Comment: ‘Time to face up to our waste’

Clyde Loakes defends the decision to rebuild the Edmonton Incinerator

It’s an underrated privilege of modern life: we drop rubbish and recycling into separate bins and forget.

One goal I have, as chair of the North London Waste Authority (NLWA), is to help bring an end to this collective amnesia. I want us all – government, businesses and individuals alike – to wake up to the vast volumes of short-lived, un-ecological stuff that’s being made and quickly tossed away and the impact of it all on the climate emergency.

It’s why NLWA’s focus is to reduce waste in the first place by urging for large-scale systemic change. It’s why I’ve called for compulsory recycling and the banning of more single-use plastics. It’s why NLWA ensures items like the inner springs and polyester inside fly-tipped mattresses are recycled. And it’s why we’re building new recycling infrastructure for the public at our 16-hectare site in Edmonton, with the aim of boosting recycling rates to 50%.

However, it’s important to realise that there will always be some waste leftover that can’t be recycled, which is why we’re replacing the 50-year-old energy-from-waste facility at the same site.

Since 1971, this facility has diverted 21 million tonnes of waste from landfill and generated electricity for 80,000 homes every year but it is now near the end of its functioning life. The new facility we’re building will be the most advanced and cleanest in the UK and will generate energy for up to 127,000 homes.

However, as perhaps is expected in the age of social media-propelled misinformation, there are some misconceptions about the new facility. I’d like to set the record straight on some of them here.

In terms of air quality, the new Energy Recovery Facility (ERF) will operate under the Environment Agency’s most stringent environmental permits, and its world-class technology – the only UK facility to use such tech – will mean that the amount of particulate matter emitted from the facility’s stack will be 1000 times lower than the World Health Organisation’s safe limits and equivalent to just 0.1% of London’s particulates and 0.7% of its nitrogen oxide overall.

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In Waltham Forest, by contrast, road transport is responsible for 32.4% of our particulates, and domestic sources (including heating) are responsible for 9.2%. Road transport generates 70.2% of nitrogen oxide and the commercial and industrial sectors contribute 20%.

Secondly, in terms of size, the ERF has been designed according to forecasts on population and volumes of waste in the future, with a top capacity of 700,000 tonnes. However, the facility can operate at lower volumes if systemic change happens faster than expected. This means there is no need to bring in waste from other areas.

Thirdly, in terms of value for money, if we don’t proceed with the ERF, there would be significant extra costs and risks for council taxpayers, as North London would have to rely on landfill or privately owned incinerators without advanced cleaning technology. Plus, there would be the expense and environmental impact of 30,000 lorries a year trucking our waste to other areas.

When it’s all added up, not building the ERF would cost North London boroughs an extra £20 million a year and therefore would mean less money for other vital council services. It would also mean we’d all be paying more to deliver a worse outcome for the climate and a less clean disposal of our waste. Having a facility to turn North London’s waste into heat and power with world-class tech and the UK’s most stringent environmental controls, owned by North Londoners in perpetuity, is surely a much better, far more responsible outcome.

NLWA’s overarching objective will remain to always prioritise waste reduction and recycling, as well as push for systemic change so that unsustainable consumption is curtailed.

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