Incineration is preferable to landfill

Think tank: Burning isn’t bad

Incineration is a greener waste disposal alternative to landfill, so why are we so resistant to it?

Ireland has a dangerous habit: it’s called landfill. Unless measures are taken to break the habit and encourage incineration, we won’t be able to deal with our waste problem.

Currently Ireland has no incineration capacity, and more landfill capacity than it requires. Landfill has traditionally been a cash cow for local authorities, giving them no incentive to look at alternatives.

Incinerators are not simply plants that burn waste and emit pollution. They are highly sophisticated operations, designed to recover energy generated from waste, and their emissions are no longer at significant levels.

This is why the European Commission regards incineration as a more favourable method of waste disposal than the hole-in-the-ground option — now considered the greater threat to public health and the environment.

Earlier this month the Environmental Protection Agency granted a licence for an incinerator to be built in the Ringsend European Court of Justice. If the government moved fast, it could — just possibly — meet its landfill diversion obligations by 2013.

While recycling and composting are worthy endeavours, they cannot on their own solve waste problems. Our current rate of recycling of “black bin” waste is 35%, which has improved, but still leaves a lot of material to be disposed of, which at the moment goes to landfill.

The EU has set a recycling target of 50% for member states by 2020. It is getting progressively more difficult for Ireland to increase its rate of recycling, and this has not been helped by the collapse of the recycling market in the past two months.

Irish recycling companies had been separating out material from the green bins and finding a market for materials, mainly in China. But the Chinese no longer want to pay for it, and waste recyclers have been left with no market for their products. Recycled material is now being put in storage, and without a rapid worldwide recovery of the market, many Irish recycling companies could go to the wall. If that happens, material that had been recycled will have to be disposed of, and once again landfill is our only option.

Recycling, even in the best of times and with a willing public, simply cannot provide a solution to our waste problems. Consider the example of the Flanders region of Belgium. This is a world leader in recycling, with 75% of black-bin waste recycled. That takes a huge effort, with up to seven bins allocated to each household to allow waste to be directed into different streams. But even at that level, Flanders has a significant incineration capacity to deal with the remaining material that cannot be recycled. So this hugely environmentally conscious country believes incineration is better than landfill.

John Gormley, the environment minister, is known to favour mechanical biological treatment (MBT) plants. These can certainly play a role in reducing the overall volume of waste by mechanically separating out rubbish and using biological treatment methods to tackle organic material while recovering some energy. But again, there is significant residual waste from MBT plants, which must be disposed of somehow.

All roads lead back to incineration. Ireland has an incinerator approved in Dublin, one proposed in the southeast, one in the mid-west, and another, which will operate as a municipal- and hazardous-waste incinerator, proposed for Cork. If they can be approved and brought online quickly, these plants will enable Ireland to make huge progress in meeting its landfill diversion targets by 2013. In addition, the export of hazardous waste will be ended.

If we don’t embrace incineration and do it quickly, Ireland will face repeated fines from Europe until it finally comes into line. Also, public health will continue to be put at risk from an over-reliance on landfill.