaway society; 

      • obtaining a balanced view of the evidence; and 

      • a lack of trust in “the authorities”. 
These issues are discussed in more detail below, together with relevant findings from the survey of residents. 
A perception of increasingly poor health 

      49. There is a perception that has been an increase in illness overall in the local area in recent years, particularly in relation to respiratory diseases such as bronchitis and asthma. However, there is uncertainty about what may have caused this, if the increase is a real one. Two factors were thought to be implicated: poor air quality due to traffic and the SELCHP plant as a creator of air pollution. 

      50. The survey asked about factors which people felt had an influence on their heath and Figure 17 shows the percentage of those saying that the various factors affected their health a lot. 

      51. For over a third of the respondents SELCHP is seen as having an influence on health, with almost 60% of respondents saying that they felt that the incinerator affected their personal health to some extent. It should be noted, however, that range of other issues also scored highly and that the numbers involved in the survey were small so that there are doubts about how representative their views are. 

  3. Jim Duffy says:

    Thanks inside Croydon and Mark Gale. Unfortunately the Environment Agency has undergone huge cut-backs in recent times including a cut of £235 million by one Liz Truss when she was departmental minister, according to the Guardian. The local Raynes Park office has been cut from ten to three staff. Very difficult to regulate in these circumstances. But Viridor shouldn’t take advantage of this situation and clean up their act. Better still if we can shut down this and all incinerators and go for a cleaner, greener alternative with better concentration on recycling as in Italy with the Contarina project which recycles the waste of half a million residents without incineration, near Venice.

  4. Lewis White says:

    After putting all my bottles, recyclable (aka “widely recycled”) plastic, cans and paper/ card etc in the correct recycling wheelies, and any foodwaste (minimal) in its little bin, and put my veg peelings etc in my garden compost bin, and clean plastic bags in a bag to go back to the supermarket, what am I left with ?

    The stuff that has to go in the unrecycleable “dustbin” is either dirty stuff like plastic wrapping for meat and fish, or “not yet recycled” items like Polystyrene– I try to avoid buying things in polystyrene trays as I know that none of them are recycled–even though on the bottom, it has a sneaky “recycle triangle”. That fools a lot of people who imagine that if they see the triangle, it gets recycled. My local butcher included. He uses eco-friendly packs too, but the polystyrene tray with a clingfilm wrap is an easy way to store and wrap meat. Probably cheaper too.

    What else graces my bin?
    Basically, nasty stuff …… the contents of the bathroom bins, soiled cardboard food wrappers, cat litter (when my son’s cats come here to stay) , plus minor building waste like dried up glue tubes and tubs of old woodfiller, and compost bags from the garden centre- although I try to reuse these a few times before they get binned.

    We are a 2 person family nowadays, so our waste bins have less in them, but the conclusion I reach is that it is the “currently unrecycled” plastics and laminated or what I call “plasticated paper” and card faced with foil are the main culprits.

    Sadly, unless Government steps in to ban these “not yet recycled ” plastic/paper/ foil composites, our bins will continue to hold these eco-disaster packagings.

    Another thing…….. we are car owners, so take the occasional trip down there to recycle metal, old lightbulbs, batteries, waste wood, hard plastics like flower pots and light fittings, and dead small electric appliances. We have a garden waste bin too.

    If we didn’t have a car, I am not sure that I would make the effort to go by bus to the Purley Oaks depot.

    The hard plastics and the other stuff would–sadly–go in the bin. What are we meant to do with that stuff?

    I would agree with those who seek 100% recycling.
    But we would need the Council to do doorsep collections of the stuff I take to Purley Oaks.

    Nationally– and forgive me for naively assuming that there is still any concept of a nation– we really must get deposit schemes on drinks containers to stop people dropping bottles and cans in the street and parks/ countryside.

    Also, ban the selling of products sold in unrecyclable containers.
    Why not a tax on polystyrene? That would make non-polluting substitutes as cheap.

    If we ever got to the Swiss situation, how would we get rid of the residual waste?

    Burn it …….or bury it in landfill?

    Myself, I would go for inceneration, as it does not store the problem up for future generations to deal with and treat — but there would have to be really effective burners, and chimney “scrubbers” . The few incinerators would need to be in carefully chosen locations, where the contaminated smoke would blow out to sea or sparsely populated countryside. Horrid as that is, it is a fact that residual waste will have to be got rid of.

    Waste is a by product of civilisation. Roman mine spoil from lead mining still contaminates mine areas in Anglesey (Parys Mountain) and Shropshire.

