The Incinerator: Smouldering Resentment

By - Wednesday 24th April, 2013

The HPA say there are no significant risks and the planning officer report approves it. Why are so many people passionately opposed to an incinerator on the Croydon/Sutton border?

You don’t have to be an eco-warrior to think that building an incinerator on Metropolitan Open Land (effectively Green Belt) is a probably a bad idea. I’ll come clean. I think it’s a shocker. So much so I thought I’d share some of the highlights from my 4 year adventure with this story. Even the highlights may take a while.

Number 10: Safety in numbers

Objections have been raised by a variety of strange bedfellows. Forgetting for a moment about the 33,000 doctors who opposed incinerators being reclassified as recovery in Europe, we had opposition from Conservatives, Labour, and Lib Dems (depending on where they lived), and Greens. One MEP and one Mayor of London, Boris Johnson (you might have heard of him) have also signed objections.

Number 9: Alternatives

Technologies such as Anaerobic Digestion to produce compost from food waste and Mechanical Biological Treatment would both reduce the volume of waste remaining and needing to be burned, and so reduce the scale and impact of any energy recovery plant. These alternative methods of dealing with waste would avoid the main health hazards of incineration, produce more energy, and be far cheaper in real terms, if the health costs were taken into account.

The recent demonstration in Matthews Yard just shows the potential of using waste to make bio-ethanol and therefore profit. Technology moves fast these days. A long contract will become a millstone around our necks.

On a macroeconomic level, incineration results in a barrier to investment in recycling and re-use, and in turn this barrier stifles innovations in recycling and reusing materials that are currently ‘cheaper’ to incinerate, thus hampering the opportunity for such materials to be more affordably recycled or re-used in the long term.

Number 8: Combined Heat and Power

It is worth noting the SELCHP – South East London Combined Heat and Power – has never secured a heat customer despite being in a built up area of London. Viridor has no plan for heating anything in Beddington, merely an undertaking to be “CHP ready” and to work with the council and GLA to develop a viable district heating system. Viridor will not lay the infrastructure pipework to the site boundary even if this comes off.

Number 7: Volume

In 2010 the government withdrew PFI funding for the North London Waste Authority project because, in the words of treasury’s 2010 Spending Review: “DEFRA will cease funding for seven waste PFI projects which, on reasonable assumptions, will no longer be needed to meet landfill diversion targets set by the European Union…”

Britain is at risk of heavily over-investing in residual waste treatment infrastructure, according to a new study by Eunomia Research and Consulting. It quotes Eunomia Director, Dr Dominic Hogg, as saying: “The waste treatment industry continues to tell us that the planning system is preventing us from achieving high-levels of landfill diversion. The facts however tell a different story. If all consented facilities are built, then we’ll have far more residual waste treatment capacity than we need. In fact we risk ending up in the same position as is now being faced in Germany, where treatment costs are falling and so undermining the economics of recycling”.

Number 6: Health Protection Agency

Remember the days when we trusted the Financial Service Authority? Here’s the health version.

In Aug 2003, the newly-formed Health Protection Agency promised to examine health data around incinerators and landfill sites due to public concern. This promise has never been delivered. The HPA admitted that they had failed to check the data around any incinerator but continued to insist that there were not any significant health risks related to waste incineration. This has led councillors across the country to accept the HPA’s “wisdom” and give incinerators the “green light”. Belatedly, the HPA has announced a new study but this will not report until 2014 which is too late.

The health risks from even the most up-to-date facilities are very significant despite the complacent comments of the HPA.

Since the nature of waste is continually changing, so is the chemical nature of the incinerator emissions and therefore the potential for adverse health effects.

Number 5: Green Belt

The site is already safeguarded for the Wandle Valley Regional Park and is a Site of Metropolitan Importance for Nature Conservation (SMI), and a UK and London Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) habitat. Planning objections have been submitted by several organisations with expertise in wildlife and nature conservation, including the RSPB, the London Wildlife Trust, and the Beddington Farmlands Bird Group.

Boris himself strongly supports the current extent of Metropolitan Open Land (MOL), its extension in appropriate circumstances and its protection from development having an adverse impact on the openness of MOL.

The text accompanying London Borough of Sutton Site Development Policies DPD Policy DM15 highlights the fact that: “The Council’s ‘Open Space and Biodiversity’ Report of Studies (2008) reviewed the boundaries of the Green Belt and concluded that they were both logical and defensible and that there were no strategic development needs that would require boundary amendments”.

Number 4: Impact on Recycling

Section 3.2 of the European Commission’s 20 September 2011 Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe confirms that recyclable and compostable material is being incinerated and calls for this practice to stop: “By 2020…Energy recovery is limited to non recyclable materials…”

European Commissioner for the Environment Janez Potocnik stated in September 2012 that: “dominance of energy recovery over recycling is not acceptable in the medium-term…”

Richard Benyon, then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs told Parliament that: “Following the logic of the waste hierarchy, it is reasonable to ask whether, if we are burning waste, we need not recycle it. Worse, might we be providing incentives specifically not to reduce reuse or recycle before recovering energy from waste?” [HC Deb, 26 July 2010, c715W].

