Carluke and Clydesdale residents and councillors are right to be concerned about the plans for a waste incinerator near Blackwood (‘Fears that incinerator could pollute Clydesdale’, Carluke Gazette 22nd June 2010). The positive gloss usually put on waste incinerators by governments and companies is that they are burning waste to produce “green energy” and “recycling waste” , but incinerators create CO2 emissions and climate change, particularly from hydrocarbon or oil based plastics (1).
The other pollution created by waste incineration is even worse. Dioxins produced by the incineration of plastics and other materials are carcinogens (i.e cause cancer). Particulates and acid gases can cause or worsen breathing problems. Both can be spread over large areas by the wind as ash or gas polluting air, water and land and ingested by humans either directly, by breathing them in, or from drinking water or eating food polluted by them. Ash may also contain toxic heavy metals (2) – (6).
While the amounts of these pollutants have been reduced in newer incinerators there is no guarantee that they have been reduced to a safe level and there is no consensus among scientists about what level of exposure to carcinogens such as dioxins is safe. The level of pollutants created would also surely be affected by what kind of waste was being incinerated (2) – (6).
We certainly have a worldwide problem in how to deal with rubbish, but the best solution would be start with strict government regulation of the types and amounts of packaging allowed for different products, especially food and drink packaging, which accounts for the majority of household waste.
This would minimise the amount of rubbish which would have to go to landfill, incinerators or to be recycled and could help ensure that packaging in future would not be made of materials which would create dioxins or other toxic pollutants when recycled.
The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives suggests producers should be made to pay for the disposal of their products and packaging, to give them a profit motive to use less toxic and more easily recyclable materials (7).
(1) = Friends of the Earth 2006 ‘Dirty Truths : Incineration and climate change’,
(2) = Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology Post Note 149 December 2000 ‘Incineration of Household Waste’, http://www.parliament.uk/documents/post/pn149.pdf (see especially ‘Pollutants from incineration’ pages 1 – 2 )
(3) = Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine 1995, Volume 52, Issue 6 ‘Dioxin concentrations in the blood of workers at municipal waste incinerators’, http://oem.bmj.com/content/52/6/385.abstract
(4) = National Research Council of the National Academies (Washington D.C, US) News Release 11 July 2006 ‘EPA ASSESSMENT OF DIOXIN UNDERSTATES UNCERTAINTY ABOUT HEALTH RISKS AND
MAY OVERSTATE HUMAN CANCER RISK’, http://www8.nationalacademies.org/onpinews/newsitem.aspx?RecordID=11688
(5) = National Research Council of the National Academies (Washington D.C, US) 2001 ‘Health Risks from Dioxin and Related Compounds’, http://www.ejnet.org/dioxin/nas2006.pdf
(6) = Greenpeace background on incineration 30 Nov 2004, http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/toxics/incineration/the-problem/
(7) = Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives – Extended Producer Responsibility,http://www.no-burn.org/article.php?list=type&type=93