Thursday, 17 June 2010

Why incinerators are green red herrings

I posted the following on an article about the waste handling policy of Amsterdam - which looks pretty short term - on the (people planet profit) website

Hi Leon,
Perhaps you believe that if each area such as Amsterdam works out what they think is the most immediately green(ish) answer for them that somehow the sum total of all the millions of areas in the world doing this will add up to an adequately globally sustainable solution. I don't think minimising or ignoring the international dynamics will bring home the bacon environmentally speaking.

Here's a post I made to another site that partially explains why incineration is a dead-end/red herring.

The whole point about why we talk about composting, waste/energy/greenhouse gas reductions etc. is because we are not living in a sustainable way. The United Nations Environment Program identified a couple of years that we are living at least 20% beyond what the planet can sustainably supply and so clearly we need to make big moves to address this, or we are in for some grief.

As an analogy, it's no good jumping, say, 6 feet to cross the ten foot crevasse that yawns between our current society and sustainability. Similarly, such things as incinerators, compost-able plastics etc are diversions that have green "feel-good" aspects to them but only 6 feet worth, not the whole enchilada. These apparent benefits are largely greenwash in the marketing of products to a naive public - the marketing industry shares a lot of the responsibility for the mess we are now in because they seem to work on the principle that if people think they are getting something, then that is just about as good as if they actually are getting it. In short, their business is identifying "needs", amplifying them into greeds then, with their evil twin the advertising industry, to set about marketing the various wares to satisfy these created needs/greeds. The incinerator industry has tidal waves of greenwash flooding around which sound sensible to short term analyses which do not sufficiently consider the long term goals.

Incineration with energy recovery, particularly if that includes district heating, is viewed as better than landfill and, from the greenhouse emissions perspective (particularly methane) that is probably right - but it's not good enough. We can’t cross the gap like that. Incinerators need a supply of burnable rubbish for their 25-30 year design life and so are directly antagonistic towards waste reduction measures. Anyway, the amount of energy they actually recover is a fraction of the embodied manufacturing energy of most waste. "Recovering" that fraction of the energy out of burning waste only appears, at a casual glance, to be a plus because most never think of the much larger amount of energy (not to mention the generated pollution, resource depletion, habitat change etc.) that was originally used to extract or mine, transport, process and manufacture the goods that became "waste" in the first place.

It's no good promoting incinerators by only looking at (what appear to be green) marketing points. Ultimately, any system which demands a steady supply of combustible waste will ensure that we will fail to make the other side of the crevasse. Proponents of the idea that they will provide a stopgap, while we are waiting for recycling/re-use systems to arrive, miss the point of how the presence of a convenient disposal system mitigates against the arrival of those systems.

It's also no good using shallow LCAs (Life Cycle Analyses) to point out the current shortcomings with plastic recycling and returnable schemes - these will take a long time to sort out sufficiently. Pressure and economic incentives will need to be applied to "encourage" manufacturers to change their materials, transport and packaging systems; ultimately their factory locations, product design and manufacturing methods too.

It took almost 100 years for the consumer society to get where we are now - we can spare 20 years to put right what once went wrong by re-imagining things sustainably, but we will have to ignore the siren corporate calls for easy disposal technology.

One of the chess moves that will lead to a sustainable society being created is the instituting of reliable collection of recyclable material ahead of the moment when there will be enough of a supply for most manufacturers to commit to greatly reducing, or eliminating, the use of "virgin" material. Thus we need a "build it and they will come" period for recyclable/returnables combined with economic carrots and sticks applied to discriminate against the use of virgin material and one-trip systems, so that the loop gets closed.

To cross the metaphorical crevasse successfully might need a hard ten mile frustrating sideways detour which, for a time might not appear to be getting closer to (or may initially even draw further away from) our destination, whereas moves like the big "incinerator jump" across might appear, with a shallow LCA analysis, to be rapidly crossing the ten foot gap to sustainability, only will prove to fail disastrously later on, having wasted lots of time.

There is currently an awful lot of faux-sustainability thinking in the corporate planning arena and this is largely due to a failure to realise that business-almost-as-usual, but with a few bright green knobs stuck on, will simply not cut the sustainability mustard. Simultaneously, it muddies the waters with promises of apparently clean, useful solutions and relatively painless “keep right on consuming” subliminal messages which unfortunately will prove to be red herrings and a tragic waste of time and effort and will, in due course, end up with the planet and us broken at the bottom of the crevasse.



Ugh, It's Him! said...

Well argued. I particularly like the "6 foot jump across a 10 foot crevasse" metaphor. I might even be very green, and recycle it for my own use when the need arises!

Nick Palmer said...

As far as I know it's my own idea so feel free to use it :)

st-ouennais said...

The 6 foot jump across a 10 foot crevasse sounds like a version of the David Lloyd-George quote. Do not be afraid to take a giant leap if one is indicated. You cannot cross a chasm in two small steps.

Nick Palmer said...

Hi St O.

He may have used it first but I definitely came up with the idea as well. Perhaps I have a future date with a time machine to go back and inspire Lloyd-George.

There used to be a popular phrase, originating in a music hall song: "Lloyd-George knew my father, my father knew Lloyd-George" which, with imagination, might suggest a trace of temporal anomaly...