I’d like to, if I may, share some thoughts about the exhibition at Marshland. Having left my name and contact number, I was given undivided attention by the exhibition staff, made possible really because there was only two other people there, but appreciated nevertheless. Asked if I would like to browse or have a guided tour, I kicked off with some questions that have been brewing in my head ever since this project was proposed.
Why here? What is it about a small Georgian market town which screamed multi megawatt incinerator?
‘We currently export 4m tonnes of waste to Europe because we don’t have enough facilities like this.’
But we have 44 incinerators and are said to have over capacity.
‘No, not enough. We have to rebalance. Too much is going to landfill, giving off methane, a more powerful greenhouse gas than Co2.’
Yes but there are facilities which capture this gas and use it as a source of energy. Biogas is a a feedstock which has many uses. Either way, methane is from landfill, Co2 is from burnt plastic which is derived from oil.
Doesn’t it go against the legal requirement to reduce emissions to zero by 2050? (I know these incinerators are exempted from the UK Emission Trading Scheme, but this is being challenged in court. We have ratified the Paris Agreement and we know climate change is going on and is a great concern to most people.)
‘Yes, but we don’t include plastic in the feedstock, just household waste’.
I was taken aback by this. But you include them to increase the calorific value of material being incinerated?
‘We don’t want them in’.
But how do you achieve the burning efficiency you need if plastics don’t go in?
‘Hopefully, they will be taken away at kerbside collections.’ (Our blue bin day.)
So how certain is that do you think?
‘It depends on the local council’.
Anyone who gets upset about politics please turn away now. Locally, councils are nominally against this project, as is Mr Barclay (MP), but so far haven’t put up much of a fight. As Brexiteers and strong supporters of Mr Johnson, they are unlikely to challenge government thinking on this.
Is this a factor in siting your installation here?
‘No, it wasn’t’
So you’ll take the plastic out, and lower the thermal efficiency.
How will you make up for that?
‘We can take it down to seven’.
Just by burning household waste?
‘We will follow the Environmental Protection Agency recommendations’.
Here I’m making the mental note that the plastic is taken out, lowering the thermal efficiency of what are in fact steam engines, which are relied upon to burn some pretty obnoxious materials, so surely they need to reach a decent operating temperature to do so? Yet by claiming to remove plastic from this part of the equation, they relieve themselves of the burden of justifying the release of Co2 and dioxins which both accompany the burning of plastics.
It does mention commercial rubbish as well.
‘Only recommended EPA waste’.
Will that be written into law?
‘It’s up to the operators. The premises will have inspectors who will turn away hazardous materials’.
Who will police that then?
‘Inspection operators at the weighbridge. They will keep arrivals in a quarantine bay and any unwanted stuff, they will take it away again as part of the contract’.
Who are these people employed by?
‘Employees of the contractor’
So not government officials or inspectors overseen by the Environment Agency? What will the commercial waste consist of?
‘Like domestic waste. They will reload it and take it away again’.
So a lorry will come in and discharge its waste in the bay ready for inspection which they will have to reload and take it away if it fails? So with 150 lorries daily how much time is allowed?
And plastics are sorted out by the local council. But shouldn’t we be recycling more anyway?
Don’t these installations reduce the incentive to recycle?
‘No, in Germany the recycling rate is higher than here and we have similar plants’.
Again I have to step back a little. Recycling rates here have increased markedly because we have become more aware of its associated problems, and I know that has had a knock on effect for operators because they must burn constantly. Some local authorities have had to adjust repayments to the operators because they are tied into a financing agreement in the intial capital costs and their maintenance and operation.
Do you agree we should be moving away from pulling oil out of the ground, and manufacturing more and more for a society based on over consumption to one based on a circular economy, reducing the need for so much plastic and other waste, including food?
‘Yes’ they agreed.
