Select Committee on European Communities Eleventh Report


PART 3: OPINION OF THE COMMITTEE


INTRODUCTION

70. A good deal of the evidence submitted in response to the original invitation (see paragraph 0) was of a detailed technical nature. We recognise the importance of the technical and scientific arguments which underlie the setting of emission limit values and other standards in this field; we note that these have been the subject of extensive consultation with industry and other interest groups and of continuing negotiations in the Council Working Group. This Report therefore focuses on aspects of the proposals which raise questions about overall waste management strategy, which have major implications for the environment and human health, and which potentially affect particular sections of industry in significant ways.

71. We also wished to avoid commenting in detail on proposals which had, to some degree, been overtaken by events. We have been conscious of the fact that, with the coming into effect of the Amsterdam Treaty and the election of a new European Parliament, and with the proposals for consolidating and possibly further amending the waste incineration proposals, debate on the proposals—including the exact choice of limit values—is likely to resume afresh. Under the amended treaty provisions, the proposals will now be dealt with under the co-decision procedure (see paragraph 0 and footnote); it seems likely that the new Parliament will wish to start afresh when the proposals come forward from the Commission, in what may well be a substantially revised form; it may in any case wish to insist on the tighter standards adopted by its predecessor.

OVERALL WASTE MANAGEMENT STRATEGY

72. The European Union's overall waste management strategy places incineration low in the "hierarchy" of options—below waste prevention, minimisation and recycling. The draft Waste Incineration Directive (we have been told) is not intended to promote incineration as a disposal option but rather to ensure that, when incineration takes place, it is properly regulated for the protection of the environment and human health; also to bring about environmental benefits through utilisation of heat. We support this role for a regulatory measure; and we also note that Commission officials see it essentially as a technical rather than a strategic proposal. Nevertheless we felt it was right to seek a clearer idea of how the proposals sat in the wider context of sustainable waste management.

73. In the UK, national strategies for sustainable waste management are still undergoing consultation at the devolved level. It is axiomatic that all such strategies should have among their aims the objective of laying down clear and appropriate standards, backed by transparent monitoring and enforcement, in which the public can have confidence. It is also essential, if the UK is to meet its obligations as a member of the EU, that there should be consistency between and proper co-ordination of the strategies for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

74. It is a feature of the UK that its waste management industry is almost entirely within the private sector. This adds considerably to the complexity of achieving coherent strategies, not least because of the long pay-back periods for major investments in waste management facilities (up to 25 years). Nonetheless, the EU strategy, as expressed through existing and forthcoming Directives, imposes an obligation on and requires a national response from the UK. We are therefore concerned at the current lack of (to adapt Mr Meacher's words) sufficiently wide-ranging and potent instruments to ensure delivery of a UK­wide waste strategy. The Minister's replies to our questions on this point left us less than fully satisfied that this crucial area of public policy is capable of resolution.

75. We are concerned that the UK continues to fall well behind the targets which it has set itself in response to Community waste policy. The development of coherent national and local strategies has become an issue of heightened importance. Such strategies will have to review all waste arisings, disposal routes and waste management options, so as to identify the best practicable environmental options (BPEOs) nationally, regionally and locally. We see no alternative to incineration (particularly with energy recovery) as a waste treatment option in its own right, as we consider it has a necessary part to play in the waste management hierarchy. In saying this we see no contradiction with policies aimed at minimising the use of options low down in the hierarchy (i.e. incineration and landfill).

76. As we noted in our Report Sustainable Landfill of March 1998[18], the new Directive on Landfill of Waste, which was adopted by the Council on 26 April 1999, has the potential to create significant extra pressures for incineration if the targets for reductions in biodegradable waste going to landfill cannot be achieved by other means. Once again we have been impressed by the arguments, for instance by Friends of the Earth, that far more should—and can—be done to minimise, recover and recycle waste. A significant increase in recycling is essential both for achieving the targets of the Landfill Directive and for minimising the requirement for new incineration plants[19]. The UK's record on recycling stands up poorly to international comparisons and has signally failed to maintain an adequate rate of progress towards national targets proposed by the previous Government. We note the present Government's strong commitment to improved levels of recycling, and look forward to seeing elaboration of the practical measures needed for supporting and achieving them.

77. Waste avoidance and reduction should always be considered as a precursor to establishing the BPEO in particular situations. But application of BPEO does not mean that strict adherence to the waste management hierarchy should be automatic under all circumstances. We are concerned that the Directive does not in itself support the development of integrated strategies in which incineration with energy recovery plays an appropriate environmental, economic and social part, according to the BPEO for an area or region.