    But we, in my life time (so far !) have created whole plastic and electric waste mountains It is no joking matter.

    And……how much of our waste ends up being dumped in cities and rural areas of Africa and Asia, before it gets burnt ? Then, toxic smoke is breathed in by children and adults scavenging the dumps. And… gets dumped in the rivers, here and there–and ends up in the once pristine Oceans.

    Exporting our waste, other than scrap metal, must be made illegal, in my view.

    Science can do much– but needs investment.

    Maybe plastic-chomping and contaminant-guzzling bacteria will come to the rescue.

    My own view is that God will sort it– but God needs our help, right now, from Governments and us , if we are to enjoy this wonderful planet without killing it and our fellow creation.

  5. Lewis White says:

    Thanks to Mark and Inside Croydon for this brilliant and revealing / worrying article.
    The SW London Waste Plan is being revised–but I bet that it just accepts Beddington Incinerator will go on, and on ……

    Once in a while, you will smell burning plastic in Croydon Town Centre.
    Is this being caused by some moron burning plastic bags in their back garden, or a builiding site or back street garage doing the same?

    Possibly, but probably not.
    Most likely , your nose and lungs are being filled with the choking gases, chemicals and particulates borne on the wind, coming straight from the smokestack of the Beddington Incinerator. It is ruining your health and reducing our lifespan, as noted by Ian above.

    If we really need to incinerate, which reluctantly I think we do, even if — or rather (and I hope we do so very soon), “when” — we attain “95% recycling”, I don’t think that it should be done where it will affect tens or hundreds of thousands of people. Beddington is so very close to where people–lots of people- live.

    Maybe a Boris Island should be built– not for an airport for London, but to burn residual rubbish ?

  6. Ralph Dent says:

    Viridor are not to be trusted.

  7. Michael Ryan says:

    I wonder how long it will take before Viridor notices that the infant death rate in Lewisham, which is downwind of the Beddington Lane incinerator, has risen steadily since their allegedly safe incinerator started operating?

    In 2011, the year that the Belvedere incinerator started operating, Bexley’s infant death rate was 2.9 per 1,000 live births, which was much lower than the England & Wales rate of 4.4 per 1,000.

    In 2021 (ONS released infant mortality data for all Councils in England & Wales on 1 March 2023). Bexley’s rate was 6.0 per 1,000, (2,837 live births and 17 infant deaths), whilst the England & Wales rate is 3.7 per 1,000.

    Here’s the 1st graph (of around forty) I’ve produced using ONS data showing sudden post-incinerator rises in infant death rates in Councils exposed to emissions.

    The Bexley & Beddington/Lewisham graphs were produced this afternoon.

    • Lewis White says:

      Although Lewisham is located downwind of Beddington, the SELCHP incinerator is actually in Lewisham, being located in the NW corner of Lewisham borough, in W Deptford / New Cross.

      Did you mean , in Para 1, line 2, to mention SELCHP, or Beddington?

      My guess is that part of the emission load from Beddington come down to ground in Lewisham, adding to a bigger volume of particulates and other emissions from SELCHP, and that the combined total is breathed in by the residents of Lewisham.

      A trip up to London from East Croydon to London Bridge on the train will not only provide a close up view of the SELCHP incinerator, including a view of the interior of the waste tipping hall, but will reveal more and more high rise buildings that stick up into the tainted air polluted by the incinerators.

      All those tens of thousands of people sleeping in their high rise blocks, breathing contaminated air ( the incinerators burn most of their load after dark– just when people are at home.

      I am not seeing any mention of seeking alternatives to incineration from Labour, Conservatives or Lib Dems at present.

      Indeed, currently all I see or hear on TV or Radio panel shows like “Question Time” are platidinous outpourings from Labour spokespeople who seem to have little grip on reality, about getting rid of planning controls on on-shore wind farms and key things that will boost the economy.

      Sounds so like the platidinous outpouring from the normal suspects, the enemies of red tape and public accountability we all know so well, including certain recent top politicians.

      Whilst the mindset is no doubt well-intentioned, to get the UK self sufficient in clean wind power, the bigger and alarming message is of weakening and getting rid of planning controls and public consultation into things that really matter– like having the noise and constant movement of a big windfarm near you, or having a motorway, high speed railway, nuclear power station or incinerator built in your area.

      All the three big parties seem to be so focused on the 5 year election cycle, and, as yet, very little on setting down a pathway to a future where good air quality is regarded as a key human right, and the plastic mountain is reduced at source, as well as enough good food and heating for all, cheap clean drinking water, comfortable homes for all, rivers free of sewage etc etc.

