Public Services Management: A mix-up of rubbish and energy to burn: Environmentalists favour recycling policies over incineration proposals. Rebecca Renner reports

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The Independent Online
HERE'S a good idea: find a way to derive a valuable commodity - energy - from something almost worthless and difficult to handle - household waste. And, in the process, you reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

Sounds like a sure-fire winner. That is what Hampshire County Council thought when it decided to promote generation of electricity by incineration - as part of its strategy for handling waste in an environmentally acceptable way.

But Hampshire found that this seemingly sensible idea is surrounded by economic hurdles and attracts fierce opposition. Just one year after it had agreed in principle to a 20-year contract for disposal of an annual 400,000 tonnes of waste, the council withdrew its support for the Portsmouth project, a joint venture between Babcock Energy and Scottish Power.

Energy-from-waste enthusiasts offer a seductive equation, apparently creating something from nothing. They also point out that almost all of the UK's household waste now ends up in landfills, the proverbial holes in the ground where bacteria, which shun the slightest whiff of oxygen, eat the rubbish and produce landfill gas that is roughly 60 per cent methane and 40 per cent carbon dioxide.

This means that not only is a potential energy source being wasted in the ground, but additional environmental harm is caused because the landfill gas - particularly the methane which is 20 times more effective at trapping the sun's energy than carbon dioxide - adds to the greenhouse effect. A report by the National Society for Clean Air estimated that the long-term greenhouse effect of these belching landfills is greater than that of emissions from Britain's cars, lorries, buses and trains, and exceeded only by the effect of emissions from power stations.

Despite the arguments in favour of converting household waste to energy, however, incineration does not enjoy unanimous support of environmentalists. Many argue that incineration discourages councils from promoting recycling and does nothing to turn around society from a throw-it-away attitude towards one of waste minimisation and recycling.

The 1989 EC directive on air pollution from existing incinerators, implemented under the Environmental Protection Act 1990, is what has focused attention on municipal incineration. The EPA's new pollution limits for household waste incinerators come into effect in December 1996, and most of the nearly three dozen municipal waste incinerators that currently burn about eight per cent of the country's waste will fail to meet the rules. In the past four years, nine plants have closed and the high cost of upgrading to meet the pollution standards means that only a handful of the remaining 30 are likely to be in operation after 1996.

As the old generation of municipal incinerators prepares to retire, a new private-sector generation is anxious to take over, spurred on by the lure of a subsidy for renewable energy generation. A non-fossil-fuel obligation (NFFO) contract for electricity supply subsidises the cost of incinerating waste and makes it possible to compete with the cost of landfill disposal. The NFFO is set to run out in 1998, although the government is negotiating an extension with the European Commission. So to make good use of this subsidy, any new plant must be swiftly funded, approved by planning authorities, and built quickly.

But this need for speed is in direct conflict with the extensive public consultation that characterises the only new project that has surmounted all of the obstacles - the South East London Combined Heat and Power Consortium (SELCHP) plant which is under construction in Deptford.

Bob Wheatley, SELCHP managing director explained: 'Planning is one exercise that can't be rushed. It took us three years. We believed in our case, and of course our opponents believed in theirs. In the end we pursaded them that we could be good neighbours.'

Hampshire, he says, didn't have the time to devote to consultation because the NFFO deadline forced its hand. In contrast, two years' work on the SELCHP project had been completed before the NFFO was introduced, 'so we weren't behind the eight ball,' Mr Wheatley said.

The Hampshire story, recounted by Philip Russell, assistant waste disposal manager, does sound like a tale of inevitable errors:

Hampshire's initial proposals, which were put forward subject to full public consultation, called for construction of up to three small waste-to-energy plants to reduce heavy pressure on landfill in the county. From the onset, councillors realised that it would be more expensive than landfill, but they believed people would be able to pay a bit more for waste disposal that had environmental benefits.

In the event, the waste disposal costs associated with three small plants proved to be too high, and the council decided in favour of one large incinerator to take advantage of the economies of scale. Back in February 1991, when the proposal for a new waste-to-energy plant on the site of the old county incinerator in Portsmouth was announced, local response was broadly favourable. Nine months later, local opinion had changed. 'It was amazing. People were very worried and very emotional. There was a feeling the plant was going to be so very big,' Mr Russell said.

In the summer of 1992, the county's planning committee opposed the project, 'on the grounds of unacceptable visual impact'. The policy and resources committee, which instigated the project, withdrew support and ended negotiations - leaving Hampshire once again considering plans for a number of smaller incinerators.

However, Mr Russell believes that the county, together with Southampton and Portsmouth district councils, is beginning to see a way to approach the problem. 'Waste management must be tackled with an integrated approach that seeks to use waste minimisation and recycling to their fullest, and then uses energy-from-waste and landfill for the rest,' he said.

He believes that this message came across to the officers from Portsmouth, Southampton and Hampshire who went to Europe last month to study waste disposal facilities.

In Munich, they visited a trial project where household waste was being separated into its recyclable components. Even after all the organic material, paper, metal and glass were removed, there was 'a lot of stuff' left.

Could it be the right stuff for incineration? Hampshire may soon find out - its four operating incinerators cannot meet the new pollution standards and supposed to shut down by 1996.

(Photograph omitted)