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Review fuels incineration debate

Denmark: The possibility of incinerators being privatised is raising concerns in Denmark, writes Brendan Killeen in Copenhagen

The Amagerforbrænding Incineration plant on the island of Amager in Copenhagen provides heat to over one million residents in five of the city's municipalities.

This statistic illustrates that incineration has become a fact of life in Denmark. This has been the case since the early 1970's and there is little popular debate here about the pros and cons of the technology.

Pre-empting an EU law due in 2005, it has been illegal in Denmark since 1997 to landfill refuse that is suitable for incineration. It must either be burned or recycled and with the Danish government pushing a policy of  "More environment for our money", there are growing fears that belt-tightening and privatisation may see the country's reputation as a nation of recyclers going up in smoke.

Walking along Amager Strand just outside Copenhagen city centre, there are some very obvious signs of energy production. Most noticeable, a line of massive windmills stretch out from the main harbour, their massive, slow moving arms turning the icy wind into electricity. At the top of the strand, billowing clouds of white vapour rise from the stacks at the coal-burning Amager electricity station.

Further back towards the city centre the slender stacks of the Amagerforbrænding incineration plant are much less obvious. In contrast to the windmills and the electricity generation plant it keeps a low profile. There are no visual signs from the stacks that tonnes of waste are daily being turned into heating and power for well over a million people living ingreater Copenhagen.

Like many of the other 30 plants around Denmark, there are actually several incinerators at work at the Amager plant burning around 113,000 tonnes of refuse every year. The plant is owned and run by the municipalities of Dragør, Frederiksberg, Hvidovre, København and Tårnby, which make up greater Copenhagen. The five municipalities collect the waste from homes and businesses in their area and transport it to the plant from where it is dealt with collectively.

There are also several privately owned incineration plants in Denmark that are used to generate power or electricity but they are forbidden by law to make profits. They are used by Danish waste management companies to showcase their technologies to prospective customers, such as the Irish government.

Each municipality retains ownership of the waste it generates. This effectively means that local government can control the levels of incineration and, so the argument goes, they ensure that recycling is encouraged.

However, there is another side to incineration in Denmark. As well as  heat and electricity, last year incineration also produced over 61,200 tonnes of what is classified as hazardous waste. This is material that is collected by the various filtration systems that clean the emissions coming out of an incineration stack.

This material was stored in landfills in Denmark until 1997, when a complaint from Greenpeace resulted in the European Commission demanding that the waste be dealt with in a safer way. Since then this material has been exported, the majority of it to Norway, where it is stored on the island of Langøya - a disused quarry situated in Oslo fjord. According to a report by the Danish Environmental Ministry this process cost approximately €67 (DKKr500) per tonne or ?4,100, 400, last year.

Additionally, 543,254 tonnes of "slag" was also generated in Danish incinerators last year. Slag, the material left at the bottom of an incinerator is used in building projects, especially as foundation for roads in what Greenpeace describes as a "huge network of uncontrolled waste dumps criss-crossing the country". Recently, 100,000 tonnes of this material ear-marked for a marine construction project on the Amager Strand was deemed to be "inadequately controlled" and was also shipped to Langøya, according to Greenpeace.

While incinerator emissions in the form of gasses have been reduced greatly since the 1970's, the Danish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that incineration is still Denmark's largest source of airborne dioxins. Once they leave the incinerator these emissions cannot be controlled, and while they are not believed to be the major source of pollution in the Baltic, the EPA admits they are one reason why concern is rising regarding the safety of fish caught in the sea.

Incineration also has a less obvious impact as a disincentive to recycling, according to Jacob Hartman, Nordic Greenpeace's spokesperson on Incineration. "Let's face it, once incineration plants have been built and are supplying thousands of homes with heat, there will be very little political will to reduce their capacity. That means that recycling will suffer. It has happened here. The Danish government will tell you that we recycle over 60 per cent of our waste but much of it is heavy material from construction and demolition. As the figures are calculated by weight these materials make us look very effective. However, when you remove these materials from the picture and look at recycling in the home you see that Denmark only recycles about 15 per cent of its household waste," Mr Hartman says.

The Danish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not argue with this figure. Its Waste Statistics report for 2000 shows that only 14 per cent of household waste was recycled. This is unlikely to improve in the near future, according to Greenpeace, as the Danish government has commissioned a working group to reappraise the entire waste management system with a  view to making it more economical in a process that has been summed up as "More Environment for our Money".

"We are looking at waste management from a macro-economic standpoint," says Ms Katrine Bom Hansen, of the EPA. "We, of course agree that prevention of waste is the best solution. But we are not being religious about recycling. We are looking at recycling and asking if we can recycle more and whether it is the best option. We want to know what the cost and the impact of recycling is," she says.

In this macro analysis, recycling must also be looked at in terms of the impact it has on the environment and the quality of the products that it results in. Think of the pollution from the hundreds of trucks that criss-cross the country collecting sorted bottles, paper and cardboard. Consider the plastic bags made from recycled material that are not strong enough to carry groceries. Think of compost heaps as incineration without heat recovery, Ms Hansen says.

At the moment there are checks and balances in the Danish system to protect and foster some forms of recycling as a first resort ahead of incineration. "At the moment in Denmark, the government controls the waste and we control the capacity of the incinerators. We aim for an under-capacity so that people still have to consider other ways of dealing with waste," she says.

Nationally Denmark currently has an over-capacity in terms of incinerators compared to the waste earmarked for them. With several more incinerators being planned and at least one major plant nearing completion, Danish incinerators will continue to need more waste than is currently available.

This was not the plan but forecasting waste levels and incinerator capacity years in advance is a difficult business.

With the Danish government's working group considering privatisation of waste management, this over-capacity may be used as an opportunity to make incinerators more profitable, says Jacob Hartmann.

"Private companies will want to continually make incinerator plants more profitable - that means burning more waste. With the German border so close, there is a real possibility of Denmark becoming an importer of other countries waste," he said.

The Danish EPA and Greenpeace do agree that the introduction of privately-controlled incineration into a region, such as Ireland, that does not have a well-developed recycling tradition could have a serious impact on recycling.

"It is important that Ireland has legal controls on the waste management system to control incineration, or recycling will have little chance of increasing," Mr Hartman said.

However, the Danish anti-incineration lobby has enough on its plate at the moment in its own back garden.

© The Irish Times

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