Gloucestershire County Council ’s proposals to build a £500 million incinerator at Javelin Park in Haresfield have led to a groundswell of resistance, with residents, opposition groups and local authorities all lining up to object to the plans.

Every party to the debate accepts that household waste cannot continue to be landfilled, yet there is fierce disagreement about which methods and technologies should be used to dispose of the county’s rubbish.

In a special report, SNJ reporter Chris Warne visits County Meath in Ireland to investigate the pros and cons of incineration by looking at an Energy from Waste (EfW) facility similar to the one Urbaser Balfour Beatty is proposing for Gloucestershire.

Following another trip, this time to New Earth Solutions’ site in Avonmouth near Bristol, he then proceeds to take a closer look at Mechancial Biological Treatment (MBT) and pyrolysis gasification, which is being touted as a possible alternative to incineration by a number of its opponents.

ON the outskirts of Duleek, a small rural town in County Meath just 40 minutes north of Dublin in a taxi, stands Ireland’s first mass burn incinerator otherwise known as an Energy from Waste (EfW) facility (what you choose to call it often depends on whether you are anti or pro-incineration).

Operated by Belgian firm Indaver, the plant was completed last year at a cost of €140 million following a lengthy planning process which first got underway in 2001.

The facility serves four counties – Meath, Louth, Cavan and Monaghan – which together comprise Ireland’s North East Region and burns some 200,000 tonnes of household waste annually, in turn creating enough energy to power 20,000 homes.

Urbaser Balfour Beatty, the company hoping to build the incinerator at Javelin Park, has paid to bring a number of journalists, including myself, over to Ireland so we can learn more about the technology and see it at close quarters.

We have had to travel all this way because the Spanish multinational Urbaser does not currently operate an incinerator in the UK – although it does own and run more than 60 waste management facilities worldwide, including a number of Energy from Waste (EfW) plants.

Flanked on all sides by open countryside and green fields, the location of the County Meath facility is reminiscent of Javelin Park’s rural setting and thus provides a fair indication as to what the Haresfield incinerator might look like if it gets the go-ahead from GCC’s planning committee.

Indaver’s plant sits in a slight depression, with landscaping and hedgerows helping to shield views of it from the main road which runs parallel to its front.

Perhaps most striking, is that its design is remarkably similar to the computer generated images and drawings of the proposed Javelin Park incinerator which have been presented to the public by Urbaser officials at various roadshows and public meetings.

Through the use of a colour scheme sympathetic to its surrounding environment, the visual impact of the County Meath incinerator has undoubtedly been minimised, although some will still maintain in good faith that the plant remains an eyesore and a blot on the landscape.

From a purely aesthetic standpoint, it might be fair to draw an analogy with wind farms and say that the facilities polarise opinion, yet in the case of Javelin Park, opposition groups have had further cause to protest on visual grounds given the plant’s perceptibility from Haresfield Beacon – renowned for its picturesque views of a beautiful expanse of Cotswold countryside.

The stack on the Indaver incinerator in County Meath stands at 60 meters high, 10 meters shorter than the chimney to be affixed to the Javelin Park development.

Although the facility is fully operational and burning waste when we visit, there is no plume ascending from the stack and the UBB representatives accompanying us say it is a popular misconception to think that modern EfW facilities belch out black smoke.

Instead, they say that the plume is only visible 30 per cent of the time and even when it is present, the emissions are a far cry from the dark and dirty clouds which polluted skylines in past eras of mass industrialisation.

In addition to aesthetic objections, residents and opposition groups have raised concerns about the possible smell emanating from the facility, the expected adverse affect on local property prices and the ability of the road network to cope with regular visits from large lorries hauling waste to and from the plant.

On our visit to the Indaver facility we were unable to detect any unwelcome stench outside of the plant – a fact attributable to the use of specialist technology which keeps the smell confined within, according to our companions.

The UBB officials do concede their research reveals an initial knock-on effect on housing prices when an incinerator is first built, though they say that it also shows that properties tend to recover their value over the longer term.