Number 3: Valuable Resources for Industry

Even industry representatives have raised concerns regarding incineration:

The Confederation of Paper Industries – “Subsidies for Energy from Waste and large scale energy only biomass should be phased out as they put at risk supplies of the Paper Industry’s basic raw materials – recycled fibres and wood pulp”.

The Anaerobic Digestion and Biogas Association – “Source-segregation and the treatment of organics through AD is the only way that we can recoup the value both of the energy and nutrients trapped in the food we throw away, as well as saving money. Incinerating valuable resources that can be recycled does not make environmental or economic sense in the long term. We are facing a period of economic difficulty that throws our short sighted attitudes to resource use into sharp relief. This is true of all our vital materials: paper, glass, metals, electrical components and food”.

Number 2: Traffic

The residents of Beddington Lane are already living next to a very busy road, with narrow pavements, unacceptable noise, vibration, and air pollution, no pedestrian crossing points for over a kilometre, and more traffic accidents than the average for Sutton. Their concerns have been ignored for years, and little has been done to improve the traffic situation.  The traffic and transport impact assessment produced by Mouchel for Viridor contains data showing that the proposed ERF will increase traffic beyond what this road can handle, this would mean more vehicles idling at junctions, and more noise, pollution, and vibration for residents, and more fear and intimidation for pedestrians and cyclists. The data in the EIA gives us an extra 550 PCU trips per day, but the report then says it is only 237 PCU trips.

Looking at the site once it’s in operation, the EIA suggests a 4.96% increase in the number of HGV trips by 2017 – that equates to 36 additional HGV trips per day. However, they claim that there would be no increase in the number of HGV trips during the AM and PM peak hours, hence the increase will take place during the periods outside of peak hours (e.g.: 08:45-17:00). The existing situation for residents is unacceptable, and the construction and operational phases of the incinerator (ERF) would result in increased vehicle traffic only adding to the problems.

Number 1: Health

There is a historical fact that regulators have consistently and repeatedly underestimated the risk of pollutants and toxic chemicals. This has been true for DDT, lead, PCBs, dioxins, and CFCs. Often it has taken decades for regulators to acknowledge these risks and ban these substances. In the case of asbestos, the best part of a century.

In 2004-2008 infant mortality was almost 10 times higher downwind of the Kirklees incinerator than in areas unpolluted upwind.

During 2004-2007 within two miles of an incinerator, London had 16 wards with infant mortality of 11 per thousand. London also had 14 wards with zero deaths – where there were no incinerators.

In the Bridgend area, the Office of National Statistics states that birth defects rose from 16.9 to 635.7 per 10,000 births from 1996-2001. Could this be anything to do with the Crymlyn Burrows incinerator nearby?

Present safety measures are designed to avoid acute toxic effects in the immediate neighbourhood, but ignore the fact that many of the pollutants bio-accumulate, enter the food chain, and can cause chronic illnesses over time and over a much wider geographical area. No official attempts have been made to assess the effects of emissions on long-term health.

Fine particulates formed in incinerators in the presence of toxic metals and organic toxins (including those known to be carcinogens), adsorb these pollutants and carry them into the blood stream and into the cells of the body.

Toxic metals accumulate in the body and have been implicated in a range of emotional and behavioural problems in children including autism, dyslexia, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning difficulties, and delinquency, and in problems in adults including violence, dementia, depression, and Parkinson’s around sites that release mercury into the environment. Toxic metals are universally present in incinerator emissions.

Maximum impact on the foetus

Susceptibility to chemical pollutants varies, depending on genetic and acquired factors, with the maximum impact being on the foetus. Acute exposure can lead to sensitisation of some individuals, leaving them with lifelong low dose chemical sensitivity.

The March 2012 editorial of the European Respiratory Society severely criticises the EU commission for choosing the wrong limits for air quality. They claim that fine particles (PM 2.5s) and ozone are the most serious pollutants, and that there is an urgent need to reduce their concentrations significantly. “It is generally recognised that effects of ozone and fine particles have a very low [safety] threshold, if indeed there is one. This means that exposure to levels even below World Health Organisation air quality guidelines can still be expected to produce sizeable adverse effects on public health”

The article stresses that compliance with current limit values for major air pollutants in Europe confers no protection for public health. “In fact, very serious health effects occur at concentrations well below current limit values, especially those for fine particles”.

The proposed development site is in an Air Quality Management Area (AQMA) which means the air quality is already known to be bad. Any increase in the level of NOx emissions into the Croydon area, which is the area most at risk and where the levels are already above recognised safety levels, will have severe detrimental effects on the health of residents.

Figures also prove suicide rates 10 times higher in polluted areas.


The proposed technological approach is inferior and has only been chosen by Viridor as a simple lower-cost approach in order to maximise profits for the company, not because it is the best or safest approach. This is stated in the Pennon Group’s financial report.

