Michael McCarthy: What's the official line on incinerators? There isn't one

Campaigners stress this is a huge waste of money – an incinerator can cost £100m – which will be diverted from recycling
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The Independent Online

If you think local people don't like windfarms in their backyard, try building a waste incinerator. Invariably, wherever local councils or waste management companies try to site an incinerator, it is greeted with opposition from communities which is furious, intense, and organised. Local residents simply will not have that tall chimney in their neighbourhood spewing out God-knows-what into the air that their children breathe, never mind the 10 per cent it will knock off their house prices. Would you?

The fear of toxic pollution, especially from the group of potentially harmful chemicals known as dioxins which are produced in the combustion process, seems to be at the core of local people's opposition. Twenty years ago dioxins were one of the environmental movement's bogey words, but gradually their presence has come to be used as less of a warning – they're produced whenever you light a bonfire, and the evidence for human harm, apart from in large-scale exposure like that in the 1976 Seveso chemical plant explosion in Italy, is unclear. But there are still lots of nasty substances inside an incinerator.

Environmentalists who oppose incineration put less stress on pollution these days – for example, the possibility of toxic emissions is only given as the fifth out of six reasons for opposing burning by the UK Without Incineration Network. This is partly because the big (and very expensive) filters on modern incinerator chimneys can capture most pollutants. Campaigners stress instead that incineration is a misguided strategy and a waste of large sums of money (a big incinerator can cost up to £100m), cash which will only be diverted from recycling efforts and attempts at waste minimisation.

Local councils, on the other hand, favour incinerators because they think they will help them meet their liabilities under the EU's Landfill Directive, which is remorselessly squeezing down the amount of rubbish they can dump in holes in the ground. Sending waste to landfill is increasingly expensive because of the UK's own landfill tax, never mind fines which might be on the way from Europe for missed targets. And waste management companies which make incinerators are naturally pushing their products for commercial reasons.

Where does the Government stand? The Health Protection Agency came close to giving incineration a clean bill of health in 2009 when it reported: "Modern, well-managed incinerators make only a small contribution to local concentrations of air pollutants. It is possible that such small additions could have an impact on health but such effects, if they exist, are likely to be very small and not detectable."

But as for the Government's own view, it is curiously hard to say. If you look at the waste management policy section of the website of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, you can't really find any reference to incineration as a policy measure, although the Government is committed to a "zero waste" minimisation strategy.

Waste management was one of the real success stories of the last government, which in a mere decade managed to raise the amount of household waste going for recycling from 4 per cent in 2000 to nearly 40 per cent now, and was aiming for 50 per cent by 2020.

But the Coalition has declined to embrace this target, and instead the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, has announced a review of waste policy, which will be published next year.

Presumably something about incineration will have to be said then. In the meantime, it seems that the Government's policy, as the supersmooth mandarin Sir Humphrey Appleby once announced in Yes, Minister, is to have no policy.