Dave Spencer writes on the failed Coventry incinerator project
A number of local Councils, including Coventry, have recently scrapped plans to build new giant £1 billion PFI waste incinerators. These were being encouraged by the last New Labour government that believed in an “energy from waste” strategy – that is burn waste and turn the heat generated into energy for the National Grid. Obviously the prohibitive cost of PFI schemes has hit home with the local Councils.
To save money by scrapping these schemes is all very well but what is the alternative strategy for waste disposal? The giant incinerator planned for Coventry, right in the city centre, a few hundred yards from my house, was due to take waste from leafy Warwickshire and snobby Solihull and from anywhere else that couldn’t be bothered to organise their own. You can imagine the gleam in the eyes of the PFI private firms as more and more bin lorries came trundling down the M6 and the A45. But Friends of the Earth backed by local residents’ groups campaigned against the plans and we won. We are now left with the old incinerator about which our local councillor told us, “I’ve been assured by Council officers that the smoke coming out of the old incinerator chimney is cleaner than the air it’s going into.” Ha, ha, ha.
Most of Warwickshire’s waste at the moment goes to landfill. Clearly that is unacceptable in the long term, as is the shipment of waste from our country to the Third World. The only answer is re-cycling of waste to the point where there is zero waste to go into incinerators or landfill. Some cities are already on the way to achieving this. San Francisco for example is at 75% re-cycling.
The surprising thing is how quickly this can be achieved once the Council has decided to go along that route. It’s a question of months not years.
The old Coventry incinerator has three lines feeding the plant. With increased re-cycling, we could phase out one line at a time so that soon the incinerator would be obsolete. The workers would still be needed to collect the waste and to work on the recycling.
The first essential with re-cycling is to separate the waste at source, for example at each household, into various categories. The public need to be educated to do this. Then obviously we need door to door collections for the different categories of waste. Converting organic waste into compost is an essential process and can be done in anaerobic digestion (AD) plants. Re-cycling plastics, paper, glass and tins is relatively straightforward with new technology that can sort out various types of waste. There would of course be residual waste that would need to be analysed to examine what could be salvaged. A research unit would be needed to look at the waste material overall, to report on best practice from all over the world and to examine new ways of dealing with waste, particularly the residuals. In Coventry this has already been proposed at Coventry University.
On a broader level the local Council should be encouraging the re-use and re-construction of larger goods that are to be discarded. For example if it costs £30 a ton to burn waste, think of how much is saved by Charity shops taking in goods that would otherwise be thrown away or by internet sites like eBay or freegle, the Coventry free goods exchange site with 13,000 members. In Vermont USA, Burlington Council has a large community building where electrical goods are mended for re-use or stripped down for spare parts. In Brussels the Council collects all food from supermarkets that is near its sell by date and distributes the food to charities that feed the homeless. In Ireland the government slapped a tax on plastic bags and within a year the use of plastic bags had gone down by 92%. These are good ideas but also money savers for the taxpayers.
Companies need to be forced to cut down on packaging and to design articles better so that they can be re-used or re-cycled. If we can’t re-use, re-cycle or compost it, then industry should not be making it. There should be a tax on landfill, incineration and residuals. Generally capitalism leads to over-consumption by the rich that leads to more and more waste. This is a real problem for the planet as a whole — together with global warming. We need to reduce the consumption of materials and increase the quality of life. Make friends not waste.