CONSISTENCY WITH OTHER STRATEGIES AND ACROSS INDUSTRIAL SECTORS

78. We recognise that the emission limit values (ELVs) proposed for non-hazardous waste incineration are much stricter than, and therefore not entirely consistent with, other EU measures for the control of atmospheric emissions from thermal and combustion processes generally. It is worth noting that these limits reflect concern about pollutants formed mainly during the combustion process (dioxins, furans and NOx), rather than pollutants inherent in the combusted materials themselves. To this extent, the measures proposed are more widely applicable to other combustion processes.

79. We recognise that waste incinerators are not, in overall volume terms, the most significant sources of potentially damaging emissions that also arise from other thermal and combustion processes. Nonetheless, because of the place of incineration in the waste management hierarchy, and its importance for the implementation of the Landfill Directive, we accept that control of emissions from waste incineration should be given priority, not least to reassure the public. It follows from this that we consider it right that the practice of "co-incineration" plants should be covered by the Commission's proposals.

80. We consider that the long-term goal should be comparability of controls and minimum standards for all thermal and combustion processes, for all purposes, with a progressive alignment of emission limits, in order to minimise potential harm to the environment and human health. Not only is this, in our view, an essential part of a coherent strategy for global air quality improvement; there is also a growing recognition of the potential impacts of chronic exposure to low-level pollutants from combustion processes of all kinds—from road traffic and power stations as well as from cement works or waste incinerators.

81. Both of these considerations point to the need for harmonisation and consolidation of Directives concerned with incineration across the waste management and other combustion fields, as has been proposed by the European Parliament and the German Presidency of the Council. We do, however, share the concern, expressed to us by the Minister, that proposals of this kind should not lead to delay in the implementation of the existing Hazardous Waste Incineration Directive. For this reason we do not wish to stand in the way of political agreement at the forthcoming Environment Council meeting by maintaining a scrutiny reserve on the proposals as they have now emerged.

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN PRESCRIBED LIMITS AND THE BATNEEC PRINCIPLE

82. We see no conflict between the application of ELVs and BATNEEC ("best available technology not entailing excessive cost"), and indeed consider it essential that the two concepts should co-exist. Minimum emission standards are necessary both to reassure the public and to ensure a level playing-field; they should be set at the tightest practicable level consistent with BATNEEC.

83. With advances in technology and scientific understanding, whatever standards are set now are unlikely to last as long as the economic life of a new state-of-the-art incinerator. The Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control Directive, through the IPC regime in the UK, allows emission limits to be ratcheted-up over time. It also encourages stricter limits to be set to suit particular circumstances, including the level of public concern in a particular locality. It must be recognised, however, that a regime of ever-tightening controls can be a potential threat to the commercial viability of merchant incinerators, which inevitably require major investment with lengthy pay-back periods—not least if the pace of ratcheting-up is variable and unpredictable. Regulators should plan with waste managers for the progressive implementation of new standards, at a pace to satisfy public confidence.

84. All emission limits, whether general or specific, must be justified on sound scientific principles and with full transparency. We find there is a lack of clear argument to justify, in human health terms, the emission limits proposed in the draft Directive. Furthermore, as we discuss in paragraph 0, we are not satisfied that the UK regulators have the internal scientific capacity to evaluate health effects.

THE DEFINITION OF "WASTE" AND THE PRACTICE OF CO-INCINERATION

85. The definition of "waste" in the Waste Framework Directive—"any substance or object…which the holder discards or intends or is required to discard[20]—is for most purposes satisfactory. In particular, following the precautionary principle, we consider that secondary liquid fuels (SLF) for co-incineration should continue, subject to the "special measures" test (see paragraph  ­ The regulatory agencies, however, disagreed with these views. SEPA argued that waste burnt as a fuel should still be classified as waste, although it was concerned that the Directive should not inhibit multi-fuel power generation (p31). The Environment Agency stressed the need for a consistent definition to prevent market distortion. Mr Lee explained what is known as the "special measures" test—the question "whether (a waste) has been processed to the point where it is capable of being used in the same way as a raw material of nonwaste origin", leading to the further question whether any "special measures" apply to the use of the waste-derived fuel. (Q116)), to be classified as wastes. The testing procedures and paperwork (which were explained to the Sub-Committee on a visit to Castle Cement's Ketton Works) are not unduly onerous, and do allow the producer to be assured of the safe treatment and destruction of the waste. The procedure should, however, be reviewed to ensure that no barriers are put in the way of continued use of SLF except those which can be justified on health and environmental grounds.

