Air pollution problems from waste incineration activities across Europe may be “significant” and “serious”, a report produced for Zero Waste Europe claims.
The study finds that the release of pollutants to air, soil and water is “an unavoidable consequence of waste incineration”, despite the adoption of pollution abatement measures, and calls for more emphasis on treating waste further up the hierarchy.
The European NGO, which has the UK Without Incineration Network among its supporters, says that air pollutants which EfW practices can emit, such as dioxins, heavy metals and particulate matter “cause well-known respiratory diseases, cancer, immune system damage and reproductive and developmental problems”.
There is also an “environmental justice issue”, according to the report, as often those living close to incineration facilities are low income families and immigrants who face an “unavoidable allocation of health and environmental risks”.
The report – ‘Air Pollution from Waste Disposal: Not for Public Breath’ – was carried out by Spanish consultancy ENT on behalf of Zero Waste Europe and launched in Barcelona last month (November 27). (Available as a PDF here)
Five case studies are contained in the report, in France, Germany, Slovenia, Spain and the UK around alleged breaches of EU statutory air pollution limits at incineration facilities, including the former Dargavel EfW plant near Dumfries.
The Dargavel EfW plant was operated by now-defunct firm Scotgen until 2013 when the facility had its licence revoked, but it is now being redeveloped by Polish-owned firm RRS, which has secured a heat supply contract with Dumfries and Galloway council (see letsrecycle.com story).
The report says that there were hundreds of breaches of various EU emissions limits at the Dumfries EfW plant between 2009 until 2013, when its licence was revoked by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA).
According to authors of the report, the five case studies were chosen as they show instances where recommended World Health Organisation limits for air pollution have been exceeded, and because they have all faced some level of protest or opposition at least partly on air quality grounds.
The report argues that emission limits of hazardous air pollutants as designated by EU Air Quality Directives are “significantly higher” than the safety limits recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
This, the report states, creates a “significant amount of uncertainty and potential safety risks for both the environment and public health”.
Moreover, the reliance on the principle for ‘best available techniques’ (BAT) favours far higher emission limits than are deemed environmentally and epidemiologically safe by WHO, it argues.
The monitoring of air pollution in waste incineration activities is also handled by the same facilities, and are “therefore not subject to independent monitoring practices”.
Meanwhile, the report also states that once incinerators are operating, they can “potentially create a technological lock-in since further policy developments on waste prevention, separate collection, re-use and recycling will be discouraged”.
Elsewhere, the report argues that cement plants receive a “triple dividend” from waste incineration activities, as they are paid as waste managers by competent authorities as well as saving on fossil fuel costs and being able to trade emissions permits from fossil fuel savings.
In practice, the report argues “this implies that taxpayers are effectively supporting waste incineration and the associated allocation of health and environmental risks”.
Zero Waste Europe
Zero Waste Europe, which has Friends of the Earth Europe as a supporter, is strongly against waste incineration, stating in the report that the practice “exacerbates climate change and creates damaging and hazardous environmental pollution”. It instead urges options higher up the waste hierarchy such as waste prevention, reuse, recycling and Extended Producer Responsibility schemes.
Zero Waste Europe also issued a report in October which argued there is little difference between incineration and landfill in regards to carbon emissions (see letsrecycle.com story).
Mariel Vilella, associate director of Zero Waste Europe, said: “How many air pollution incidents do people need to put up with before policy-makers realise that burning waste is not the way forward? Recycling and composting create livelihoods, save money, and protect the environment and public health, while the incineration of waste just keep us away from a truly sustainable circular economy.”
It follows a recent Eunomia report for Zero Waste Europe, which said that the way in which incinerator greenhouse gas emissions are reported to the UN can be “highly misleading” when seeking to understand the extent to which better waste management can contribute to reducing climate change – a stance disputed by European EfW body CEWEP (see letsrecycle.com story).