Recycling vs incineration

by | Jul 12, 2016 | Development and Transformation

A controversial waste to energy project in the Boland – a planned incineration plant in Wellington – has raised much concern among residents.

The long knives are out for Drakenstein Municipality and its plans to erect an incineration plant in Wellington’s industrial area.

Drakenstein Environmental Watch (DEW) has among others already approached the Public Protector, provincial authorities, the Auditor-General and Human Rights Commission about the plans. The pressure group asks that all plans for the plant be suspended pending an investigation into the processes that have been followed thus far.

DEW’s protest actions relate to the Drakenstein Municipality’s plans for Erf 34 in the town’s industrial area. The municipality wants to erect the waste to energy plant here, where waste products will be incinerated instead of stored on the landfill site. The proposed terrain is located near various schools and there are many agricultural producers farming within a few kilometres of the planned facility.

“Residents of the area are not willing to live under a cloud of toxic gasses and fine ash” says Caron Potocnik, chairperson of the DEW.

The plant poses particular potential implications for the area’s wine and agricultural industry. Wellington and Paarl are home to about 13% of South Africa’s vineyard plantings and agricultural producers play a key role in the local economy. It is an important region with regard to wine production and export and perceptions about the safety of products are therefore pertinent.

Unless and until a comprehensive impact study is done about the effect of the proposed plant, it will be extremely difficult to determine exactly how such a plant will impact producers, says Marianne McKay from Stellenbosch University’s Department of Viticulture and Oenology. “It all depends on what exactly is going to be incinerated at the facility, how well the plant is going to be designed and which management processes will be applied.”

This especially applies to the incineration of plastic, medical waste and waste containing heavy metals. If the incineration process is properly completed and best international practices followed, it will not necessarily cause air pollution that is detrimental for the agricultural sector, she says. But authorities need to ensure that the region’s unique seasonal wind and weather conditions as well as topography are thoroughly taken into consideration during the design process.

McKay says that incineration needs to take place completely in order to prevent the spreading of partly-burnt particles onto adjacent vineyards or agricultural products. The recent widespread fires in the Cape winelands have illustrated anew what a big problem smoke pollution is for producers.

Research that has inter alia been done in Australia, indicates that vineyards are sensitive to smoke pollution. “We know that volatile ingredients can bring about differences in taste and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons,” says McKay. Wine produced from vineyards that have been exposed to intensive veld fires, can exhibit a so-called smoke taint character. The aroma of these wines is often described as smoky, burnt, and ashy.

“Of course one cannot compare the effect of smoke clouds and particles originating from fynbos veld fires with conditions where particles originating from an incineration plant end up in vineyards,” warns McKay. “Hopefully this type of question is answered in the environmental impact study as well as the plant’s design process.”

There is also concern about the possible impact of such an incineration plant on the health of residents. Of particular relevance here is the incineration of toxic waste and the emission of dioxins. According to the World Health Organisation there are many health risks associated with similar plants, one of several reasons being that fine particles remain as residue after incineration.

“This project can potentially hold negative consequences for the area,” says Potocnik. “The risks posed necessitate an extremely conservative approach.”

Plans for the plant were initially raised in 2008, when the ANC-controlled municipal council investigated the possibility of the project. At the time the process was put out to tender. After the new council took over in 2011, a memorandum of understanding was signed with a service provider to investigate the possibility of the plant. All feasibility studies were apparently undertaken by the current council to ensure that legal requirements are complied with.

According to municipal sources the project of R430 million is in line with national, provincial and municipal objectives to reduce the amount of garbage ending up on landfills and at the same time implement integrated waste management.

The plant offers a solution for Drakenstein’s mountains of waste as the existing landfill is already very full,” says Jacques Carstens, acting municipal manager. “The aim of the project is precisely to create a greener and more eco-friendly alternative to landfills, which have a negative impact on the environment.”

According to indications the current municipal landfill will only be sufficient for another five to 10 years. If Drakenstein’s large volumes of refuse is not managed through the proposed project, it will apparently have to be transported to other waste disposal sites eventually, possibly the City of Cape Town’s, at significant cost. Currently the town’s landfill receives about 300 tons of waste daily.

Critics argue that from the outset the municipality did not follow all the correct procedures for erecting the proposed plant. It is alleged that the municipality has already transgressed various laws and regulations, among others municipal legislation and regulations governing partnerships between private and public institutions.

A memorandum of understanding with the private service provider Interwaste who will operate the plant, was for instance signed in 2012 according to DEW, despite the municipality only giving the green light for this in 2014 at a council meeting. The agreement does not make provision for the recycling of waste.

It is further alleged that the municipality has not properly consulted the community about the planned project and that it is not transparent enough about the risks involved. For the plant to function optimally, waste will also have to be ‘imported’ from neighbouring towns. “Wellington can potentially become everyone’s rubbish dump,” says Potocnik.

At this stage there are simply more questions than answers about the project, according to DEW. This includes uncertainty about what exactly is going to be incinerated at the proposed plant and how incinerated material, such as fine toxic ash that can be emitted into the atmosphere, is going to be managed. The non-government organisation groundWork, like DEW, is not convinced that the incineration plant is necessarily the most sustainable choice for waste management. “The municipality reckons that it will save money, but has the hidden costs been calculated to the fullest extent possible?” asks Potocnik.

What does the road ahead look like? According to Carstens the council will only make a decision regarding the project once all the necessary steps have been taken and the findings of all the relevant studies made public, but he stresses that no premature or uninformed decisions will be made.

“No decisions have been made with regard to the approval of the waste to energy project,” he says. “The municipality has merely entered into a memorandum of understanding with the contractor to explore the possibility of such a plant. According to this certain investigations must be performed, in terms of municipal legislation and according to which the contractor must obtain environmental approval. All these investigations require public participation. If the environmental impact studies are in favour of the project, it has to be decided whether the project is financially feasible. An agreement can only be drawn up after this, which then will be submitted to the public as well as provincial and national departments for input and commentary.”

In the meantime groundWork’s Rico Euripidou says the proposed plant is in conflict with the premises of the country’s waste and environmental laws if optimal plans for recycling are not made. “Incineration should be the last option,” he argues.

He considers it short-sighted to tie a municipality to a private service provider for a period of 20 years on the basis of an agreement like this. There are multiple examples worldwide of how similar agreements have crippled municipalities financially. And although new generation technology is used for incineration plants in many parts of the world, there is an ever-growing amount of countries that are devising alternative plans for their waste.

According to Euripidou approximately 90% of everything that ends up on landfill sites can be recycled or reused in some or other form. “Recycling creates up to 20 times more work than incineration plants. Why then are we not focussing more energy on it?”

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