In 2003, East Sussex County Council and Brighton and Hove City Council signed what is believed to be a billion pound contract with Onyx to manage waste disposal in the county for the next 25 years.
At the heart of the plan is an incinerator, which will cost
around £125m to build. To operate effectively it will need 200,000 tonnes of ‘fuel’ a year, which accounts for half of all the waste currently produced in East Sussex by a population of little over one million. In return, the company says it will generate enough electricity to power 16,000 homes a year. What’s more, the council faces penalties if the level of waste Onyx have contracted to ‘deal with’ drops below 200,000 tonnes annually.
The incinerator is proposed for the small port town of Newhaven,
which has an ageing population and a history of neglect, as resources are directed to the more glamorous coastal locations of Brighton and Lewes. A study by Greenpeace found that incinerators are generally sited in deprived areas, as politically they are considered the point of least resistance.
At 170 metres long and 31 metres tall, the incinerator has two 69 metre high chimneys that will dominate the skyline and be visible for miles around. Only what they spew out will be invisible. The plant will use 50 million litres of mains water annually and an estimated 250 bin lorries a day will drive through Newhaven, to deliver waste to the incinerator.
Opposition to the plan has been fierce. The residents of East Sussex simply don’t want to live under a toxic cloud and have fought tooth and nail for over three years to stop it.
What’s remarkable is that this isn’t an isolated case. Up and down the country there are campaigns against incinerators, and they all have one thing in common – they are losing.
A Government inquiry has just given the go-ahead for an incinerator in east London despite acknowledging 250,000 objections to the development. East Sussex and Brighton Councils have pressed ahead with their plans despite receiving 150,000 objections. In Surrey, more than 80,000 objections to two proposed incinerators have been received. And so the list goes depressingly on.
Three simple words; business as usual. Our household waste is largely comprised of packaging, processed foods that have edged the other side of their sell by date, fast food pizza boxes, plastic water bottles, tetra-paks... all products of a market built on convenience and disposable lifestyles. A market driven by everincreasing consumption that has become the critical driver of GDP, the clumsy measure by which our success as a nation is measured. So as far as the government is concerned whatever waste option is pursued, it must not adversely effect GDP, it must not effect growth.
With disposal costs rising due to finite space, tougher emissions controls, and increasingly tougher (and therefore more expensive) European legislation, the end of landfill momentarily threatened to put the brakes on consumerism. Until the government performed a volte face and decided that it was acceptable to burn it.
As far as the electorate is concerned burning our waste appears to change nothing – we put our waste in the bin, and a truck takes it away once a week. As far as retailers / the market / packaging
companies / marketing departments are concerned nothing changes; as far as local councils are concerned nothing changes; and as far as waste management companies are concerned, incineration means long-term guaranteed business and growth in profits.
And yet there is one niggling problem – incinerators are associated with toxic emissions resulting in disfigurement and death and attract fierce opposition wherever they are proposed. To undermine such committed opposition, the government is out to rebrand incineration. From now on incinerators are to be known as ‘Energy from Waste’ (EFW) facilities, using the heat they generate to drive electricity turbines. Who could possibly be against them? Waste is no longer seen as undesirable but as necessary – keep consuming if you want to stay warm this winter. And yet incinerators are extremely inefficient generators of electricity, producing more
CO2 per unit of energy than an old fashioned coal-fired power station. And at European level discussions are underway to have EFW incineration classified as recycling: the argument being, you take one thing (waste) and create another (electricity). The upshot of both these moves is that waste becomes an absolute requirement of the incinerator. In effect, the servant has become the master.
As incineration is being given such a positive spin, across Britain
local authorities are queuing up to get permission to build them. Twenty-five are currently in the planning pipeline. It is forecast that by 2026, up to 25 per cent of all our household waste will be burnt,
a 400 per cent increase requiring in the region of 200 incinerators to be built. The government has handed out millions of pounds in Private Finance Initiative cash to help pay for them.
And yet waste is OUR problem. If we insist on using a single bin for all our rubbish, then local authorities waste disposal companies and the Government have no option but to take it away and burn it. So we can campaign against incineration for all we are worth but until we bin our bins, more and more incinerators will be built. What’s more, until we confront our ‘waste’, the market will continue to grow, and with it the continued destruction of the planet.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist July 2005