Republican News · Thursday 06 April 2000

[An Phoblacht]

Short-sighted incineration solution

Who is Paul Connett?

Professor Paul Connett, a chemistry professor from New York, has travelled the world warning communities of the disastrous consequences of incineration. In March, he was in Ireland, where he spoke in Cork, Galway and finally in Ringsend, Dublin, where there are plans to build an incinerator.

Professor Connett is a distinguished academic and scientist who has published many research papers in the professional journals. He a brilliant teacher, who was able to reduce the complexity of the chemistry of PCBs to a simple five-finger exercise. He is also himself a campaigner for people's politics.

For Connett, the fight against incineration goes to the very heart of our economics, our politics and the very ideology by which we live.

Incineration is a dinosaur of a previous century's technology. But it comes in a package which is the consumer society, the takeover of the world by multinational companies, which impose on the world their capital-intensive technologies, their ideologies of consumerism, their politics of privatisation and private profit, their methods of production, selling, consumption and waste - as if we all had another planet to go to.

We don't. Connett argues that we should attempt to preserve this one.

Incineration is the technology of so-called experts, funded by multinationals which, with aid of subservient politicians, push society into a straitjacket of consumerism, upon which the owners rely for power and profit.

The costs of incineration are heavy in terms of waste of scarce resources, irreversible pollution of our globe, health damage to society and to the DNA of future generations, and immediate costs to the people who ultimately must fund these dinosaurs and profit their owners.

The fight against incinerators is all about peoples' power - the power of communities and their best allies, the NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard), to resist and to instil alternative politics, economics and ideologies upon `big business' and their political handmaidens, governments and local authorities.

The following article is an edited version of Connett's recent lecture to people campaigning against a proposed incinerator in Dublin's Ringsend.

``Incineration is not an appropriate waste management solution in the 21st century. Fortunately, the public's fears about the pollutants released and those captured in the residues, as well as incineration's enormous economic costs, when made visible, have dramatically slowed down the building of these facilities in northern and southern countries alike. If one avoids the beguiling but inaccurate label of ``Waste-to-Energy'', one can see that these facilities do not belong in a future in which sustainability will become the key issue for survival. In my view, when you build an incinerator in your community you are advertising to the world that you were not clever enough, either politically or technically, to recover your discarded resources in a manner which is responsible to your local community or future generations.

Waste Management is seen as the problem of how to get rid of our discards in the 21st century. We can put them in plastic bags and bury them in the ground or we can mix them up and burn them. This is the linear solution, proposed in a linear society, to the wrong problem.

In our society, the fires of overconsumption are stoked by economies which measure success in terms of how much we consume. By and large, the individual has been seduced with an elaborate web of false needs, woven by a very sophisticated advertising industry, harboured by an equally alluring and distracting host medium called television. The average American child will have seen 350,000 TV commercials before they leave high school.

``In the global economy, which needs a new car every seven minutes, people are encouraged to believe largely post-war American philosophy, that the more you consume, the happier you become. It's a land where fashion prevails. As Oscar Wilde said, ``Fashion is so abominable you have to change it every few months.'' And fashion it is that dominates. Consume, consume, and waste your discards.

``But we are living in a finite place, squandering our limited resources. Our discards should not be wasted. With limited global resources the problem is now how to get rid of waste, but how not to waste our discards. Waste is the visible face of inefficiency. Einstein said: `A clever person solves a problem. A genius avoids it.'

Waste is made by mixing discards. It is solved by separating them. Governments looking to slough off the waste problem onto corporations, the beneficiaries of the Celtic Tiger, confuse the problem with its solution. Transfer stations, where waste is mixed and then compacted, are the very opposite of a solution or of progress. Unless you separate at source, discards become waste.

Separate Waste

``The first essential for any serious plan for not wasting our discards is to separate out the organic fraction of waste, the fraction which causes the problems in landfills, problems of acid, of methane, which contributes to global warming, of leachate, of rats, of smells, which make landfills totally unacceptable to communities. Thirty per cent of household waste is organic. It can be composted. The precondition is separate collections, door to-door.

Recyclables, like bottles, tins, paper, plastics, have to be separated at source, and can then be recycled.

``It has to be made easy for people to do this. It's not a profitable enterprise or likely that corporations want to take it on. Providing separate bins, collecting and recycling, is something the state is paid through taxes to do, not something it should slough off to corporations to make a profit on by charging households for a service which every one in our society, and in the next generation, needs to have.

``I say all landfills leak. It is in their very nature. There isn't a safe landfill. So you must pull out the materials it is not safe to bury. You need community control of what goes into the pit. This is the PUSS of society, the Packaging Unsuitable for Sustainable Society - if you can't safely get rid of it, then don't produce it.

We should say to the corporations: `You made it. You pay for it.' This is the meaning of the off-quoted `polluter pays' principle. The corporations make the waste, the PUSS, to meet the `needs' they so happily create in the consumer society. They are the polluters. The corporations must pay, not the householders, or society. They are the ones who package the goods in such a way to advertise them to make you buy them. As Gandhi said: ``There's enough in our society for everyone's need, but not for everyone's greed''.

Corporations must pay for the PUSS which they make.

A waste of energy

The `experts' promote incinerators as `waste-to-energy' facilities, which might make for good public relations, but is poor on truth. In fact, incineration can produce very small amounts of energy, and usually returns for energy produced represent only some 10% of the revenue which derives from tipping fees, which the householder is obliged to pay.