Responding to highway concerns, they say that an increase in the number of lorries transporting waste along local roads is regrettable but unavoidable and they point out that the volume of traffic would be just as high if a Mechanical Biological Treatment plant was built at Javelin Park instead of an incinerator.

When Indaver first put forward its proposals for the County Meath plant, the company met with a wave of hostility as 4,000 objections were registered in opposition to the initial planning application and a 27,000 strong petition was signed against the facility.

Many of the arguments advanced at that time by campaigners opposed to the Indaver facility are the same as those currently being voiced by Gloucestershire Vale Against Incineration (GlosVAIN), namely that the plant will be a blight on the landscape, it will pose a possible danger to human health, it is outdated technology and there are newer, cleaner and more efficient alternatives on the market.

Indaver’s management said the issue of the potential threat to health was a particularly salient concern among local residents and the same has been true in Gloucestershire.

The Health Protection Agency’s present stance is that ‘well run and regulated modern municipal waste incinerators are not a significant risk to public health’, yet in January the organization did decide to commission a major new study to investigate the possibility of a link between incinerator emissions and child deaths.

Preliminary results from that study, which will also examine a possible connection between incinerator fumes and birth defects, will not be available until March 2014, a year after building work is scheduled to start on the Javelin Park incinerator.

Urbaser Balfour Beatty publicise the fact that they will have to obtain a permit from the Environment Agency to run the facility, obliging them to control emissions and meet certain safety standards.

However, Sue Oppenheimer, the chairman of GlosVAIN has called on GCC to apply the precautionary principle and to pause the project until the findings of the HPA’s study are known. Stroud District Council , which has unanimously voted to oppose the development, has made the same request.

Although Indaver encountered staunch resistance during the planning process, company executives claim that the opposition has largely faded away now that the plant has been built and local residents have become familiar with it.

Those living nearby came to realise that waste could not be sent to landfill sites indefinitely and they were keen to take advantage of the employment opportunities on offer, they claim.

UBB officials are also understandably keen to talk up the benefits of the Javelin Park development, saying that it will create new jobs and help the UK meet its renewable energy targets by generating enough electricity from waste to power 25,000 homes.

In spite of the fact that numerous parallels can be drawn between the County Meath incinerator and the one proposed for Javelin Park, there are, however, a number of issues raised by protesters in Gloucestershire which are specific to the local context.

Not least, for example, is the fact that the Javelin Park incinerator is being constructed on the basis of a 25-year-contract between Urbaser and GCC for the disposal of the county’s household rubbish.

Relying on no single contract, the Indaver-run plant is very different. It is a merchant facility and has more flexibility when it comes to accepting waste given that GCC maintains publicly that the Javelin Park incinerator is intended solely to deal with waste produced inside the county.

As Indaver operate the only incinerator in Ireland, it is unlikely the company will have to contend with a shortage of waste at any point in the near future. In contrast, serious doubts have been raised about whether or not there is sufficient waste being created to warrant the construction of an incinerator at Javelin Park.

Members of GlosVAIN and the local Green Party have asserted that the incinerator is not needed because households in the county are not producing enough waste to justify its construction, in part, because they are recycling more.

The county council’s forecasts of the amount of waste being produced in the county have certainly been shown to be overestimated, with homes currently producing around 20 per cent less waste per year than had been projected – equating to approximately 50,000 tonnes less rubbish per annum for a facility which is being built to process 190,000 tonnes a year.

As a result of this situation, GlosVAIN believes the business case for the incinerator has ‘collapsed’. The only way the shortfall could be made up they say is by incinerating more commercial and industrial waste or by importing rubbish from outside of the county to be processed in the plant.

To do either would be unfair they say because Gloucestershire taxpayers are footing the bill for the project and should not have to pay for the disposal of waste belonging to people living elsewhere in the country.

Similarly, they question whether it is right that public money should be used to help pay for a facility which could be used increasingly by the private sector to dispose of its waste.

