Burning solution


Dioxins are among the worst of persistent organic pollutants. Anybody reading the recently published EU report on Dioxin Exposure and Health Data would be left in no doubt of this. The report charts the chemicals' insidious side - a tendency to accumulate in higher animals, including humans.

Cut to a meeting in January of Wexford County Council, one of the local authorities in the south-east which is planning to locate a large incinerator in the region. In attendance is Prof Christoffer Rappe of Umea University, Sweden, arguably Europe's foremost authority on dioxins. He does not believe the planned incinerator will pose a health threat, but admits he has not read Dioxin Exposure and Health Data. Councillors vote down the region's waste management plan. Expertise can stand for little in the face of intense emotions that incinerators provoke.

In fact, the report: "did not link emissions/incineration with any human effects due to dioxins," according to one of its authors, Dr Heidelore Fiedler of the University of Bayreuth, Germany, who was in Ringsend at the invitation of Dublin Corporation recently. Dioxins are highly toxic but ubiquitous, and the report evaluated high exposure studies, not background levels which could be associated with incineration.

Perhaps, we are fortunate in coming into the incineration game late. With almost every county party to a regional plan proposing an incinerator - some six in all - the temperature in the incineration debate is rising. Thermal treatment has to play a part in an integrated approach to waste management, if we are to achieve bold targets for moving away from land-filling, according to waste consultant P. J. Rudden of M. C. O'Sullivan, which is advising most of the regional authorities.

Who is leading the way? A new EU directive on waste is tightening dioxin limits but countries such as Austria, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands are already achieving significantly lower discharges. Yet incinerators can be contentious there, too - often more because of location and traffic impact. The surrealistic exterior of the Spittelau thermal treatment plant in the heart of Vienna, with its mosque-like stack, banishes notions that incinerators always look like the worst of heavy industry and cannot be located in residential areas. Local residents like its superb marriage of art and technology; it is a source of heat; it boasts a continuous public display of aerial discharges (dioxin figures are not displayed, as tests for them are less frequent). Nonetheless, a strong Green presence in Austria means it probably would not be located there were it being built now.

The big issue in Denmark, meanwhile, is heavy-metal residues and emissions associated with flue gases in incinerators. Dioxin checks are in place in incinerators, steelworks and furnaces, and during the mid-1980s some incinerators were closed due to poor performance. Bjorn Jakobsen of COWI, Danish consultant engineers on waste treatment (who advised on most of the regional plans), believes Irish people, before getting into a huff about incineration, must face up to the reality of other dioxin sources. "What about dioxin from peat combustion in Ireland?" he asks.

Gunnar Kjaer, project manager with the Vestforbraending thermal treatment plant in Copehagen, has overseen the construction of some of Denmark's best-performing plants. Owned by municipal authorities, the Vestforbraending provides district heating. He says people are mistakenly led to believe "toxic" equals "harmful". Mere presence of a toxic substance cannot be equated with hazard. But Ireland's imminent problems with incineration will be political rather than environmental, he predicts.

"Build one or two. Let them become a success and, for God's sake, make sure you do it right, first time," he says.

Environmental consultant, Jack O'Sullivan, was once almost as enthusiastic about incineration. Now he believes Ireland does not have to follow Europe. The public distaste for landfill and incineration should be capitalised on by going for waste reduction at source and recycling. But for recycling to become efficient, it has to be made economical, with household charges for disposal based on weight.

To counteract the high costs associated with recycling, he suggests applying "green taxes", or levies. Anybody making non-recyclable products is subject to a small levy. The proceeds go towards recycling rather than into Government coffers and rewards go to good recyclers in the home. Some £50 million, the price of one incinerator, would consolidate the recycling sector, says O'Sullivan, who believes five years is all it would take.

"I would have said incineration 10 years ago. There was no landfill directive. Composting was not an option." And although incinerators now are hyper-efficient, he has a lingering sense that something will go wrong, some day. Moreover, he adds: "We should be living now in a society where everything is recycled."

There is growing realisation of this need with the arrival of "the 99 per cent recyclable television", and a leading motor company developing a recyclable car. Incineration will, O'Sullivan says, have no place when this route is chosen.

[Series concluded]