      Electric cars seems to be the exception, albeit that battery making rapes the land for yet more precious minerals, and must have a sting in the tail, of mining pollution, and the need for proper recycling of old batteries.

      We live on small islands, with a precious landscape, coast, and sea, with big conurbations and polluting infrastructure. Incineration seemed to offer many benefits, notably the reduction in volume of waste needing to be disposed of to landfill, and the avoidance of the highly polluting leachate and methane which are a byproduct of landfill.

      Sadly, in our naivety, most of us (I include myself) imagined that the waste plume (a lovely word !) would take the fumes and smoke up into a sky where it would all be diluted harmlessly. So wrong, as evidence from environmental heroes is now showng that the pollution affects people at ground level fpor miles and miles from the incinerator.

      The problem is that it takes just days or weeks to ruin the environment, whether by building ill-sited business parks and badly-planned housing, incineration, mass fly tipping, and a whole raft more, but a hundred years or more to turn thngs round and restore it.

      In the meantime, people’s lives are blighted,

      When will incineration be replaced with a proper waste policy ?

  8. Jim Duffy says:

    Thanks for this information Michael, disturbing as it is. And you also found excess infant mortality in North Croydon wards too, directly downwind from the Beddington incinerator.

  9. Michael Ryan says:

    Public Health England part-funded a study to investigate whether infant death rates rise after municipal waste incinerators (MWIs) started operating.

    That study: “Bayesian spatial modelling for quasi-experimental designs: An interrupted time series study of the opening of Municipal Waste Incinerators in relation to infant mortality and sex ratio” (Environment International Volume 128, July 2019, Pages 109-115) concluded:

    “Based on our approach, we do not find evidence of an association of MWI opening with changes in risks of infant mortality or sex ratio in comparison with control areas.”

    A total of forty-six infant deaths were recorded by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in the eight councils where the incinerators are sited in the years that the incinerators started operating. Seventy infant deaths were recorded by ONS in the following year; 63 in the next year and 74 in the next.

    In December 2012, ONS released the infant mortality rates in each of the London Boroughs from 1970-2010, which enabled me to plot the following graph showing the opposite of the conclusion of the above 2019 study:

    ONS released London Borough infant mortality data from 1965-69, which showed that infant death rates rose in the Boroughs of Enfield and Waltham Forest after Edmonton incinerator started in 1971.

    Further FoI requests led to the release of the stillbirth rates for all London Boroughs from 1965-2010 and the percentages of low birthweight babies (singleton live births less than 2,500 grammes) from 1983-2010. These data showed that stillbirth rates in Enfield and Waltham Forest rose after Edmonton started operating. The rates of stillbirths and also the percentages of low birthweight babies rose in the Boroughs of Lewisham, Newham and Tower Hamlets after the SELCHP incinerator started operating in 1993.

    More information in my November 2017 submission to the EFRA committee
    which had invited comment on the government’s air quality policy. See cluster of high infant death rate (2002-2013 ONS data) electoral wards around Edmonton incinerator on page 8:

    Mark Metcalf’s latest incinerator article:

    Upward trend in Bromsgrove’s infant death rate after the Hartlebury incinerator started in 2017:

    Podcast recorded 22 December 2021:

  10. Lewis White says:

    Thank you everyone for these comments and e-links above.

    The smoke from a smoking gun eventually becomes a smog–and it took a series of smogs befiore we ended up with the Clean Air Act. Just saw a programme on the television about the London smogs last night It took a sudden, very clear upsurge in the number of deaths in a few days of dense smogs, before the politicians had to act, so clear was the evidence..

    Rather reminiscent of the fact that it took the “Great Stink” of a foetid River Thames full of sewage , right outside the Houses of Parliament, before they took action to agree to a new sewer system for London, to take the sewage down to Crossness and Abbey Mills. That was perhaps 50 or even 100 years after the Thames became an open sewer.

    In our own times, what will it take for them to act on waste minimisation and alternatives to incineration? I really hope that it will not be 2080 something–100 years after SELCHP was opened,

    I hate to say it but it may need many more to die before the big 3 political parties act on incineration.

  11. Michael Ryan says:

    What health studies have ben carried out since Beddington Lane incinerator?

    I should be grateful if you’d disclose full details of all health studies carried out since the Beddington Lane incinerator stated operating.

    The location of the incinerator within your area, together with the height of the chimney stack, means that other London Boroughs will also have been exposed to emissions.

    • Jim Duffy says:

      Thanks for putting in this FoI request Michael. I’m following you on ‘Whatdotheyknow’.

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