As well as arguing that the waste figures underpinning the whole Javelin Park project are flawed, GlosVAIN has also been among those highlighting growing concerns that there will be too many incinerators in the UK by 2015 and that they will severely hamper efforts to recycle more.

A recent early day motion tabled by the Cheltenham MP Martin Horwood said there was mounting evidence that incinerator overcapacity in continental Europe had negatively impacted on recycling performance there and he warned the same problem could trouble the UK.

The Javelin Park incinerator had, in fact, originally been due to be funded partly by central government, with Defra awarding GCC £92 million worth of PFI credits in November 2008, but this funding was withdrawn in October 2010 because Defra determined that the UK already had adequate incinerator capacity.

Responding to the suggestion that the UK does not need any more incinerators because of overcapacity, the UBB official I spoke to questioned whether that was the case by pointing out that some British companies currently export waste abroad to be processed in incinerators.

To paraphrase her: ‘If it were true that we do not need to build any more incinerators then why aren’t those companies incinerating their waste in the UK?’ she asked.

Furthermore, she said it was not certain that the UK would end up with too many incinerators by 2015 because there was no guarantee that all those currently in the planning stages would be approved.

Yet those arguments, as local protesters would be quick to point out, do not necessarily justify building an incinerator in Gloucestershire if, as the county council claims, it is intended solely for dealing with the county’s household waste.

The debate about whether or not an incinerator is actually needed at Javelin Park to deal with the county’s household waste is a complex one and one that is likely to continue to play out in these pages.

Now, however, we will turn to look at Mechanical Biological Treatment and pyrolysis gasification, which is being feted by anti-incineration campaigners as one possible alternative to incineration.

* TUCKED in amongst a vast industrial estate a stone’s throw away from Bristol’s Avonmouth Docks are two large warehouse-like buildings.

Were it not for the 30m stack protruding into the air from one of them, you could be forgiven for thinking they existed only to provide storage space for some cargo or goods passing through the nearby port.

In fact, these structures are waste disposal facilities belonging to the Dorset-based firm New Earth Solutions.

The building with orange doors, furthest from us as we approach by road through the sweeping industrial park, is a Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT) plant, while the other – with green doors and stack on one end – is the pyrolysis gasification facility, due to be completed by next year.

We have come to view the facilities at first hand because they are being held up as a potential alternative to incineration by campaigners fighting plans for an EfW plant at Javelin Park.

The MBT plant, which cost around £25 million to build, formally opened last September and it process some 200,000 tonnes of waste per annum from the West of England Partnership (WEP) and commercial businesses.

Made up of four local authorities – Bath and North East Somerset, Bristol City, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire – the WEP has a nine-year contract with New Earth Solutions for the disposal of its household waste – noticeably shorter than the 25-year contract GCC appears poised to sign with UBB.

The waste which goes to the MBT plant, and will also go to the Javelin Park incinerator if approved, is otherwise known as ‘black bin’ rubbish, and it is the material leftover after households have separated their recyclable and compostable waste.

One of the main reasons anti-incineration campaigners would prefer to see an MBT plant built in Gloucestershire is because it provides the opportunity for ‘second chance recycling’.

Whereas black bin waste is fed directly into an incinerator to be burned, an MBT plant uses a high-tech separation system to extract valuable and recyclable materials which homeowners might have missed or accidentally placed in the wrong bin.

The technology uses small cameras mounted above conveyor belts to identify recyclable items, which are subsequently removed and put aside from the other rubbish.

Members of GlosVAIN claim that 50 per cent of the waste currently incinerated in the UK is recyclable and they therefore maintain that MBT is a far better and greener option because of its potential to contribute to improved recycling rates – as it has done in Bristol where recycling rates have increased by 12 per cent in less than a year.

Once the recyclables have been taken out of the waste stream, around 60 per cent of the waste currently going through New Earth Solutions’ MBT plant is packaged up and exported abroad to Holland where it is incinerated.

This is only an interim measure, however, while the gasification plant next door to the MBT facility is fitted out with sixteen New Earth Advanced Thermal (NEAT) units.

