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Irish Times - 11-06-07
Head2Head: Do we need incinerators to solve Ireland's waste problem?

NO: Mary O'Leary says mass incineration is unsafe and wasteful and that there are viable alternatives

YES: Donal Buckley says properly-run incinerators are necessary and are a safe and efficient method of managing waste.

Readers' Reactions

Mary O'Leary responds to Donal Buckley

NO: Mary O'Leary says mass incineration is unsafe and wasteful and that there are viable alternatives

Cork Harbour Alliance for a Safe Environment (Chase) promotes a wise waste policy for Ireland. Research into international waste practices led us to the view that mass-burn incineration was an avoidable and expensive mistake. For the past six years, we have been pointing out why that is so and how Ireland's policy makers must do much better.

Incineration, we were told, was what we were all missing from our lives. This was the message from the two key proponents of mass-burn incineration - the Government and the incineration lobby group. So hypnotised were successive Ministers by companies who stood to make huge profits from burning waste, that they appointed Laura Burke, then Indaver's project manager for the proposed Meath and Cork incinerators, as a director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

However, all has changed and we now know that the mass incineration debate is over. Government waste plans are a mess and we have to ask "why?" Why is incineration the wrong solution, why not burn our waste and what will we do with it instead?

The most recent waste report, Waste Policy Planning and Regulation in Ireland, states that we need to make room for other technologies that are better, cheaper and more in keeping with the volume of waste that is produced in Ireland.

The author, UK expert Dr Dominic Hogg, warns that there is an over-emphasis on incinerators. He warns that the economics of scale mean that large volumes of waste would have to be created before incineration became economically viable. He warns that this would jeopardise the success of recycling in Ireland's battle to meet EU targets. The report recommends smaller facilities which provide mechanical and biological treatments and states that these should be examined as alternatives to incineration and landfill.

The Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government came to similar conclusions in 2006. It recommends that "the Government undertake a close evaluation of Ireland's waste disposal needs. Particular attention should be paid to the waste management hierarchy, which promotes avoidance, reuse and recycling, over disposal."

The EU member states agree. These recommendations are a clear call for a shift in priority to prevention, reuse and recycling as the primary waste management tools and for a reassessment of the need for incineration in the context of these priorities. The innovation and technology is there for us to deal with our waste in an economic and environmentally sustainable manner.

The public at large will not accept mass incineration as a solution. There are many serious health risks from incineration. The World Health Organisation (WHO) and the British Society of Ecological Medicine say so. They state that the use of incineration cannot be justified now that it is clear how toxic and carcinogenic the fine particles produced are.

In the last number of months, the issue of global warming has changed the focus on how we look at our environment. Scientific consensus is that global warming is a reality, that it is caused by humans, and that we must act now in order to reverse the trend.

The Stern report and the United Nations stance on global warming give governments a very severe warning of the dangers of doing nothing. Dr John Sweeney of NUI Maynooth also warned the Government of the same danger and of the threat of severe flooding in Ireland. The EPA also agree.

This year, the Government is to spend €270 million of taxpayers' money to buy their way out of our present situation. Ireland is almost 100 per cent over its Kyoto limit.

We cannot keep pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. Worse still, we shouldn't think of pumping millions of extra tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, which would be the consequence of the Government introducing mass incineration as a way of dealing with our waste.

With the overwhelming scientific agreement on global warming, there can be no justification for increasing our CO2 emissions. Ireland is the worst country in Europe at present at controlling its emissions.

Ireland needs to meet its commitments to prevent dangerous climate change and to stop wasting our money in the form of CO2 taxes with the Government's ill-conceived policies. The benefit of a no-burn policy is that it will conserve global resources, reduce the volume of waste, improve air and water quality and reduce our CO2 footprint. These benefits cannot be ignored.

Ireland is at a crossroads in waste management. If we seize this opportunity, we can enter an era of environmental and health leadership, where Ireland's waste policy does not damage the Irish environment or the health of its communities, and where resources are conserved for future generations, instead of being burnt for the profits of a foreign multinational company.

If the Government is serious about its responsibility to fulfil its Kyoto commitment, mass incineration has no part to play in Ireland's waste management strategy.

Mary O'Leary is chairwoman of the Cork Harbour Alliance for a Safe Environment

YES: Donal Buckley says properly-run incinerators are necessary and are a safe and efficient method of managing waste.

