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Inflamed over the waste crisis

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Run ‘incinerator’ through Google and it throws up a plethora of stories featuring protests, inquiries and gripes about ill-gotten private sector gains.

Like a family with a troop of ASBO kids, we largely accept they need to be housed somewhere, but pray it won’t be on our patch.

But if tough European Union targets on reducing landfill are to be hit, councils have much to do beyond simply recycling more and throwing out less.

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Many are being left with little option but to invest in plants using rubbish as fuel to produce energy.

This was the sombre warning issued by the Audit Commission , in last week’s report Well Disposed, Responding to the Waste Challenge .

The document stated that around 30 new plants will need to be built to divert the required tonnage from landfill sites.

And while these projects can by the commission’s own admission be costly and controversial, the alternative is to get clobbered with fines of up to£7m. Grim reading, however you spin it.

So should local authorities be frantically searching for partners to start incinerator construction projects as soon as possible, or is there another way?

Most experts believe that, what the industry likes to term, ‘energy from waste’ (EfW) plants of which incinerators are the most common option are part of the solution, despite the opposition from the green lobby.

Green groups widely claim that incinerators encourage more rubbish, generate energy inefficiently, waste energy and cause pollution.

So it is fortunate that EfW plants are not restricted to incinerators alone. Other possible treatment methods include mechanical biological treatment.

This involves separating residual waste into different elements with recyclable material extracted.

If sufficiently clean, the remaining waste is put through a process called anaerobic digestion to break it down. Only a small amount of matter remains for incineration or landfill under this method.

How much of total waste the EfW option can deal with remains open to debate. And there is little time to hold such a debate before escalating landfill tax becomes a serious drain on council resources.

"A lot of local authorities are drinking in the last chance saloon and this [report] is an attempt by the Audit Commission to scare them into action," said the Local Government Information Unit ’s Andy Johnston. "Councils who have not acted quickly enough have backed themselves into a corner where incineration may be their only option."

Dr Johnston, who heads the LGIU’s centre for local sustainability, also pointed out that while current targets are designed to cut down the amount of waste ending up in landfill, future legislation may prioritise cutting the total amount of waste.

While burning rubbish may achieve the first goal, it would not necessarily help reach the targets to cut waste.

In fact, because incinerators require a minimum amount of waste to carry out their purpose of generating energy, in some cases it could perversely encourage local authorities to produce more waste.

To further complicate matters, predicting what the waste landscape will look like in a decade is almost as tricky as predicting what the price a barrel of oil will be.

So councils are advised to ensure commitments they make now are as flexible as possible and will not prove to be a thorn in their side later.

Phillip Ward, director for local government services at the Waste & Resources Action Programme, said: "There is a debate at the moment about what can and cannot be recycled and it is a debate that is changing all the time. For example, when the first recycling targets were set back in 1990, it was thought that food could not be recycled, but now that is not the case."

Predictably, the funding of such projects has been the subject of much controversy.

The Local Government Association has long claimed that the government reneged on a deal to refund money raised through landfill tax to local authorities.

LGA environment board chairman, Paul Bettison (Con), explained: "The government has hit the council tax payer with a£1.5bn bill over the next three years by going back on its undertaking to refund money raised through landfill tax to local authorities. This is cash that could be used to build the facilities that are needed to divert waste away from landfill."

This leaves councils with the far from ideal option of private finance initiative funding, which can tie councils into long-term contracts with little wiggle room.

The government allocated£2bn worth of PFI credits during the current comprehensive spending review period to help local authorities invest in waste disposal and a number of councils have seized the opportunity.

The results have been a mixed bag, not least because of the current turmoil in the world’s credit markets.

Although councils are widely viewed as safe investments, it has been reported that banks are now more reluctant to underwrite deals.

A notable example of potential problems is the Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority’s (GMWDA) mammoth£4.4bn PFI-funded project including a combined heat and power plant.

According to GMWDA chairman, Neil Swannick (Lab), the private sector consortium behind the project, Viridor and Laing, still needs to secure "several hundred million pounds worth of capital".

"It is undoubtedly true that difficulties have arisen because of the current financial climate. This has generally been the case for large infrastructure projects that require private sector borrowing," said Cllr Swannick.

Ominously, the Audit Commission report pointed out that delays to schemes currently in the pipeline could hinder the chances of hitting the 2013 and 2020 targets.

Overall, the commission’s report represents the warning siren being sounded, loud and clear.

While the future of the waste landscape remains open to much debate, one certainty for councils stands out.

The time for action is now, otherwise a large chunk local authority cash will be incinerated along with the rubbish.

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