Waste incinerator emissions do not reduce the quality of nearby crops and milk production, a decade-long study publicised by the European Commission this week has concluded.
The research was undertaken in the Netherlands and published by scientific journal Chemosphere in March.
It found that the level of contaminants were similar whether the products came from an area close to an energy from waste plant or from elsewhere in the country.
Researchers grew spinach and kale close to three EFW facilities in the Netherlands as examples of ‘accumulator crops’ – which grow well in spite of pollution but gather contaminants in their leaves meaning contaminant levels can be measured effectively.
Between 2004 and 2013, they continued to monitor levels of cadmium, mercury and PAHs in the vegetables planted at different distances from the three facilities, in a radius of 1.5km to 4km.
They also tested for fluoride in pasture grass, dioxins and PCBs in milk from two nearby dairy farms – which met the criteria as the cattle had mainly grazed in the area with the greatest deposit of contaminants.
The findings show that cadmium and mercury levels were no higher than regional background levels in crops grown further than 12km away from incinerators, while PAH levels varied slightly by season and the amount of available sunlight to degrade the compounds.
Levels of dioxins and PCBs meanwhile were comparable to average levels for the Netherlands – and well below maximum contamination levels for dairy products.
The Commission hopes that the Dutch research could help improve communication between waste companies and local communities in the Netherlands.
The potential benefits of biomonitoring could also be used in other EU member states to develop trust between EFW operators and farmers, the study suggests.
Biomonitoring with leafy vegetables can be used to monitor the real impact of these emissions on agricultural crops and to communicate with all stakeholders
Emissions from waste incineration plants have been regulated by the EU since around 1990, with strict limits and monitoring obligations laid out in the Industrial Emissions Directive.
Around a quarter of all household waste in the EU is currently incinerated, though the reliance on energy from waste fluctuates between nations.
Denmark and Sweden for instance burn 52% of their household waste – while Bulgaria, Greece, Latvia and Romania do not send any waste to incineration.
In an abstract for the study, author Chris van Dijik, writes: “Since the mid-nineties new waste incineration plants have come into operation in the Netherlands. Burning of waste can result in the emission of potentially toxic compounds. Although the incineration plants must comply with strict conditions concerning emission control, public concern on the possible impact on human health and the environment still exists.
“Multiple year (2004-2013) biomonitoring programs were set up around three waste incinerators for early detection of possible effects of stack emissions on the quality of crops and agricultural products. The results showed that the emissions did not affect the quality of crops and cow milk.”
He adds: “Biomonitoring with leafy vegetables can be used to monitor the real impact of these emissions on agricultural crops and to communicate with all stakeholders.”