We have not seen any evidence that any of these concerns have been properly considered.

Brendan Walsh

Brendan Walsh

Balham born but raised in Cork in the Republic of Ireland, moved to London permanently in 1994 and lived in Stockwell before settling in Thornton Heath in 2000. A Civil Engineer with unhealthy interests in DIY, CPFC and Irish Cricket. In 2009, swapped shouting at the TV for political activism. Went straight from omnivore to vegan in 2010 for a one month long experiment and haven’t looked back. Currently Tweeting on behalf of the Croydon Green Party.

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  • Rosie E

    thanks, very informative. The London ward infant mortality rates link to incinerators might of course be due to the incinerators only being built in more socially disadvantaged areas but the statistic is concerning none the less.

  • Mike Greenhalf

    One by one….

    10. So what? Billions of people (and many opportunist politicians) across the world swear by the efficacy of holy water. Does that make them right? Numbers of supporters don’t prove anything.

    9. Sort of true – in theory. If everyone put all their recycables and organic waste in the right bins, we wouldn’t need incinerators. Or at least much fewer. But they don’t. The South London authorities have all reached close to the 50% recycling level, and that means you’re down to the residents who just don’t want to bother. That means you either force them (and no such powers exist for all practical purposes), or build an incinerator. In reality, not having an incinerator doesn’t mean we head into the sunlit uplands of some green utopia – it means continuing to landfill and losing the low carbon energy. It is true that AD is much cheaper, but MBT wouldn’t help you here, other than to create a concentrated fuel for incineration.

    8. Not true. There’s a functioning heat network now commissioned covering several large housing developments, and plans to extend to include more buildings in the near future. This ‘fact’ may have been almost true, when you wrote this, but you are clearly using very old sources for some of this article. The long period to get this running after SELCHP started is just a reflection on the lack of joined up planning policy in the UK.

    7. And there are several other studies of equal standing that say the opposite. You’re being selective. The problem is not absolute capacity (although there are huge uncertainties in completion of projects that have had planning approval), but regional capacity. Some parts of the country have enough EfW capacity, but London has very little, with growing levels of waste and population. Would you prefer to truck Londons waste to Birmingham or Manchester, or should it continue to go east to the Thames Gateway ports for export to Northern Europe?

    6. More cherry picking and careful parsing of statements to support your existing view. For the purposes of emissions the changes in waste composition are not really relevant – it’s just less of some things and more of others, and many of the most hazardous materials of the past are now much rarer. Data on emissions from EfW plants is fiarly easily available – its online for most modern facilities, even if the HPA haven’t provided a report with a conclusion you happen to agree with.

    5. It’s a landfill site. That’s the best place for an EfW facility because it has the infrastructure already there. Most of the landfill site will be returned to parkland when the incinerator is built. I do understand that no-one wants a waste facility near them, but where do you think they should go if not on a landfill site?

    4. See 9 above.

    3. See 9 above.

    2. Traffic planning isn’t my area of expertise, and I haven’t seen the numbers on impacts, so I’ll defer to you on this with one caveat. These trucks full of waste are going to the same landfill site now – the EfW plant will largely be a continuation of that, and as far as I know the total waste volume between current landfill, and future EfW are comparable.

    1. The major causes of ground level ozone, PM2.5s (and PM10s), nitrogen oxides, and many other pollutants are traffic. Even on the worst case scenario, EfW fades into the background in comparison, and modern facilities have a totally different emissions profile compared to the historic data. You’re tilting at the wrong windmill. Not building the EfW will make no discernable difference to air quality, or any of the effects of that pollution. Rosie E also makes the point that health inequalities are based on social inequalities – EfW plants aren’t built near the rich – and all you are referring to is a correlation not a causal link.

    I work in the waste industry, and live within half a mile of an incinerator (which doesn’t worry me at all). I used to live within sight of a landfill and that was much, much worse. So I do have some real knowledge of what I’m talking about. I have considerable sympathy for many of your obviously progressive views, but some good points in your post here are lost in misleading propaganda. EfW plants are, like lorries, a necessary evil which arise from the way we live our lives. Which brings me to my last point.

    I’d acknowledge that the genuine greens situate their view on this issue within a total set of views about how we should live our lives, and that these views are sincere. But there needs to be an acknowledgement that many, possibly the majority of people are not willing to change their lives to remove the need for EfW plants. And you can’t just say ‘none of the above’ when solutions are proposed and think that is enough.

    Many supporters of anti incineration campaigns are little more than infantilised nimbies, who are willing through their choices and actions to trash the planet, as long as they are not confronted by the consequences of their choices in the form of an incinerator. They’d rather dump the consequences of their profligacy onto someone else’s doorstep. Like mine. The residents fo the South London boroughs produced this waste, and now have to deal with it. If the solution doesn’t look very nice, remember you are only looking in the mirror of the way you chose to live your lives.

    @MikeGreenhalf on Twitter