North London incinerator: Mother’s legal challenge to plant that will burn waste from Hackney, Islington, Camden and Haringey
- Credit: Stop the Edmonton Incinerator Rebuild campaign.
Campaigners are fighting to block what will be one of the biggest incinerators in Europe from being built in north London. They tell Emma Bartholomew it will lock us into decades of low recycling rates, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions
Climate campaigners are raising £10,000 to thwart plans for a £650m incinerator to burn all of north London's non-recyclable waste - which they warn will fuel the climate emergency and could soon become obsolete.
The North London Waste Authority (NLWA), which deals with all of the rubbish from Hackney, Islington, Barnet, Camden, Enfield, Haringey and Waltham Forest, got the go-ahead from government to build an "energy recovery facility" in Edmonton two years ago.
The existing plant - which dates back to 1969 - is coming to the end of its operational life, and the NLWA says it needs to be replaced to avoid landfilling, which produces more carbon dioxide than incineration. It claims the new incinerator would generate enough energy to heat 127,000 homes by burning rubbish, and is a "positive part of action to tackle the climate emergency and reduce emissions".
It says some 140,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide would be saved compared with sending the waste to landfill.
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But campaigners from the Stop the Edmonton Incinerator Rebuild say the air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions it would generate are unacceptable, and want to block its construction through a judicial review. They are pushing for a major rethink on waste prevention and recycling in the current climate emergency, and say just because rubbish is already being burnt at Edmonton already it doesn't justify continuing to do so.
Their representative, Carina Milstone, has asked energy secretary Greg Clark to rethink his decision to grant it a Development Consent Order (DCO) in February 2017 - on the basis there have since been dramatic changes in law, policy and public opinion.
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He refused and now she's launching a legal bid to overturn what she's dubbed a "short-sighted, reckless and deeply worrying decision".
Carina, executive director of the food campaign group Feedback in Mare Street, told the Gazette: "Maybe an incinerator might have made sense in the 1960s, and it might even have made sense in 2017, but things have moved on considerably. It's been the hottest year on record.
"Incineration was a technology we used before we understood the effects of producing huge amounts of greenhouse gases, and now we know they are causing devastating climate change. It was a technology we used before we knew the effects of particulate matter from ash and smoke, and there's evidence now that exposure is associated with adverse effects on the respiratory and cardiovascular systems.
"The project is being driven by the NLWA, whose main reason for going ahead with it seems to be that it has taken them a decade to develop the plan and they don't want to go back to the drawing board. But we need to be putting a stop to all forms of emissions."
Since the incinerator was approved, national and local government policy has moved away from supporting incineration towards waste reduction and the "circular economy" - meaning the reuse and recycling of materials.
In March, environment secretary Michael Gove accepted in Parliament the UK has an excess of incinerator capacity and that further expansion risks undermining waste reduction and recycling efforts. In June the government pledged to produce net zero greenhouse emissions by 2050.
Hackney currently recycles 27pc of its waste and the incinerator - which has an expected lifespan until 2075 - has been designed to cope with a 50pc recycling target. But new legislation mandates 65pc recycling by 2035, and the mayor of London has signed up to a 70pc target.
Carina, whose son's primary school is half a mile away from the incinerator, said: "The incinerator's capacity is predicated on failing to meet the new legally mandated targets for recycling rates, and it's a distraction from waste prevention.
"There's a risk this will end up as a gigantic white elephant if they meet their legal recycling targets. It seems odd to plan for piece of infrastructure on the basis you won't meet your targets, and whether that is legal I don't know.
"The reality is that we need to move to a system where there is no plastic waste at all, and during the lifetime of this incinerator it's conceivable there might be a ban on plastics. Over the lifetime of the incinerator we know we need to decarbonise the energy grid altogether.
"It's a project that might just very soon become obsolete and that's a risky use of public money."
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Hackney Council's eco chief Cllr Jon Burke, who sits on the board of the North London Waste Authority with Rebecca Rennison, supports the new incinerator: "It will be significantly cleaner than the old one, will generate energy for 127,000 homes, and is a better alternative to dumping waste in landfill or transporting it long distances to be incinerated elsewhere," he said.
"The council has passed a motion that commits us to some of the most ambitious action of any council in the country to tackle global heating. However, as the mayor told MPs in Parliament, the producers of waste material - from the fossil fuel and chemical companies to food retailers - need to pay the price for the packaging they force onto the market and unwitting customers.
"This would act as a disincentive to produce the vast amounts of unneeded packaging. Of the waste that remains, residents should be recycling a much larger proportion and we, as their local authority, are putting in place measures through our reduction and recycling plan recently submitted to City Hall to make that process easier, implementing big structural changes to address a deep structural problem."
Cllrs Adam Harrison and Richard Olszewski sit on the board of the NLWA for Camden, Cllrs Charles Adje and Seema Chandwani represent Haringey, and Cllrs Dean Cohen and Peter Zinkin represent Barnet.
Cllr Harrison said: "The existing plant currently operates at 20pc better than the Environment Agency's safe standards on emissions and the new facility will perform even more efficiently at 60pc better. We are investing in the very best technology to build one of the cleanest and safest facilities in the UK that will have a much lower impact on climate change than the alternative of landfill.
""The replacement facility forms an integral part of the strategy for treating north London's waste which includes encouraging waste prevention and increased recycling."
A spokesperson for Haringey Council added: "The current facility is almost 50 years old and in need of replacement. The new energy recovery facility will be more efficient at generating heat and power - equivalent to the needs of up to 127,000 homes.
"The most effective steps residents can take to tackle climate change through waste are to minimise their waste, reuse what they can and recycle what they can't."
Cllrs Andy Hull and Claudia Webbe sit on the board of the NLWA for Islington Council.
A spokesperson said: "We declared a climate emergency in June - committing to becoming a net zero carbon borough by 2030.
"We strongly support the reduction of waste of all kinds, and have policies in place to support this, as well as lobbying the Government to pass legislation that will help.
"The NLWA's new energy from waste facility in Edmonton is subject to very strict environmental standards and is still the best way to deal with the non-recyclable waste that north London is expected to produce in future.
"The NLWA will ensure the facility operates within its very strict guidelines, and we in turn will monitor the NLWA on this."
Islington's sole Green councillor Caroline Russell added: "I was the only councillor to speak against the incinerator when the council signed it off.
"The problem with incineration is that it reduces the incentive to reduce, reuse and recycle items before throwing them away.
"The council keeps missing its recycling targets and its performance is actually worsening. They need to behave as if there actually is a climate emergency rather than turning up for the photos and getting on with business as usual."
Regarding air pollution, the NLWA claims its new facility would perform at 60pc better than the Environment Agency's "safe standards".
A NLWA spokesperson said: "We're investing in the very best technology to build one of the cleanest and safest facilities in the UK, using world-class technology. They added: "Furthermore, energy from waste makes up a very small percentage of emissions in the UK."