As soon as these are in place and fully operational, the facility will treat all of the waste currently shipped to Holland, with rubbish being fed through to it on a conveyor belt directly from the MBT plant next door.

Spokesmen for GlosVAIN have repeatedly branded incineration ‘outdated’ and some members of the group have said they believe gasification to be a more efficient, technologically advanced and cleaner alternative.

Rachel Surbuts, New Earth Solutions’ communications and marketing manager, naturally shares their views, but she highlights the size of the 30m stack on their gasification facility to support her arguments.

“Our stack is only 30m because our emissions will be cleaner. They do not need to be sent right up into the atmosphere and away from human populations,” she says.

The stack on the proposed Javelin Park incinerator will be 50m taller, although a UBB official refuted the suggestion that this was because incinerator emissions are more likely to pose a threat to public health.

UBB says the Javelin Park facility will make a significant contribution to Gloucestershire’s overall renewable energy production and result in a net reduction of 40,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually by diverting waste away from landfill.

New Earth Solutions, however, claim that MBT in combination with gasification is a much greener and less carbon intensive means of disposing of waste.

On our visit, Mrs Surbuts draws attention to a report by independent waste management consultants from Eunomia, who say that the amount of carbon dioxide produced is considerably less when rubbish is disposed of using MBT in tandem with gasification rather than incineration.

According to Eunomia’s report, using MBT and gasification instead of incineration to dispose of 200,000 tonnes of waste is the equivalent to taking 28,000 cars off the road for a whole year in terms of CO2 emissions.

Gloucestershire County Council’s cabinet champion for waste Stan Waddington has suggested that gasification is unproven technology, saying it is not widely used and that there can be no guarantee the new Avonmouth facility will not experience problems once it is finished. On the other hand incineration, he says, is tried and tested.

New Earth Solutions is confident that its new gasification facility will come online without any hiccups though.

In July 2008, pension-funds, hedge-funds and high-net-worth-individuals were investing a combined total of £2 million a month in New Earth Solutions and four years later they are now investing more than double that.

If there were any doubts about whether or not the gasification technology was going to work, people would not be pouring so much investment into the company, Mrs Surbuts says.

“It will work. We have spent a lot of money on research and development and we have a test unit in Dorset so we know it works,” she added.

Once waste has been processed in the MBT plant, the plan is for it to be treated at high temperatures in the 16 NEAT units located inside the gasification and pyrolysis facility.

The units convert the waste into a high-energy gas which can be used to create renewable electricity. Each unit is estimated to be able to generate enough power to meet the needs of around 1,800 homes so the sixteen units at Avonmouth should be able to cater for approximately 28,800 households in total.

The government recently underlined its commitment to the technology by renewing subsidies for advanced thermal treatment in the form of Renewable Obligation Certificates and in the last month alone there have been high-profile visits to New Earth Solutions headquarters in Dorset by business secretary Vince Cable and the secretary of state for communities and local government Eric Pickles.

There has been a lot of rhetoric from central government in recent months about the need to build a green economy and on his visit Dr Cable said British companies like New Earth Solutions had a crucial role to play in that.

“The quality of innovation I have seen here – and the potential it offers UK plc – provides encouraging evidence that the entrepreneurial spirit we need to re-build our economy is thriving,” he said.

When GCC decided to apply for PFI credits in November 2007, New Earth Solutions effectively ruled themselves out of competing for the authority’s residual waste contract because they did not have the financial muscle to put together a PFI bid.

Half a decade later, the circumstances are very different, however, with the PFI funding having been withdrawn and New Earth on a much firmer footing, both in terms of its financial resources and the strength of its technology.

GlosVAIN has consistently questioned the wisdom of GCC’s decision to enter into a 25-year contract with Urbaser for incineration because the group says technology is always evolving and it would be shortsighted for the authority to commit to burning waste for so long when other waste disposal technologies might come along in the near future.

That argument would appear to have some validity when you consider that in the space of just a few years a British company has emerged offering a credible and potentially superior alternative to incineration.