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

Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

PHP Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: PHP Develope...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron (pictured) can't steal back my party's vote that easily, says Nigel Farage  

Cameron’s benefits pledge is designed to lure back Ukip voters. He’ll have to try harder

Nigel Farage
Turkish women have been posting defiant selfies of themselves laughing at their deputy PM's remarks.  

Women now have two more reasons to laugh in the face of sexism

Louise Scodie
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star