Paris, Vienna, Amsterdam and Lisbon all have incinerators. Capacity is growing across the EU, with rates varying from 9 per cent in the UK to 53 per cent in Denmark.

Only Greece and Ireland are without any municipal incinerators. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has unequivocally stated that modern, well-run incinerators do not impact on the environment nor on human health and can be located in densely populated areas.

If we could recycle everything, then of course we would need neither incinerators nor landfill. Unfortunately, the world is not like that. There is a limit to what we can recycle as some wastes are hazardous, some difficult to use again or no end market exists for the recycled products. Recycling beyond this level becomes either prohibitively expensive or environmentally unsustainable, as the environmental impact of the recycling process exceeds any gains made. Traditional landfill also has a limit: our heavy reliance is no longer possible, as failure to reduce drastically the quantities land-filled will result in very onerous EU financial penalties.

Government policy follows the widely accepted integrated approach where waste generation is minimised, recycling maximised, energy recovered from waste that cannot be recycled and safe disposal for residual waste provided. While recent significant progress on recycling is welcome, much more is required as 65 per cent of waste is still land-filled, losing valuable materials and energy. We need an increased focus on prevention, minimisation, reuse and development of end markets for recycled products. Regional waste plans are, rightly, very ambitious; the 59 per cent recycling target for Dublin is amongst the highest anywhere.

Incineration does not compete with recycling. It is what should happen after all items of value are removed. In fact, German, Dutch and Scandinavian experiences demonstrate that countries with enviably high recycling rates successfully co-exist with incineration as both focus on different elements of the waste stream. Waste planning must ensure incinerators are correctly sized to accommodate only the non-recyclable percentage of the waste stream, preventing competition with recycling.

Once all sustainable recycling has occurred, the objective is to dramatically reduce the volume of the original waste to an inert stable residue. Incineration is the combustion of waste above 850°C under controlled conditions, releasing energy which can be recovered though heat or electricity generation, while reducing original volumes up to 90 per cent. Between 1 and 3 per cent of the original volume is recovered as fly ash, which is deemed hazardous and disposed under strict conditions.

Incinerators, in common with most combustion processes - vehicle engines, domestic fires and cigarettes - emit minute levels of dioxins as byproducts. The crucial difference, however, is that incineration is a controlled process. No process or activity can be risk-free, but advanced engineering, design and operation allow plants to operate safely with emissions well below any tangible levels of concern. Cumulative dioxin emissions from the 72 German plants account for less than 1 per cent of the national total.

Backyard burning of waste is Ireland's major source of dioxins, which form during uncontrolled combustion at low temperature. Over 265,000 Irish households have no waste collection service, not all of whom make alternative arrangements to responsibly manage their waste. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 60,000 tonnes of waste are burnt annually. Recent surveys show one in ten adults admit to backyard burning and 15 per cent believe it acceptable, even though most understand the environmental and health risks it poses. The quantity of dioxins from backyard and uncontrolled burning is over 40 times greater than that emitted were all the municipal incinerators proposed in the regional waste plans in operation.

The decision-making process for an incinerator is understandably open, rigorous and lengthy. The need for, and the size of, a facility must first be identified in the appropriate regional plan, followed by permission from the planning authorities and an EPA operating licence. Any incinerator must be designed, constructed and operated to the highest international standards and undergo continuous monitoring. Any plant, be it public or private, failing to meet stringent operating conditions, should be shut down.

In Ireland, reliance on cheap and unsophisticated landfill (often poorly sited, operated and regulated) deterred investment and contributed to the vehement opposition to any new waste infrastructure. However, facilities developed in recent years with the advantages of technology and rigorous enforcement, have proved waste infrastructure can successfully co-exist.

We all want a clean, safe and sustainable environment. This current transition from low-grade solutions of the past to a range of new sophisticated options has clear environmental, economic and social benefits. Correctly sized, sited and operated incineration plants are a necessary and safe part of an integrated and sustainable approach to waste management.

Donal Buckley is assistant director of the Irish Business and Employers' Confederation (Ibec)

Reader's Reactions

Do we need incinerators to solve Ireland's waste problem?