Isn’t part of that to repurpose and reduce rather than extract oil and burn its products? Some resource use and pollution is inevitiable. We’ll leave a carbon footprint somehow, but we need an incentive don’t we, to reduce and separate?
‘But people don’t care if rubbish goes in to landfill’.
Surely we have to help them care? There’s very little time left to get things in order. We don’t want stuff in landfill, but burning is not the way to go about it. We should be looking towards conserving resources.
Politics again, but if an incumbent government are prepared to lower standards in food, animal welfare and the environment, doesn’t this project have the same ring about it?
‘No, The facility will provide renewable energy and combined heat and power for local industry’.
I agreed this increases efficiency, but if plastics are removed this is lowered anyway. It’s a big plant at 50 MWatt burning 1/2 million tonnes per year. Close to town.
Are there similar ones close to towns around?
‘One in Bedfordshire, although quite a distance from town. At Mannheim in Germany we have an installation with a capacity of 700,000 tonnes about three miles away’.
Three miles. This one is closer to Wisbech. Are those close to schools and housing? Would it enhance the area? I’ve heard people say people passing by would say it looks like an industrial estate, and tourists would turn away?
‘No. People will come and visit’.
People will visit the incinerator?
‘Yes a guided tour’.
But have you weighed up the visual amenity? A small market town and Georgian houses against an industrial facility with a chimney 93m metres tall. Taller than Ely Cathedral?
‘That is to disperse the gases.’
To expel the emissions over a wide area?
‘Yes it is dispersal’
Could you tell me how much that is likely to drift over to the nature reserve in the Wash?
‘It depends on the atmospheric conditions’.
So really you don’t know? That is a very important of special scientific interest and essential to the conservation of many species of birds. Even if you just emit a tiny percentage of the kind of toxic materials, just a tiny bit, you’re burning 1/2 a million tonnes of rubbish per year. Some of that is going to get out. and with the most efficient system of scrubbers, how much of that will find its way over to the wildlife area and accumulate in the mud?
‘At this moment we don’t know. We haven’t modelled it in such detail yet, because this is in its early stage.’
But all this is the wrong thing at the wrong time. We can’t carry on like this with all the difficulties of climate change.
‘We’re looking at ways to capture carbon.’
You’re looking at ways, but it’s not here yet is it?
Yes but on a small scale, and they are themselves a big installation to try and catch it. You don’t say on your exhibition board complete with the additional accessory of carbon capture.
At the moment it is early days I know but this thing is big, it’s going to bypass local authority laws and go straight to people in government who will rubber stamp it. We’ll probably have a railway line trundling rubbish in 24/7, maybe from abroad?
‘We’ll take in residual waste normally going to landfill’.
But we should reduce it and sort it, especially food waste.
‘You can’t make people sort out this refuse’
That’s the flaw isn’t it? The government are not interested in persuasion, education and planning for the future, and probably not much for care of the environment. I think of the destruction caused by HS2.
Toxic heavy metals in the residual ash, where does that go? We know that with investment diverted to huge expensive plants less will be given over to waste reduction and waste recovery methods. Products are now being redesigned to make recovery and recyling of plastics much easier. With oil prices dropping in 2016 to 70% below 2014 levels, the cost of virgin plastic has gone down. It costs more to recycle old plastic. So it will be burnt. At the moment we only collect one or two types as well, so that needs to change. But will it?
Time was running out, and the hall was closing. To finish off I added that toxins rather than simply being dispersed throughout the surrounding enviroment, depending on the prevailing wind conditions, actually bio-concentrate in all living things, and that is exactly what this thing will do. It is not without emissions.
The road system will be enlarged to accomodate these lorry movements, it may blight the area for years while the gears of legal discussions and the needs of construction engage. We believe incineration harms the environment, exacerbates climate change, creates a barrier to the circular economy, harms air quality, ties us into a costly burning programme, diverting resources away from cheaper, more flexible alternatives which are quicker to implement, and are better for the environment.
We are at a turning point.
The future is net zero.