Irish Times - 20-04-05
The economic potential of waste as a valuable resource should be recognised, writes Ciarán Cuffe
Waste does not need to be a burning issue. If the Government put as much effort into reducing, reusing and recycling waste as it does into promoting incineration, we would be well on our way to creating a zero-waste economy.
Prof John Simmie and Dr Judith Würmel wrote in last Tuesday's paper that the better off we are, the more waste we produce. It need not be so.
They said that incineration immediately reduces waste volumes, that some of the energy created by incineration can be captured and that air discharges from incinerators can be controlled to meet environmental legislative limits.
It was also argued that incinerators are not the only source of potentially carcinogenic dioxins; that emissions from incinerators can be minimised by modern technology; and that constant independent monitoring of such emissions could be very effective.
While incinerators do significantly reduce waste volumes, the new forms of waste produced by incineration are more difficult to deal with than the original materials burned.
Chemicals and plastics in goods and packaging are transformed into new, more toxic forms of waste - air emissions, fly ash, bottom ash and, in some cases, a liquid effluent from the flue-gas cleaning process.
Incineration ash is typically contaminated with heavy metals, unburned chemicals and entirely new chemicals formed during the burning process.
A study by a team of engineers at Rutgers University in the United States, published in 1988, showed that toxic metals in municipal incinerator ash were more dangerous and abundant than previously realised.
Extrapolating from the study's findings, its authors estimate that if a 2,000 tonne a day incinerator produces 500 tonnes of ash a day, and if 10 per cent is fly ash and 90 per cent is bottom ash, the total daily ash contains 1330kg of lead. That's almost a tonne and a half of lead a day!
The study also showed that one day's ash would contain 22kg of chromium, 28kg of cadmium and 44kg of arsenic. These are all metals that are toxic in microgram quantities.
A growing body of research indicates that there are elevated levels of cancers in the vicinity of incineration plants, along with birth and developmental defects.
A 1996 study of 14 million people living near 72 incinerators in Britain found that people who live within 7.5km of a municipal solid-waste incinerator have an increased likelihood of developing several different types of cancer (British Journal of Cancer, vol 73, 1996).
While the authors admitted that the study could not demonstrate cause and effect, the relationship between living near to an incinerator and cancer was strong.
The Irish Health Research Bureau recently stated: "There is some evidence that incinerator emissions may be associated with respiratory morbidity. Acute and chronic respiratory symptoms are associated with incinerator emissions."
While changing and improved technology does mean that it is possible to better control the emissions from incinerators, incinerators still continue to incur massive costs to clean up the pollution they cause.
Indaver, the company behind the municipal waste incinerator planned for Carranstown, Co Meath, and the national hazardous waste incinerator at Ringaskiddy, Co Cork, was forced to close down its static kiln facility in Antwerp twice between 2002 and 2003.
On August 14th, 2002, Indaver shut the static kiln after a once-yearly measurement for dioxins showed emission levels 280 times higher than the standard limit.
The facility was closed down again in January 2003 after it discovered that dioxin levels were still between five and nine times in excess of permitted emissions limits.
Incinerators are "waste-of-energy" facilities. They produce very little energy, and their production certainly doesn't justify the huge costs of building, operating, maintaining and dismantling them.
There is a growing realisation in Western societies that overconsumption is giving rise to both global warming and a serious waste disposal crisis.
Each European already produces on average 500kg of household waste in one year. Eighty per cent of what we make is thrown away within six months of production; then the processes begin all over again.
The world cannot afford to continue making the same products over and over again, using up the world's natural resources and generating yet more harmful CO2 in the burning of fossil fuels.
While the debate on waste management here has been reduced to the two options of "burn it or bury it", the reality is that little meaningful effort has been made by the Government to shift waste policy towards the EU's preferred strategies of waste prevention, minimisation, reuse and recycling, set out in the EU Waste Hierarchy.
In many parts of the world, such as New Zealand and Australia, resource recovery parks are providing today's most progressive waste management systems.
They differ from recycling or civic amenity centres as all materials for recovery and recycling are brought to them and can be made into new value-added products on the same site, thus cutting down on the costs of transportation and on traffic volume.
In resource recovery parks, large waste industries and small businesses are located side by side. One business feeds another by matching wastes from one company to the resource needs of another. They use waste as a raw material to be recycled and reused, creating employment and improving the environment.
Unlike many other European countries, Ireland has not yet used municipal incineration as a method of waste disposal. The Green Party believes that, rather than embracing this polluting and ultimately wasteful technology, Ireland should recognise the economic potential of its waste as a valuable resource.
We should turn our backs on outdated concepts of "waste disposal", and lead the way in pioneering new and successful models of "resource management" and creating wealth from our waste.
Ciarán Cuffe is a TD for Dún
Laoghaire and the Green Party's environment spokesman
Harbour Alliance for a Safe Environment