45% YES
55% NO


There is no question that incinerators no matter how they are run are extremely dangerous for human health and will have a negative impact on the environment around, as well as for C02 gases. The answer to the problem of waste is prevention and that includes the polluter pays principle, i.e. first helping businesses to change their ways so that they remove toxic and non-toxic waste materials from their products, and fining them if they do not. This is exactly what the governments have been afraid to do due to the influence of big business and groups like IBEC who are certainly not impartial in this debate.
by Tadhg Ireland


Incineration is dangerous; build an incinerator and you build a monster that needs to be fed. Part of the initial agreement is an agreement on the volume of waste to be produced, therefore you need to reach waste targets inorder to fulfil indentures to the agreement, effectively they create an incentive to waste. Incinerators also create dioxins, even if they have filters on them there is no 100% absence of risk that these will not be released in the environment. Dioxins are Group 1 carcinogens International agency for research on cancer WHO. The answer; recycle more produce less waste.
by Mary Davey Ireland


No. Other alternatives need to be explored.
by Conor Ireland


'Mary O'Leary says mass incineration is unsafe and wasteful and that there are viable alternatives' so went the blurb on this article. Ms. O'Leary then bleated on about reports that say we need to make room for other technologies, managment of waste, reducing reusing and recycling. Then there is the use of all the cliches now associated with this area i.e. carbon footprints, CO2 emissions etc. etc. I was waiting with anticipation to read of the viable alternatives and what they would do for our waste difficulties. Surprisingly or maybe not these alternatives were not outlined with any degree of clarity. A report recommended mechanical and biological treatments on a smaller scale! Is that it? It is not good enough to say NO all the time and not offer a worked out alternative.
by Eamon Ireland


The countries we admire for their recycling and clean environments such as Sweden and Denmark also have incinerators.They don t stick their heads in the sand and claim everything can be recycled. What happens to all our waste from our hospitals- it is exported or dumped in some field illegally. To me a sign of a civilised country is one who can deal responsibly with all its waste. At the moment Ireland has a long way to go.
by Irene Ireland


Incineration will not solve all of our waste problems but it is a necessary component of the overall solution.
by Richard Coffey Ireland


The attitude of most people in this country to waste scares me, as they complain bitterly about the price of waste collection, yet these are the very same people that don't want incinerators. The days of landfill are coming to an end in this country, so while we should all strive to recycle as much as is humanly possible, there is always going to be waste that cannot be recycled, so what cleaner, more efficient way is there than incineration?
by Fatboy Slim Ireland


Yes, incinerators are required and are a necessary component of an integrated solution for Ireland's waste management issues. Britain, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Denmark, Finland, Austria, Switzerland,Sweden, Norway, Italy, Spain, Portugal all have municipal waste incineration as part of their waste management strategies. One of the most respected international bodies in the world, the World Health Organisation, has recognised that modern incinerators, operating to the most exacting standards with state-of-the-art technology, pose no threat to human health.
by Richard Coffey Ireland


In response to Mary O'Leary, it is true that we cannot keep pumping extra tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. This is why Ireland needs to move away from landfill. Biodegradable waste when disposed of in landfill generates methane, which is a greenhouse gas 21 times stronger than CO2. In an incinerator, this waste generates CO2. According to the European Union and the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), CO2 emissions from biodegradable waste do not contribute to the greenhouse effect. This is because biodegradable waste is renewable. As such, overall greenhouse gas emissions from landfill are 3 times higher than emissions from incinerators. Incinerators are also extremely efficient at generating energy from waste. As most of this energy is renewable, it can make a positive contribution to greenhouse gas reduction by replacing energy from fossil fuels like coal and gas. Studies by the European Union, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in the UK, and the IPCC all confirm that incineration with energy recovery can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions when it replaces landfill. Ireland currently landfills 65% of its municipal waste (over 1.8 million tonnes in 2005). Unfortunately, the quantity of waste going to landfill has been increasing since 2004. Therefore, introducing incineration with energy recovery to replace landfill would make a positive contribution to meeting Ireland¿s Kyoto targets. Research conducted by the Dutch Waste Management Association found that replacing landfill with incineration would save between 622,000 to 821,000 tonnes CO2 per year in Ireland. This shift away from landfill is also urgently needed if Ireland is to meet its EU Landfill Directive targets. To meet its first targets in 2010, Ireland must divert 1.4 million tonnes biodegradable waste from landfill. By comparison, only 630,000 tonnes were diverted from landfill in 2004. There is no doubt that, given that the amount of waste going to landfill is actually increasing, all avenues will need to be explored to avoid missing targets and being fined by the EU. With the two proposed municipal waste incinerators in Dublin and Meath, about 70% of the first 2010 target could be met. However, Ireland will need to take drastic measures to meet the longer-term 2013 and 2016 targets. Significant progress will need to be made in all areas including waste reduction, recycling, and other technologies such as mechanical and biological treatment (MBT). However, given that, for example, 40% to 70% of MBT output is typically sent for incineration, it will be necessary to develop these and other options as part of a wider integrated strategy. We cannot ignore the growing volume of residual waste that is sent to landfill and the problems that this entails. At present, the best available solution to manage this waste, in a climate friendly manner, whilst enabling Ireland to meet its EU targets, is incineration with energy recovery.
by Jackie Keaney, CEWEP Ireland


