Act now to stop the Parley waste incinerator

Photo of chimney by veeterzy on Unsplash Photo of protest placard by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

According to the latest edition of the Spectator, the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow in November this year is seen by Number 10 as a chance to relaunch ‘Brexit Britain’ as a green superpower. Hmm.

To be a green superpower, you actually have to be green – and two-jets Johnson is taking us backwards in that respect. Nowhere is this more evident than in Dorset. Despite the battle still raging over the planned Portland waste incinerator on the edge of the Jurassic Coast, a planning application has recently been lodged for another waste incinerator in West Parley, near Christchurch.

The application sounds innocuous enough. A company with a nice, green-sounding name, Eco Sustainable Solutions Ltd, is proposing a development that comprises “the installation of a low carbon energy recovery facility (ERF) for the generation of electricity and heat through a low-emission thermal process using residual waste; including a new administration building and associated car parking area; associated reconfiguration of existing and permitted uses; an increase in permitted waste throughput; landscaping and associated works”.

Innocuous, until you know that electricity generated in this way is the second dirtiest method after coal-fired power. Channel 4’s Dispatches programme, The Dirty Truth About Your Rubbish, which aired in March this year, recounted that as coal is phased out, energy from waste will become the dirtiest form of electricity production in the UK. By 2035, incineration will be a more carbon-intensive process than even landfill.

As for the name of the company, Eco Sustainable Solutions Ltd, it would be a shame if it were merely a case of the old Belgian adage, ‘donner un nom pour couvrir la honte’ – ‘give it a name to hide its shame’. Or corporate greenwashing, if you will. I’m told by someone who occasionally works for the company that this is not the case. Further, he tells me there is nobody else in the county with their infrastructure, that their anaerobic digester at Piddlehinton takes all of Dorset’s food waste, and that they provide local jobs. That all sounds good, so why on earth would they blot their copybook with a waste incinerator? That technology is so last century!

Incinerators produce carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen oxides, heavy metals and particulate matter, which damage health and cause birth defects. Some of the pollutants in the emissions would have to be kept within the levels set out in the EU industrial emissions directive, which has been adopted into UK law. That’s cold comfort when waste management companies have lobbied to lower them, our government boasts of wanting to diverge from EU standards, and one of its most prestigious climate-change deniers, North Somerset MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, declares that Britain could slash environmental and safety standards “a very long way”. He uses India as a role model on that score.

A major report into incinerators by Unearthed found that people living near incinerators complain of noise, litter, increased vehicle traffic, smells and air pollution — although a 2019 Imperial College study on air pollution from incinerators suggests the problem is much less significant than around other industrial sites. The Stop Portland Waste Incinerator Group takes a different view:

“These levels have been agreed as industrially ‘acceptable’ but are in no way without harms to human and ecological health. Typically, levels of acid gas emissions and micro-particle emissions from waste incinerators are high. In addition, the proposed plant would emit tonnes of carbon dioxide every day.”

This is all the more concerning, because (unlike other energy producers, who have to publish their total carbon dioxide emissions), the energy-from-waste industry has to account only for the CO2 from burning fossil-based waste such as plastic. It does not report emissions from food and garden waste, known as biogenic CO2, for example. Its pollution is therefore likely to be understated.

In its 2020 report, Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (BCP) Council reported good air quality (with caveats on some of the data). Why on earth would we want to spoil that? Taking into account both the substances the plant will be using and the inevitable accidents that such industrial plants experience, it is possible the assessment of the risks posed to health is too complacent. Hopefully, when this proposal comes to be discussed, there will be someone on BCP Council to object, like Councillor Jon Orrell, a GP, who proclaimed last year: “I don’t want my patients breathing in particulates that come out of this stack. A lot of these particulates you can’t see, but they still kill. I don’t want any of my residents killed by this power plant.”

We are in a climate emergency. The answer is not more carbon emissions. BCP Council knows this – or, at least, it used to, before it was taken over by the Conservatives in a coup last year. On 16 July 2019, BCP Council declared a climate and ecological emergency, following the lead of Theresa May’s government at Westminster. The headline commitments of this were to make BCP Council and its operations carbon-neutral by 2030, and to work with partners to set a target date for when the Poole region of BCP could be made carbon-neutral, ahead of the UK target of 2050.

