What a load of rubbish

Ever wondered where the contents of your bin ends up? James Cracknell finds out

Edmonton incinerator

The Edmonton incinerator is the oldest of its kind in Europe

If you’ve ever driven along the North Circular between Chingford and Edmonton, you can’t have failed to see it; a huge concrete chimney soaring skyward.

Until now you may not have given this imposing sight a second thought, but here next to the flyover is the destination for all of your non-recyclable rubbish – the destination, in fact, for rubbish collected weekly from 700,000 households across north London.

The building in question is an incinerator run by a company called LondonEnergy Ltd. The ‘energy’ in this company’s name is a new addition, part of a rebrand announced last month. Previously known as LondonWaste, the firm now wants people to think of it less as a waste disposal company and more as an energy supplier.

In truth, it is both. By burning nearly 600,000 tonnes of our waste each year LondonEnergy generates enough electricity to power 80,000 homes. That’s around three-quarters of the entire demand for Waltham Forest.

Peter Sharpe, the company’s managing director, told the Echo: “We have been managing north London’s waste here since 1969. The waste sector has changed considerably over that time. It is now about recycling, reuse, and recovery.

“Last year, of more than three-quarters-of-a-million tonnes of waste we collected, 92 percent was diverted from landfill. We want to bring the company’s name into line with that.”

As part of LondonEnergy’s rebrand in September the Echo was invited to a tour of the Edmonton incinerator. On one side of the building, bin lorries line up in a queue on a ramp waiting to unload their contents. Inside, five bunkers 25 metres deep are filled with rubbish as a mechanical claw transfers the waste into a chute, leading to boilers where it can be incinerated. The rubbish is burned at 1000°C, superheating steam that is then piped away to turn turbines generating electricity.

The leftover ash is taken away for later re-use as a component material for road resurfacing works.

Metals that cannot be burned are also recycled. Meanwhile, gases arising from the combusted waste are treated at a cleaning plant which filters out dust and chemicals before it is emitted through the incinerator’s 100m-tall chimney as air pollution.

Edmonton incinerator

Five bunkers as deep as an eight-storey building is tall store rubbish prior to being incinerated at 1000°C

LondonEnergy is careful to not use the word ‘incinerator’ to describe this facility – preferring instead the technical term ‘energy from waste plant’. It perhaps highlights the firm’s awareness of how incinerators are perceived in the UK. Generally speaking, they are far from popular, but this year the government granted permission for LondonEnergy to build a new, larger incinerator at Edmonton – replacing the current facility after 2025.

The North London Waste Authority (NLWA), which co-ordinates waste collection from seven north London boroughs, aims to increase residential recycling rates to 50 percent by 2020 but still forecasts increasing demand for incineration as the area’s population rises.

Clyde Loakes, deputy leader of Waltham Forest Council, has championed the new £500million incinerator in his role as chair of NLWA. In explaining the rationale for a new plant he told the Echo: “There are a number of complex challenges and logistics in dealing with collection systems from seven different boroughs. We have to come up with a response.

“This kit [the Edmonton incinerator] is nearly 50-yeas-old. It is one of the most efficient in the UK, but the new facility will be the most efficient in Europe.”

Emissions from the current plant are around 20 percent below the permitted levels of nitrogen oxide air pollutants, while the replacement facility will be designed to emit 60 percent below legal limits. Asked about the environmental impacts of the incinerator, Councillor Loakes said: “If you want to talk about emissions and health impacts in London, talk about cars instead. It [the new plant] won’t have a negative impact on health – the impact on people’s health is from cars. The mayor’s fireworks display puts out more toxins than any incinerator has in five years.”

The government is currently compiling a report examining the potential impacts of waste incinerators on human health. But Cllr Loakes insists that whatever the report’s conclusion, the new Edmonton incinerator will still go ahead: “We haven’t been waiting 50 years for a Public Health England report.”

Last year the public consultation on building a new incinerator included exhibitions in Chingford because of the area’s proximity to the Edmonton site. Is there not a better place to build an incinerator where fewer people would be impacted by it? “This site has got decent logistics, it’s got planning designation, it is big and gives us scope,” says Cllr Loakes. “London should take responsibility and dispose of its waste within London.”

Work on the new incinerator is due to start in 2019.