Donal Buckley goes to great lengths to convince us that 'incineration plants are a necessary and safe part of an integrated and sustainable approach to waste management' in Ireland.
Incineration is the burning of waste and may be carried out with or without energy recovery. With energy recovery, it forms the third of the three recovery processes in the waste hierarchy. Without energy recovery it is a form of disposal, like landfill.
However, despite improvements in the operation of incinerators, there is strong public concern about health effects. And from a resource point of view, incineration may not be the best way to deal with our rubbish. Even if energy is obtained through the process, incinerating our rubbish may be a waste of valuable resources.
Advances in Waste Management technologies over the last 10 years make sustainable waste management without incinerators a reality. While the state-of-the-art integrated materials recycling facilities (MRF) being built in Australia, New Zealand and the UK require significant capital investment they efficiently sort large quantities of waste and convert up to 95% of the total waste stream into reusable product. The UR-3R MRF in Eastern Creek (Sydney) generates enough electricity from methane and heat recovery to power the entire facility.
Why should we accept Waste Incineration in Ireland just because some of our European neighbours have being using incinerators for decades?
Surely we should move away from the costly practice of investing in short-term solutions and start prioritizing investment in the development long-term sustainable solutions which will be good not only for the economy but also good for the environment and society at large. Maybe some day we may even follow the example of countries such as New Zealand and develop a plan for zero waste to landfill by 2015.
by Mike Kavanagh Ireland


Madam, - If Donal Buckley (Head 2 Head, June 11th) had taken the time to attend the recent oral hearing into plans for the proposed Poolbeg incinerator, he might well have been considerably less dogmatic about the benefits of this technology and the proposed location.

He would have learned that incinerators are being closed down all over the US, and that there is only one new incinerator being built in Europe, because the economics of their operation are so unfavourable. He might have been surprised that the "waste to energy" plant, should it be allowed, would most probably increase the cost of waste collection by a factor of three on present figures, which even Ibec might find distressing.

He would have found that the situation regarding harmful discharges is still open to question, partly because it is not possible to measure very low levels of dioxins and because the effects of micro-particulate matter are still under investigation. He would have heard that some German incinerators are having to import waste because recycling has succeeded so well that the waste available no longer has enough calorific value to support the furnaces.

He would have also learned that the proposed 600,000 tonne throughput at Poolbeg would generate 120,000 tonnes of waste, classified as "bottom ash", which would have to be landfilled or shipped abroad for disposal, again incurring shipping costs and a subsidy to the receivers. And his surprise might have increased further when he found it was proposed to erect this "facility" in an aluminium-clad building with a footprint bigger than that of Croke Park, higher than Liberty Hall and with two steel chimneys higher than the Spire - yet Dublin City Council feels it would not damage the amenity value of Dublin Bay!

Truly, it is time the citizens woke up. Both the European and national waste strategies put "reduction" as the key technology for dealing with the waste problem. This, of course, might have some impact on business, which may explain Ibec's stance. - Yours, etc,

MAURICE BRYAN, Conservation Adviser, Butterfield Park, Dublin 14.


Madam, - Mary O'Leary of Chase (Head 2 Head, June 11th) refers to the appointment of Laura Burke to the board of directors of the Environmental Protection Agency.

