The Poolbeg Incinerator- Is It Our Best Alternative?

Lydia Bowers

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The Poolbeg “waste-to-energy” plant will be fully operational by August 2017, after two decades of fierce opposition.

 

 

There is no doubt that Ireland’s reliance on landfill use or exportation for waste disposal has been an errant problem for decades. Over half of our operating landfills are nearly filled to capacity and Eurostat figures have revealed that Ireland was one of the EU’s top hazardous waste exporters up until 2012.

Eurostat hazardous waste exporters
Eurostat hazardous waste exporters

 

We need to come up with an alternative solution for our waste disposal. This is a fact. But is the Poolbeg “waste-to-energy” plant, or incinerator as its critics like to call it, our best alternative?

Waste-to-energy plants are presented as an efficient, green alternative for waste disposal. We currently export 560,000 tonnes of waste from Ireland each year and the new plant has the capacity for 600,000 tonnes. The plant is too large for waste from Dublin alone and so it has made agreements with the main waste operators who are contractually obliged to contribute 560,000 tonnes of waste to the plant over the next 9 years. These are “put-or-pay contracts” meaning if the operators do not bring this waste, they still have to pay the full charge.

The only way to make this commercially viable is to bring waste from other municipalities around the country namely Dundalk and Dublin’s surrounding areas. As it stands our current recycling target is 45-50% by 2020. With this oversized plant needing such a huge supply of waste on a constant basis the city council’s surely have no incentive to encourage citizens to recycle more and try to meet these targets? This seems counterintuitive.

Then there are the health concerns that come along with an incinerator. Namely the issue of dioxins and furans, harmful by-products of burning waste. In May 2016, Covanta, the US company that was contracted to build and run the incinerator, had to close one of the boilers in its incinerator in Durham York, near Toronto, after emissions exceeded limits set by the Canadian Government for dioxins.The dioxins in the air were thirteen times the legal limit. The laws in Ireland in terms of emissions are a lot less stringent than in Canada, so if high levels of dioxins were released from the plant in Poolbeg there’s every possibility of no legal consequences.

At the moment, Covanta, has agreed to publish the following data on its own website: Furnace Temperature, Total Dust, Total Organic Carbon (TOC), Hydrogen Chloride (HCL), Sulphur Dioxide (SO2), Nitrogen Oxide (NO2), Carbon Monoxide. However, no continuous publications on dioxin and furan level, the most dangerous particulate, will be provided.

The British Society for Ecological Medicine, in its 4th report, has recommended alternative methods to incineration including recycling, mechanical biological treatment, aerobic digestion and plasma gasification. They conclude that these methods would be safer, produce more energy and cheaper than incineration in the long run when health costs are taken into account.

Sandymount- photo credit Gabriela Avram
Sandymount- photo credit Gabriela Avram

The Circular spoke to People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA) Councillor for Dublin Bay North, John Lyons, about the need for stricter emissions standards in Ireland, a truly independent monitoring body and why, ultimately, he believes the incinerator “should be consigned to the dustbin of history.”

Studies have shown higher rates of adult and childhood cancers and also birth defects around waste incinerators. Covanta have said that their emissions levels in Poolbeg will be kept well below EU standards but their plants have a record in the past of far surpassing these levels when machinery breaks down or malfunctions. In a Canadian plant last year the dioxin level in one of the boilers was at 13 times the permitted level. Do you think the measures in Poolbeg can prevent situations like this happening in the future?

 

The twenty years since the Poolbeg Incinerator was conceived as the best alternative to the disposal of domestic waste in landfill, have witnessed a transformation in the waste landscape and an accumulation of international studies and other evidence that demonstrates the inefficiencies and dangers of incineration.
The Poolbeg Incinerator also highlights a lack of democracy and transparency at local government level as repeated votes to reject the proposal taken by a majority of Dublin City councillors on a number of occasions over the last number of years have been duly ignored by the CEO of Dublin City Council, who has also refused on many occasions to be fully transparent on the full cost implications to the public purse of such a massive project.
Indeed, the lack of transparency surrounding the City Council’s negotiation with Covanta would raise fears that conditions set-down in terms of emissions are probably too lax and, if not changed, could see a scenario in Dublin similar to the one witnessed at  the Durham York plant in Canada last year where Covanta had to shut down one of its two stacks as the dangerous dioxins released into the air were 13 times the legal limit. Given Covanta’s track record, this is a distinct possibility but with one significant difference in Dublin: the same amount of dioxins released in the air may have no legal consequences. Therefore, if this project is to be a feature of our waste strategy for the foreseeable future, truly independent monitoring alongside stringent emissions standards will be essential.

With the “put or pay” contract that the Poolbeg incinerator has with the main waste disposal companies in Dublin, if the companies don’t reach their quote of 560,000 tonnes per year they still have to pay the full cost. Do you see this as a disincentive for local councils to encourage their citizenry to recycle as the fee has to be paid anyway?

 

We know that the Dublin Local Authorities in Dublin City, Dun Laoghaire and Fingal will be financially liable for partial funding of nearly 60% should the operator not reach a certain threshold of waste incinerated but how exactly will the councils ensure that that obligation is met since they are no longer involved in the provision of municipal waste disposal services? The potential costs, both financial and human resources, will mean that the local authorities will be less engaged and active in promoting efforts to reduce and recycle.

Countries like the Philippines have bans on incinerators and have found viable alternatives to incineration for waste disposal. This waste-to-energy plant in Poolbeg has been marketed as our best alternative over landfill and sending waste overseas. Do you think that’s the case or could we have explored other less expensive/safer options such as recycling or mechanical biological treatment?

Ireland currently has one of the highest rates of recycling in Europe but the incinerator model points in a completely different, more environmentally damaging and financially costly direction. Policy makers should be exploring how best we can continue to build upon the great efforts of recent years in terms of reducing, recycling and re-using as its more environmentally friendly but also more profitable to the local economy as examples in Ontario, Canada and the Great Lakes region of the United States in the 1990s have proven.

Instead of pursuing the incinerator project at Poolbeg, national and local government should look at international best practice in this the second decade of the 21st century and begin implementing intensive nation-wide recycling programmes alongside the re-municipalisation of waste management, and thus consign the incinerator to the dustbin of history.

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Lydia Bowers