The commission yesterday published a report which concludes that burning rubbish in state-of-the-art incinerators was often the best environmental option for handling Britain's growing output of garbage.
The report was condemned by Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, who said the 13 experts who make up the commission should have put more stress on reducing the amount of waste produced and on recycling.
Only 7 per cent of Britain's household waste is incinerated. The rest is dumped at landfill sites. This compares with 42 per cent incinerated in France, 40 per cent in the Netherlands and 30 per cent in Germany.
The commission says incineration is environmentally superior to dumping because garbage rotting deep inside landfill tips produces methane, a potent global warming gas. It also produces noxious liquids which can pollute groundwater beneath the dump and nearby streams.
Incinerators cause air pollution, but their heat output can be used to generate electricity and warm buildings. The burning of rubbish can therefore substitute for the combustion of fuel in power stations which also produces pollution. The commission said the Government should encourage private companies to build incinerators and suggests a levy per tonne on waste dumped at tips in order to discourage landfill.
The commission also favours subsidising electricity generated by the incineration of garbage. Such a subsidy, financed by electricity consumers, already exists, but it is due to expire in 1998. The commission wants to extend it into the next century.
There are 29 garbage incinerators in Britain, nearly all built in the 1970s. Most are expected to close over the next four years because they will not meet the much tougher standards for air pollution emissions set by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution.
Several huge electricity-generating incinerators with advanced pollution-abatement equipment have been proposed by private waste companies. An inquiry into Cory Environmental's plans for a plant taking 1.2 million tonnes of garbage a year at Bexley, south-east London, ended earlier this year. A final decision is now awaited from Michael Heseltine, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.
Public fears about incinerators focus on dioxins, the highly toxic, carcinogenic chemicals produced in low concentrations when many wastes are burnt. The Royal Commission said it had considered several studies into the possible health impacts of dioxins from incinerators and found no evidence of any acute or chronic toxicity.
Madeleine Cobbing of Greenpeace said: 'The commission's endorsement of incineration is illogical and regressive . . . it fails to take account of the widespread public opposition.'
Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution 17th Report; pounds 18.60; HMSO.Reuse content