I wish to point out that Laura Burke competed in an open competition for the position of EPA director and was interviewed by a committee established under the EPA Act 1992 and 2003. That committee comprises the Secretary to the Government, the Secretary of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, the chairperson of the council of An Taisce, the managing director of the Industrial Development Authority, the general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the chief executive of the Council for the Status of Women.

To suggest, as the article did, that this committee selected Laura Burke because of her previous employment in the waste incineration industry does a grave disservice to the committee, to Laura Burke and to the EPA. For the record, Laura Burke is a valued member of the EPA board who continues to contribute positively to the agency's work. To avoid any real or perceived conflict of interest, she took no part whatever in the decisions on the licensing of Indaver's waste incinerators. - Yours, etc,

NIAMH LEAHY, EPA Media Relations Officer, Johnstown Castle Estate, Co Wexford.


Response by Mary O'Leary to above letter from EPA
Niamh Leahy, EPA Media Relations Officer, protested on the Irish Times June the 11th that my suggestion of impropriety by the appointment of the Project Manager of Indaver by the then Minister of the Environment did a “grave disservice to the committee, to Laura Burke and to the EPA”. I protest that the grave disservice was done to the public who entered into both the Bord Pleanala and EPA Oral hearing in good faith.

It must be pointed out that Ms. Burke was appointed during the time Indaver Ireland had their application in with the EPA for a waste license, and shortly after the oral hearing, at which she was the chief advocate for Indaver as Project Manager for the incinerator. This made the perception of the appointment to be inappropriate at the least and the perception of lending pressure to be used by the company Indaver to direct waste policy as legitimate.

The perception of the ethics and judgment of the EPA was compromised by the acceptance of this appointment as they should have anticipated as an independent body the inappropriateness of this act. Perception is reality.

The comment in no way reflects on Ms Burkes’ ability but as a Director of the EPA she directs policy. Nobody has suggested that Ms. Burke is not a valued member as a Director of the Board, but her appointment by Minister Cullen at that time devalued the perception of the EPA as an independent environment body.
by Mary O’ Leary, C.H.A.S.E

Response to Donal Buckley by Mary O'Leary

Mr Buckley makes the assumption that Government policy on waste management follows the integrated approach which supports minimisation diversion and prevention of waste, maximisation of recycling energy recovery and safe disposal of residual waste. If Mr Buckley attended any of the National Waste Management Summits in the last few years he would know that this is sadly not the truth.

As an example, over 60% of what goes to landfill is organic, which should not happen. Organic matter should be removed at source and treated through mechanical / biological treatment (MBT). Such plants are popular in Germany, where recyclable and biological materials are removed through MBT. These are viable alternatives to thermal processes for dealing with residual waste to comply with Landfill Directive targets and would help the Republic meet stringent EU targets on reducing the amount of biodegradable waste going to landfill.

However some of the frustration felt by the waste industry is that enabling regulation is required to give such technologies a place in the Irish waste management solution. Waste legislation at present is in favour of landfill and incineration, which are disposal methods, rather than focusing on the upper tiers of the waste management hierarchy which Mr Buckley mentions.

We need increased focus on waste prevention, minimisation, reuse, product redesign etc. It is not simply recycling versus incineration or landfill; it is about embracing technologies that will allow us deal with our waste in a way that is sustainable and responsible. This is what needs to be tackled by the Government.

Let’s get over the idea that building an incinerator will stop people burning in their back yards. Incineration is not free nor does it eliminate landfill; in fact it creates toxic waste which would have to be exported for safe disposal.

The supposed superiority of incineration as a treatment for residual waste is increasingly called into question. The environmental costs for incinerators are not necessarily lower than those for landfills. This is the finding in the UK by HM Customs & Excise, by DEFRA on the Health Effects of Waste Management Options, and also recent work in the Netherlands. The estimate is based upon damage costs associated with air emissions as estimated by the Clean Air for Europe Programme.

Ireland is in the enviable position in that coming to waste management later than our European colleagues, we have the advantage of having technologies that were not available to other European countries 20/30m years ago when incineration seemed like an answer to waste management. Like the smoking ban, we could again lead in modern waste managemen, embracing those technologies that will allow us deal with our waste in a responsible, intelligent and sustainable manner. Let's hope our new Minister will step up to the plate and provide the leadership that is needed to move this debate into the 21 century.


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