Zero Waste: the clean alternative to incinerators

A rally against the incinerator outside NSW parliament on Febuary 6. Photo Peter Boyle.

The Next Generation (TNG) wants to build the biggest waste-to-energy incinerator in the world at Eastern Creek in Sydney’s west. Local residents are defiantly opposed and have organised for more than a year to bring Labor and the Coalition onside.

At a rally outside NSW Parliament on February 6, Labor pledged it would oppose it. Tanya Davies, the local Liberal MP, told the rally that while she was concerned, the decision was a planning issue, not a government one.

After 1000 submissions were made — mostly opposed — to the proposal, TNG has submitted its third revision.

Jo Immig, Coordinator of the National Toxics Network, who addressed the rally, spoke to Green Left Weekly’s Pip Hinman. Immig said regardless of the modifications being presented by TNG, waste incinerators of the type proposed for Eastern Creek still produce large amounts of toxic air pollution and contaminated ash which will have a bad impact on the health of communities and the environment.

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Can you describe the health and environmental dangers associated with the incinerator TNG wants to build at Eastern Creek?

Waste incinerators of this type produce large amounts of toxic air pollution. These emissions include highly carcinogenic persistent organic pollutants such as dioxins and furans (PCDD and PCDF), hexachlorobenzene (HCB), polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) and brominated persistent organic pollutants.

Incinerators also emit nanoparticles, toxic heavy metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic and acid gases that have serious impacts on human health. Many of these pollutants are carried on the wind impacting communities and ecosystems long distances from the point of origin.  

Many pollutants of concern emitted from waste incinerators are not monitored or regulated in Australia, even though they are unavoidably released from incinerators.

Australia has no air quality protection standards for air toxics or hazardous air pollutants. The only ambient air quality protection laws in Australia are the National Environmental Protection Measures (NEPMs) established in 1998 that list a small range of criteria pollutants: carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, sulphur dioxide, lead, PM 10 and PM 2.5 (particulate matter smaller than 10 or 2.5 micro metres).

The appalling lack of air quality protection laws afforded to people — particularly those living in close proximity to polluting industry — facilitates industrial development ahead of (and often at the expense of) public health protection.

This approach is untenable in the long term as the cost of these industry externalities are paid for through our public health system and degraded environment.

Incinerators also produce toxic ash contaminated with toxic heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as dioxins and furans.

The levels of contamination vary according to the waste burned, the process used and configuration of the pollution controls on the smoke stack. All solid and air emissions contain contaminants, many of which can be at a level that can impact on human health and the environment depending on the disposal method and exposure.

According to the incinerator industry most incinerators generate 1 tonne of contaminated ash for every 4 tonnes of waste burned. This includes smaller volumes of highly toxic “fly ash” and larger volumes of less toxic “bottom ash”. There is no market for incinerator ash and it must be disposed of in landfill.

In terms of looking after the environment more generally, Australia is a signatory to the Stockholm Convention, which obliges us to reduce, and where feasible, eliminate sources of dioxins and furans. Permitting an incinerator such as this to establish in Australia contravenes the intent of this obligation.

You said that Europe and the US are moving away from incinerating toxic waste. What are the alternatives?

The alternative is a Zero Waste approach — a pragmatic and visionary goal to guide people to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where discarded materials become resources for others to use.

Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to reduce the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them.

Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that may be a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health.

You can read more about it at Zero Waste International Alliance where you can also ask your organisation to sign on to its statement — Zero Waste solutions for Australia: not waste incineration.

A key point I was making about the EU turning away from waste incinerators is that they are stopping taxpayer subsidies to waste incinerators. San Francisco, as a city of comparable size to Sydney, is a great case study. It is making great progress in its goal to become zero waste by 2020.

The National Toxics Network is among the many organisations and individuals that made submissions to the government inquiry. Tanya Davies said the NSW government will listen to the experts. What would it take for a city like Sydney to move to zero waste?

The short answer is leadership and commitment to uphold and implement the waste hierarchy. The volumes of residual waste that society generates — waste destined for disposal through landfill or incineration, which is predominantly non-recyclable plastics — represents a failure to uphold the waste hierarchy and apply a policy framework to support Zero Waste solutions.

The single most important step any city can take to move towards a sustainable Zero Waste model is to establish dedicated source separation systems for all waste streams. The cleaner our waste streams, the more value this waste holds for reuse, recycling and composting.

The recent decision by China illustrates this point very well. Contaminated waste streams, which are created through poor source separation systems, contaminate our materials production, undermine recycling opportunities and generate the need for disposal.

The NSW government (like any government) needs to: reduce the generation of residual waste through community education; set standards for the commercial and industrial sectors to reduce plastic packaging and single use products; implement container deposit schemes and an extended producer responsibility framework.

It also needs to establish dedicated Material Recovery Facilities for the residential, commercial and industrial sectors that can capture all the different waste streams and direct these resources to reuse, recycling and composting sectors.

When governments establish dedicated source separation systems, the amount of residual waste generated is reduced so the need for disposal options such as large-scale incineration technologies are not required.

These technologies rely on large volumes of residual waste feedstocks and therefore pervert the goal of sustainable Zero Waste management outcomes.

The small remaining amount of residual waste left can be safely managed through non-combustion technologies, or safe containership and storage until they are removed from our materials production processes.

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