Let's Talk Rubbish

Rayleigh residents have been shocked by proposals in the County Council’s waste plan to build an incinerator just west of the town. Meetings are being held on an almost daily basis as we prepare to fight this appalling suggestion to the last ditch. Rayleigh Town Council and Rawreth Parish Council have formed SWIPE – Stop Waste Incinerators Please Essex.

We don’t often think about what happens to the household waste we leave out every week for the dustmen. In this part of the world, most of it ends up in holes in the ground – holes left by the extraction of chalk, clay, sand and gravel. Quite a neat idea, really; dig something you need out of the ground, fill the hole with stuff you want to get rid of, add a thin covering of earth and a packet of grass seed – and hey presto! No one will ever know we’ve been there.

Things aren’t quite so simple, of course.

For a start, we are reducing mineral extraction – so the number and size of available sites is shrinking. At the same time, we’re creating more and more waste – both household and commercial/industrial. To make matters worse, Essex also provides a final resting place for half of London’s rubbish. The experts reckon that within ten years, there will be no landfill sites left in Essex.

So what happens to our waste then? We’ll still be putting rubbish in our bins, and the dustmen will still be turning up to take it away – but what will they do with it?

There are several possibilities. Environmental experts recommend a hierarchy of actions: first, reduce the amount of waste produced in the first place (for example, by minimising packaging). Second, reuse instead of throwing away – a good example here is milk bottles. Third, if all else fails, recycle your refuse. Lots of what we throw away can be re-cycled – newspapers and glass are the most commonly recycled materials at present, with the recovery of aluminium and plastics growing steadily.

It is the responsibility of Essex County Council to manage this issue; and they have just produced a waste plan, outlining their proposals for waste management up to the year 2010. Much of the plan is based on a sensible approach to the waste hierarchy described above – reduce, reuse, recycle.

But there is an ominous addition to this sequence – ‘energy recovery’. Sounds friendly enough, doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t be in favour of energy recovery? Well, lots of people might not be – if they knew what it was. Energy recovery is a euphemism for ‘burning rubbish’. The idea is that we should have giant incinerators dotted around the county, where lorries would take our waste to be burned.

There are many reasons to be sceptical about the use of incineration. Let me pick out three.

First, incineration is not sustainable in the long term. If waste is burned, there will still always be a residue of ash which has to be disposed of – presumably at a landfill site. And not just any old ash – but super-toxic ash, with concentrated proportions of heavy metals and other harmful substances. Incineration would give us a temporary ‘quick and dirty’ solution.

Second, there are compelling economic arguments against setting off down this path. Imagine you have spent £10 million building an incinerator, with fleets of garbage trucks trundling across the Essex countryside to feed it. In five years time, someone turns up with a fantastic way of dealing with rubbish in an environmentally friendly way. Do you say: (a) “O.K. Let’s close down the incinerator because this new idea is much greener” or (b) “We’ve got too much of an investment in our incinerator – it’s cheaper to carry on the way we are. (And there hasn’t been a major accident yet.)”? You don’t have to know much about human nature to know that the second answer is much more likely to prevail.

Third, I would argue very strongly that an incinerator would be an accident waiting to happen. No matter how tight the controls, sooner or later someone would be tempted to take a short cut, or money would be tight and a regular inspection would be postponed, or the regular maintenance man would be ill, or …

And catastrophes do happen, even in the best-regulated systems. Usually small local confusions, which affect only a few of us. But sometimes huge disasters, which can even threaten the planet. Think of asbestos. Think of BSE. Think of Chernobyl.

And this brings me to my conclusion. This is not, in the end, an argument about Rayleigh. It is an argument about the environment we want for our children – and their children. It’s an argument about unknown and unknowable risks. We know we can deal with our waste in other ways. It may be difficult. It may be expensive. It may even be unpopular. But it’s better than the alternative.