'Dirtier than coal': Does north London really need a new 700,000 tonne incinerator?

An artist's impression of what the new energy recovery facility could look like. Picture: Grimshaw A

An artist's impression of what the new energy recovery facility could look like. Picture: Grimshaw Architects - Credit: Grimshaw Architects

Islington's eco chief Rowena Champion has promised to “see what she can do” to provide updated figures on whether it’s still really necessary to build a new 700,000 tonne capacity incinerator to burn north London’s waste.

In 2017 the government gave the North London Waste Authority (NLWA) permission to rebuild the Edmonton incinerator.

The Edmonton incinerator 

The Edmonton incinerator - Credit: Emma Bartholomew

But four years on, London mayor Sadiq Khan says the capital has no need for another incinerator, and eco campaigners are questioning the viability of the giant £1.2bn "energy from waste" plant in the wake of the government declaring a climate emergency two years ago.

At a meeting on waste strategy organised by the North Islington Labour party this week, XR campaigner Georgia Elliott-Smith, asked Cllr Champion whether any new waste projection figures have been compiled in the past five years to demonstrate the need for a 700,000 tonne capacity incinerator, and whether the NLWA is banking on failing to meet recycling targets.

Islington’s eco chief, Cllr Champion, is one of 14 councillors who sit on the NLWA’s board, from Islington, Hackney, Camden, Barnet, Haringey, Enfield and Waltham Forest councils, which will pay for and own the incinerator if work to build it starts next year.

Ms Elliott-Smith said: “We frequently address the NLWA with our question and yet we are brushed away with comments from Cllr Loakes [NLWA chair] with statements such as ‘We have constantly reappraised our position’, or ‘We have constantly reviewed this incinerator plan’.

“And yet the planned capacity is exactly the same as when the consent order was achieved, based on the plans and statistics pre-2016.

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“Since then the council declared a climate emergency. Since then all of the waste capacity data has been shown to be inaccurate. Your capacity is based on climbing waste capacities in London, but in fact waste has reduced in London.

"We now have new waste policies and regulations coming in, and higher recycling targets, meaning that the residual waste going to the incinerator will decrease."

Cllr Champion replied: “It's probably not surprising to you to explain that I don’t know the detailed figures.

“If you wanted to email me I can see what I can do.

“It is constantly reviewed."

London currently has five incinerators with a capacity to burn 3m tonnes of waste, and according to London Assembly member, Nicky Gavron, who also spoke at the meeting: “You have a situation now where by 2030 if we reach our [recycling] targets we will have a million tonnes of surplus capacity."

About 80,000 tonnes of plastics which could be recycled are believed to be incinerated in north London each year, both because of contaminated recycling and the fact that there is no pre-sorting of residual waste before it is incinerated. 

Ms Elliott-Smith added: "One of the fundamental things I find disturbing is 60 per cent of what goes in is recyclable, because of no pre-sorting before burning.

"A very large proportion, increasing every year, is made up of plastics, and we know burning mixed plastics is incredibly polluting. It’s dirtier than burning coal.

"We wouldn't tolerate a coal station in Edmonton so it doesn’t make sense to transport waste to Edmonton to burn it."

The NLWA purports its “energy from waste" project is "eco-friendly", and boasts it will generate enough energy from burning rubbish in the incinerator to heat 127,000 homes.

The authority would not confirm whether any new waste forecasts have been carried out since 2016 - but their response does not seem to suggest any have been.

A spokesperson said: "When the plans were put forward for the new facilities in Edmonton, there was public consultation on the evidence of the need for the facilities including waste forecasts.

"After public consultation there was a formal process under the Planning Act 2008 to consider the development.

"The Planning Inspector recommended granting consent for the facility – his report said, 'I conclude that the design capacity of the proposed ERF is reasonable'.

"The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy gave approval to the facility.

"For 2019/20 the forecasts estimated that waste would be in the range 582,000 tonnes per year to 663,000 tonnes. In fact the reported waste was 581,000 tonnes.

"So suggestions that the forecasts are excessive clearly don’t match up with real world evidence."