86. We were assured by Commission officials that the draft Directive is neutral as between co-incineration and straight incineration of waste. We are sceptical about the cement industry's claim that the draft Directive could have the perverse effect of forcing it to increase its use of more polluting, "non-waste", fuels, such as coal or coke. We do not consider that tighter regulation need necessarily outweigh normal commercial factors. In any case, technological progress in the cement industry seems likely to tip the scales even more in favour of co-incineration.

87. The UK Government has predicted that between 28 and 165 new waste incinerators will be needed to meet the targets of the Landfill Directive (see paragraphs 0-0). Because of the difficulties of achieving significant new investment in incineration facilities, we believe that the practice of co-incineration of selected waste streams should be encouraged, so long as it is possible to comply with the ELVs proposed for the Waste Incineration Directive. In the UK context, all opportunities should be seized for increased use of co-incineration. We fully support the Directive's stipulation that any new incinerators should recover and utilise heat, for direct use where possible (as this is more efficient) but for power generation as a minimum requirement.

88. The cement industry offers some particularly good opportunities for co-incineration, and can point to a number of innovative practices. Waste tyres (now to be banned from landfill) are a case in point. After maximum use has been made of processes such as re-treading or otherwise recycling the material, we consider that burning in cement kilns may often be the BPEO for disposal of tyres. Destruction is complete, and the sulphur content contributes to the formation of gypsum needed in the final product. An alternative would be incineration with heat recovery. Municipal waste incinerators are not normally designed to a specification which can safely destroy tyres, but there is good reason to suppose that investment in dedicated plant can be viable. Experience in the UK, however, is confined to a single plant (see footnote to paragraph 0).

INCINERATION TECHNOLOGY, ESPECIALLY NOX ABATEMENT

89. The control of emissions of NOx, formed by the combination of atmospheric nitrogen and oxygen during combustion, featured prominently in our enquiry. As the proportion of NOx in emission gases increases with combustion temperature, the proposed ELVs have particular implications for the cement industry. Cement kilns typically operate at temperatures above 1200oC (compared with 900-1100o for a modern municipal waste incinerator) and are therefore relatively high emitters of NOx. Thermal NOx formation increases markedly above 1400o. NOx emissions in cement kilns (expressed as NO2) typically vary between 500 and 2000 mg/Nm3.

90. The UK cement industry claimed in evidence to us to be disproportionately affected by the proposals. This is because of its widespread use of "wet" processes (see paragraph   Of these the main technical issue considered by the enquiry was the proposed NOx limits and the technologies for meeting them, with particular reference to the cement industry (see box). The UK cement industry is particularly affected by the proposals because of the large number of manufacturing plants which use the wet process (of 33 kilns currently operated by BCA members, 18 use wet or semi-wet processes). The BCA claimed that no technology currently existed for wet process kilns which could guarantee NOx reduction below 800mg/m3 as a daily average: "new technologies have driven emissions lower but at a cost of economic and environmental burdens, from the technique itself, that give benefits that are imperceptible in contributing to the national air quality strategy" (p51). Rugby Cement gave a detailed explanation of the difficulty of reaching the proposed NOx limit (pp178-9).).We note, however, that the industry can accept without undue difficulty the proposed ELV of 800mg/Nm3 (which the European Parliament has reduced to 500mg/Nm3) for NOx emissions from dry kilns. We do not disagree that there should be a limited derogation (as proposed by the European Parliament) for existing wet kilns, but we have noted the Commission's view that this will be unnecessary for the new generation of kilns.

91. For municipal waste incinerators the proposal is for a NOx ELV of 200 mg/Nm3. Currently , selective non-catalytic reduction (SNCR) is proving to be the primary option for NOx reduction. The Commission's current proposals do not include a limit value for ammonia, despite its use in SNCR processes. We note, however, that the European Parliament has adopted an amendment which would insert into the Directive a limit value of 10mg/m3 for ammonia. This standard is already applied by the Environment Agency in the authorisation for SELCHP, the only UK municipal incineration plant currently fitted with (SNCR), using ammonia.

92. We thought it necessary to enquire what form of life-cycle assessment (LCA) had been carried out, particularly into the power required for production of ammonia or urea used in SNCR methods (paragraph 0). Such information as we were able to obtain left us uncertain as to which options—advanced combustion technology, SNCR or catalytic reduction methods—for reducing NOx from different types of incineration and combustion plant offered the best return in terms of global reductions of NOx emissions. We recommend that the Government commission further studies on these matters and publish the results.

93. LCA has implications for similar decisions relating to the relative performance of different technologies for emissions reduction. It is therefore a matter for concern that decisions on ELVs are, apparently, being made without the benefit of LCA.

