The incincerator at Javelin Paro
The incincerator at Javelin Paro

It’s undergoing tests now, and scheduled to be fully operational sometime this year. So far its progress has been unstoppable, which in itself is some achievement – if a very dubious one – considering all the objections that have been levelled at it. For a start, Gloucestershire’s largest man-made landmark is a true blot on the landscape, visible from several miles away. In an area of outstanding beauty, an outstanding ugliness. But there are more concerning issues at stake than eyesores ruining our Cotswold countryside. For more than a decade protests against the scheme have been swatted aside, with spokespeople from Gloucestershire County Council endlessly repeating statements praising the project but evading any really pertinent questions. People are still waiting for meaningful answers to the health and environmental concerns about the scheme. And the cost.

At the repeated request of the Information Commissioner, more details of the contract between Gloucestershire County Council and the developers have been grudgingly released – although apparently some parts remain redacted. What is emerging is a story of wastefulness and a suspect tendering process. More remains to be uncovered, but doubtless our valiant county councillors will fight a furious rearguard action to prevent us from seeing the full picture.

One thing that has emerged is that the project is costing us well in excess of £100,000,000 more than we were assured was its true construction cost. That’s a total of around £620 million. By coincidence, the population of Gloucestershire is about 620,000. A nice round thousand pounds for every man, woman and child in the county.

Tory councillors assure us that this still represents value for money – and that burning waste will provide energy and reduce the need for landfill. But the monetary implications aside, what is of even greater concern is the potential health and environmental fall-out from the incinerator.

While nationwide the use of landfill is reducing, this year incineration will process more waste than recycling. And with incinerators needing to be fuelled with a constant supply of rubbish, councils will always be tempted to ‘burn the lot’ rather than sort out and process what can be recycled. Stroud is now one of the best towns in the country for recycling – many will regard it as a great shame if all that progress simply goes up in smoke.

And while landfill is clearly undesirable, it actually causes less climate impact than incineration. Over its lifetime, a typical waste incinerator built in 2020 would release the equivalent of around 1.6 million tonnes of CO2 more than sending the same waste to landfill. Even when electricity generation is taken into account, each tonne of plastic burned at that incinerator would result in the release of around 1.43 tonnes of fossil CO2. The Tory government is planning a massive increase in incinerators over the next decade, which dovetails neatly with the knowledge that unless we halve our carbon emissions by the end of the 2020s, and every successive decade, catastrophic climate change is inevitable.

The health hazards posed by incineration are equally frightening. Public Health England and the Environment Agency produced reassuring statements about the effects of incinerator smoke, but their limited research was carried out way back in 2005. In the meanwhile, studies by Imperial College and King’s College London on incinerator fumes should have been published at least five years ago, but their release has been unaccountably delayed. Data collected both in the UK and oversees has pointed to clusters of leukaemia and several respiratory diseases occurring downwind of incinerators, but in spite of a mass of damning evidence the programme of building incinerators has continued apace.

Incinerator smoke contains billions of particulates – microscopic particles of toxic chemicals – that are too tiny to be removed by any form of filtration. Governments worldwide are waking up to the health dangers of particulates from diesel engine exhaust; it’s reasonable to assume that in future similar attention will be given to incinerator fumes. Nonetheless, news has recently emerged that even as we approach B- Day, the UK has been lobbying hard to relax EU laws on nitrogen oxide emissions from incinerators.

Our government’s failure to acknowledge all the evidence of harm caused by incinerator fumes, alongside the delay in publishing fuller research into the subject, may be coincidental to the rush to build more incinerators… but if and when the incineration process is found to be as damaging as all the pointers suggest, and incinerators have to be shut down, won’t they prove to be the most scandalous waste of money in local government history?

No one wants more landfill, and exporting our waste for other countries to deal with is both unsustainable and just plain wrong. The way forward should be more thorough recycling. Most of what is already being incinerated elsewhere in the country could actually be composted or re-used in various ways. Landfill is a last resort; incineration should be a non-starter.

David Drew has stated he is “totally opposed to incineration” and that a halt should be called to all incinerator development until the health hazards are fully researched, and cheaper, greener alternatives can be introduced.

Paul Halas

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