MPs are calling for a moratorium on the expansion of new waste incineration plants just days before councils in London vote on awarding a contract to build a huge new plant in Edmonton.
A report by the all-party parliamentary group on air pollution says expansions should be halted immediately to protect human health and cut carbon emissions.
The report concludes that ultrafine particles released by incineration at scale constitute a significant health hazard. Geraint Davies, Labour MP and chair of the group, said the expansion of the Edmonton incinerator and others should be stopped.
“Air pollution already kills 64,000 people across the UK each year, so government planning that will double incineration capacity by allowing the construction of 50 new waste incinerators by 2030 … should be immediately halted as it will give rise to a significant growth in ultrafine particulates, which are the most dangerous to human health,” he said.
“Of critical importance is that it is the number of particulates, as opposed to their combined mass, that is the key determinant for human ill health. The smallest particulates act like a gas and penetrate seamlessly into the blood stream and organs, creating damage to the hearts, brains, and lungs of victims.”
There are at least 90 incinerators in the UK and 50 more proposed or in development, according to government data and data collected by the anti incineration group United Kingdom Without Incineration Network (Unwin).
The group of MPs heard evidence from Ruggero Ridolfi, an oncologist with more than 40 years of clinical experience, who found heavy metals in the toenails of children living near incinerators and highlighted the link with acute childhood leukemia. Research by Kirsten Bouman, of ToxicoWatch, an independent non-profit organisation dedicated to raising awareness of toxic hazards, found dioxins in chicken eggs up to 10km from incinerators that emit them.
The report was published days before seven councils in north London will be asked to vote for a contract to be awarded to rebuild and expand the capacity of the Edmonton incinerator, run by the North London Waste Authority (NLWA), by 200,000 tonnes.
Protests against the Edmonton incinerator include demonstrations by doctors in the area who are calling on council leaders to support cleaner, alternative ways of dealing with local waste. Recycling rates in north London are just 30% and more than half of the incinerated waste is readily recyclable, according to Defra.
Dr Ed Tranah, medical registrar at North Middlesex hospital, said: “If this goes ahead you are looking at 35-50 years of continued incineration of waste, much of which does not need to be incinerated and is recyclable.
“We are burning all sorts of materials and we don’t even have a study into how the fumes are affecting people working and living in the area.”
Haringey council recently called for the expansion to be paused citing concerns over air pollution.
A recent report from the National Infrastructure committee warned rising greenhouse gas emissions from waste incineration would prevent the UK meeting its net zero targets by 2050.
Highlighting the carbon impact of waste incineration, the APPG report called for tax measures to be introduced to restrict incinerator expansion.
Dr Dominic Hogg, who founded the environmental consultancy Eunomia, told the MPs a 700,000-tonne incinerator pumps out about 700 tonnes of NOx (nitrogen oxides) a year. He said incineration – like landfill – should be taxed in relation to the carbon content of the feedstock and the emissions of NOx, SOx (sulfur oxides), particulate matter and other pollutants. They should also be part of the emissions trading scheme.
Davies said poorer communities already suffered worse health outcomes from disproportionately higher levels of air pollution and inequality. Recent research by Greenpeace showed poorer communities were three times more likely to have an incinerator in their area than more affluent areas.
He said: “Plans to increase incineration in London and elsewhere should be put on hold to prevent excess capacity driving the burning of recyclable waste.
“The protection and improvement of air quality must become a central strategy to combat climate change and to improve human health nationally and globally.
“We must apply the precautionary principle to new waste incineration in urban locations so that the cumulative health risks of ultrafine particulates to dense populations do not materialise.”
Clyde Loakes, chair of NLWA, said: “We’re absolutely clear that our facility will be the safest and cleanest in the country, using state-of-the-art technology to protect residents’ health and eliminate pollution to effectively zero.
“An incineration tax and inclusion within an Emissions Trading Scheme, this would just hit cash-strapped local councils and not tackle the root cause of the problem.
“The key target has to be all the rubbish that’s produced in the first place. That’s why we’re investing in state of the art of recycling infrastructure, the biggest investment into such infrastructure in London for decades. But what we really need is systemic change: for businesses to stop churning out single-use plastics, and for [the] government to stop years of dithering and get on with urgent reforms we’ve been calling on for years. This means compulsory recycling now and a deposit return scheme now.”