94. As a general rule, we would argue that it is preferable not to use post-combustion technology to control NOx. The evidence suggests that modern incinerators, such as the Teesside Energy from Waste Plant[21], are capable of operating at very near the 200mg/Nm3 limit. Depending on the results of LCA, it may still be necessary to use SNCR where there is a local need for particularly tight ELVs, but we consider that for the majority of new plant authorisations the Directive will have a beneficial technology-forcing effect and remove the need for "bolt-on" solutions. We are, in any case, concerned at the environmental, health and public safety implications of the manufacture, storage and "slippage"[22] of ammonia in SNCR applications[23].

CADMIUM AND MERCURY

95. The Commission claims that the proposals will be particularly beneficial in reducing airborne emissions of cadmium and mercury from incinerators (paragraph 0). In our view the BPEO for disposal of cadmium and mercury wastes, to the extent that they cannot be recovered and re-used, is landfill. In common with other heavy metals, they should therefore as far as possible be excluded from waste streams going to incineration. We accordingly support the proposed low ELVs for cadmium and mercury, and for heavy metals generally.

96. Batteries are an important, though declining, source of mercury and cadmium emissions from municipal waste incinerators in the UK. It is not normal practice in this country for special collection arrangements to be made, in order to keep batteries out of the general waste stream, although we consider that this may well be the BPEO. We note from Less Waste, More Value and from the Minister's comments in evidence[24] that the Government is consulting industry on the implications of proposals by the Commission to amend the Batteries Directive (91/157/EEC) which would require recycling targets to be set. We recommend that, in any event, the Government take positive measures to ensure that, so far as possible, batteries do not get into the waste stream for incineration, whether on their own or as part of equipment such as mobile phones, and that re­usable materials are recovered. One possibility would be to encourage manufacturers to set up, direct or through retailers, schemes whereby returned items earn a small discount on their replacements; or simply to provide a pre-paid postal return service for spent items, as is done with printer cartridges.

BOTTOM ASH

97. We consider that the BPEO for disposal of bottom ash from waste incinerators may often be to immobilise the ash as construction aggregate Our impression is that elsewhere in the EU far more bottom ash from incinerators is recycled. Concerted action is needed from the construction industry, the road-building and road-surfacing industries, and from central and local government to make more productive use of this material. We recommend that local authority waste management strategies and disposal plans contain explicit provisions to this end. These will need to be backed by the development of quality assurance schemes; and research institutes and regulators will need to define safe parameters for pollutant residues. We are encouraged by reports of pilot schemes[25].

TRANS-BORDER MARKETS IN WASTE FOR INCINERATION

98. There are potential conflicts between the proximity principle[26], BPEO and market forces. There may be a case for joint investments in specialist incineration facilities, serving more than one Member State, in instances where worthwhile savings in transport costs can be made. We see no problem in principle in cross-border trade in non-hazardous wastes or partially treated wastes as fuel for merchant waste incinerators or commercial co-incineration processes within the EU and EFTA member countries.

99. It will be important that the new devolved administrations of the constituent countries of the UK do not set conflicting strategies. Expensive facilities such as new waste incinerators are obvious candidates for joint use across country borders or regional boundaries. Effective mechanisms for joint planning are therefore needed. Strategic planning must be responsive to regional and local waste arisings, environmental and geographical conditions, costs of transport, void capacity, recycling potential and public preferences.

100. We note that the Republic of Ireland—the only EU Member State with which the UK has a common land frontier—shares with the UK the problem that landfill occupies a dominant position in current waste management practice. There could be benefits from seeking joint solutions in the context of seeking cross-border arrangements. We would encourage such issues to be taken on to the agenda for the relevant cross-border institutions, including the prospective Council of the British Isles.


18   House of Lords Select Committee on the European Communities, 17th Report, 1997-98, Sustainable Landfill, 17 March 1998, HL Paper 83. Back

19   We have been informed by our Specialist Adviser that new incineration capacity planned by Hampshire County Council assumes achievement of 25% recycling of municipal waste by 2001 and 40% in the long run. Back

20   75/442/EEC (OJ L194, 25 July 1975) as amended by 91/156/EEC (OJ L78, 26 March 1991), Article 1(a). Back

21   Written evidence, p 205. Back

22   See paragraph 0 Back

23   We are, of course, aware that emissions of ammonia from the SNCR process pale into insignificance when compared to ammonia emissions from agriculture. Back

24   Q 461. Back

25   ENDS Report, No 290, March 1999, page 16. Back

26   See Glossary (Appendix 6). Back


 
previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999