No doubt those in favour of Eco Sustainable Solutions Ltd’s proposal will say it is located on a waste management allocated site, as per the 2019-adopted Dorset Waste Plan, and already operates waste recycling and recovery with its anaerobic digestion facility, as well as a green waste composting operation. The business plan even forecasts a “minor positive benefit”. However, the United Kingdom Without Incineration Network (UKWIN) report has shown significant flaws in Eco Sustainable Solutions Ltd’s modelling and recommends that the “minor positive benefit” not be given any weight.

“The marginal nature of the claimed ‘minor positive’ benefit, when combined with the significant modelling uncertainties, means GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions associated with the proposal could end up being much higher over the lifetime of the facility than had the waste been sent to landfill.”

As mentioned above, smell is one of the biggest complaints from people who live near incinerators. They say that the smell gets worse as the ambient temperature rises. On hot days they are prisoners in their own homes, because they cannot sit outside or open their windows due to the stench. Imagine living in sunny Bournemouth and not being able to go outside!

The incinerator chimney will be 38 metres tall, so the polluting plume will be visible across Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole of course, but also as far afield as Ferndown, the nature reserve at Arne and even the outskirts of Wimborne. It all depends on which way the wind is blowing. (See specialist website, which tracks the plumes of incinerators in the UK, Ireland and the northern Netherlands.)

Adjacent to the site in Parley is a Dorset heathlands special protection area that is home to nightjars, dartford warblers, wood larks, hen harriers and merlins. If this project were to go through, given that it would increase local emissions and pollution for 25+ years, it would likely threaten that habitat.

Photo montage by the author

If you’re not moved by the plight of nature, then consider what you will have to sacrifice for the sake of this incinerator. Long-term private finance initiative (PFI) agreements mean that BCP Council will be locked in over the net-zero horizon for de-carbonisation. That’s right: an incinerator is for at least 25 years, not just for Christmas. As time progressed, it would become an increasing burden, as it took up a growing proportion of our decreasing carbon allowance. Local people might be called onto make sacrifices, such as giving up their cars or their holidays, just so that we could have the ‘luxury’ of a dirty incinerator on our patch. How do you fancy that?

The UK has enough incinerator capacity already. Furthermore, the BCP area does not produce enough waste for another incinerator, and the amount of waste is likely to fall as we implement behavioural change to reduce waste and increase reuse and recycling. This means waste would have to be shipped or trucked in to feed it.

A new incinerator is not the answer to the climate and ecological emergency declared by BCP Council in 2019.

Incinerators increase our emissions and waste our resources, and as such they are a barrier to a circular, sustainable economy. We should be rethinking our relationship with plastic, not setting fire to it. Plastic is made from fossil fuels. Burning it is 1000 times more carbon intensive than wind farms, and has the same ill effects as burning fossil fuels. All plastic should be made to be reusable and recyclable.

Object now or forever hold your breath

Last year the Conservative-led BCP council awarded Eco Sustainable Solutions Ltd the contract for waste management in the area. It is to be hoped that this will not influence the assessment of their waste incinerator proposal, but with all the ‘Tory sleaze’ happening at the moment, the true extent of which is still unknown, we cannot just trust to fate. We must act.

To be clear, this is not about shutting Eco Sustainable Solutions Ltd down, or interfering in any way in the other good work they do. But a waste incinerator is a no-no. We have until 11 May to object to this proposal. Here’s what you can do:

  • Click on this link to lodge your objection with BCP Council. You will need to accept the terms and conditions before proceeding, then just fill in the form stating the reasons why you do not wish the planning application to be approved.
  • Write to your MP. You never know, he might become an ally. The local MP for Portland, Richard Drax, came out against the incinerator. MPs to contact in the BCP area are Conor Burns, Sir Christopher Chope, Tobias Ellwood, Sir Robert Syms and possibly Michael Tomlinson as well, although he is a government whip so might refuse to become involved.
  • Write to local newspapers and phone in to local radio shows.
  • Share this article with your friends and on social media to get the word out. We have so little time to act!