Two recent studies in the US show that if the currently marketable recyclable material, which is typically burned in the modern trash incinerator, were recycled instead, some three to five times more energy would be saved compared to the level of energy produced from its being burned. Incineration cannot recover any of the energy involved in extraction, processing, fabrication and chemical synthesis in the manufacture of the objects and materials in the waste stream. Re-use and recycling do. Incinerators are a waste of energy, not energy-to-waste, as the PR exercise states.

Dioxin danger

It has been claimed that as long as an incinerator is operated at a high enough temperature, then dioxins will not be produced. These claims, however, have been shown to be based on fraudulent manipulation of the data. In fact, dioxins cannot be avoided, unless, to prevent them reforming, the flue gases are immediately quenched after they emerge from the combustion chamber. But this conflicts with the aim of generating electricity, which requires that the gases go through boilers to generate steam to drive turbines.

Dioxin emission are cause for increasing public concern. Dioxins accumulate in the environment, in our food and in our tissues. They disrupt the endocrine system. Dioxins, which have a half life of nine years, accumulate in fat and are heavily concentrated in milk. Dioxin levels in milk in EU countries which have incinerators have been shown to be far and away ahead of dioxin levels in milk produced in Ireland. Consumers in Europe are looking for dioxin-free milk.

A comparative study of mothers and babies, some of whom had high exposure to dioxins through incinerators, and some of whom did not, showed a significant difference in the thyroids in the babies of only one week old. Women can get rid of dioxins through breast feeding, but men cannot.

Improvements have been made to lessen the production of dioxins through incineration, but each imposes yet further costs on the facility. As it is, incinerators have become massive white elephants of debt accumulation. The costs cannot be met from tipping charges. The only question now is who will pay off the accumulated debt. The question has become how to get the householder to pay for the problem they did not make. People should not create that problem now in Ireland.

A dying technology

Incineration is becoming as unpopular as nuclear power. Since 1994, more incinerators have been closed down than have gone on line. Three hundred separate proposed incinerators have been defeated. Incineration is a dying technology.

Countries are now going for alternatives to incineration and are concentrating on recycling their waste. For example, Canberra in Australia aims for 100% no waste by the year 2010. Sydney is aiming for 69%, and Milan already has reached 70%. Why should Ireland have to accept second best, or the technologies of yesteryear?

Never let anyone tell you it's difficult, that there is something in the genes that makes us a dirty people. If they can sell us the grub we now eat, you can surely sell recycling. You have to confront the MacDonaldization of society, which in 1985 sold 300 million squeezable bottles, and by 1995 had brought this total to 30 billion squeezable bottles.

As we move into the 21st century, the role of trash incineration will become less and less viable, both economically and environmentally. Those who have been preoccupied with making incineration safe, which it cannot be, have lavished their engineering ingenuity on the wrong question. Society's task is not to perfect the destruction of our waste but to find ways to avoid making it.

The Current Situation: Waste Management Plans.

The 26 Counties are at the threshold of implementing the 1996 Waste Management Act.

The act gives new powers to local authorities to have full responsibility for waste in their functional areas, and it introduces an obligation to conform to the EU regulations and targets on waste disposal, which stress the need for the 3 Rs (Reduce, Re-use, Recycle) in preference to landfill or incineration.

The Planning Bill before the Dáil at the moment makes provision for regional authorities, five or six local authorities banded together, to impose their majority-agreed plans.

Local authorities around the country are in the process at the moment of drawing up waste management strategies and consulting with the communities, which they are required by law to do.

Consultants M C O'Sullivans, in conjunction with COWI and a PR company, have been given responsibility for drawing up many of these plans. Broadly, M. C. O'Sullivans pay lip service to the EU waste hierarchy targets, but reduce them to `bring banks' and encouragement to householders to do back-garden composting. Their plans then attempt to sell incinerators, which are dubbed for PR reasons as `Thermal Energy Plants' and are categorised as `waste to energy', and therefore a goody, a form of recycling or recovery of resources, which are therefore conducive to meeting our waste targets under the EU.

Paul Connett makes the points that:

  • Incinerators are a waste of energy, not Waste-to-Energy.

  • Incinerators are not alternatives to landfill, because between 30% and 40% of waste incinerated goes, in the form of ash, to landfill.

  • The ash contains dioxins, furans, and metals, which inevitably leak into and poison the water table and land, because no landfill can ever be safe.

  • Monitoring of air emissions from incinerators is inevitably ineffective.

  • Air pollution affects everyone and all farm animals and wild life.

  • Most countries now aim for 80% to 100% disposal of waste through the 3 Rs, with near zero targets for waste to landfill or incineration. Ireland, which so far has no incinerators, should have the same objectives and mobilise capital to promote these ends.

  • Ireland's dioxin levels are well below our competitors because we have no incinerators. We therefore have an enormous comparative advantage in food production, which Ireland would be crazy to throw away.

  • Funding should go to state authorities, which can provide for separate collections, composting, and recycling projects with many local jobs.

  • Funding should not go to large private companies to help them fund expensive incineration plants with exorbitant running costs, which will then be passed on to the householder through local charges, making the householder pay to pollute our environment.

  • Once you have an incinerator, then to minimise running costs and maximise profits it needs to take as much waste as possible. Incinerators become a bar to progress on the 3 Rs. Owners of incinerators end up with a license to print money because they offer the only way to meet a dire social need, to get rid of the waste that society did not find a way of avoiding.

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