UKWIN’s campaign to stop incinerators and protect air quality

Earlier this month the United Kingdom Without Incineration Network (UKWIN), a network of anti-incineration campaigners founded in 2007, released a briefing entitled ‘Incinerators & Health: Fact or Fiction?’ raising concerns about how the furnaces are regulated. The briefing explores how statements made by the Environment Agency (EA), the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), and others to justify permitting waste incinerators are undermined by information revealed through information requests.

The briefing, which can be found in full here, shows key decisions about environmental permitting for waste incinerators have been made based on outdated, inconclusive and in some cases no evidence at all. Once a permit has been granted, an unannounced site inspection is highly unlikely. More than two thirds of incinerators operating in England have never had an unannounced visit from the regulator.

Internal EA correspondence, released as the result of an information request, reveals how an EA air quality specialist raised concerns that it was ‘hard to square’ the EA’s approach to assessing the impacts of incinerator pollution on wildlife sites with the Agency’s duties under environmental protections legislation. The failure was blamed on budget and time constraints, with internal correspondence admitting: ‘…we just do not have the people or the time available to assess the impacts on so many wildlife sites and meet the target of permitting activities within a given time’.

Against this backdrop, the briefing explores how the Environment Agency says it requires operators to use ‘Best Available Technique’ (BAT), but EA permitting decision documents show the EA classifying a technique as ‘best’ where it minimises incinerator operator costs instead of minimising pollution levels.

UKWIN’s guidance document also shows how the EA issues permits even where an incinerator is predicted to make a substantial contribution to local concentrations of air pollutants, and how despite this the UKHSA’s assessment of incinerator safety assumes incinerators make only a very small contribution to the local concentration of air pollutants (see table below, extracted from UKWIN’s briefing).

In addition, UKWIN also provides an example of the EA issuing a permit for an incinerator in an area that already exceeds air quality thresholds.

How did this document come to be produced? We were asked by Air Quality News to tell the story behind the story, and this is set out below.

The fall and rise of incineration

Incineration is a controversial technology for many reasons. People are motivated to oppose incinerator proposals because incineration harms recycling, exacerbates climate change, undermines the circular economy, causes nuisances to nearby people and wildlife, and of course because incinerators harm air quality. Stricter emission controls introduced in the 1990’s following widespread protest resulted in the closure of many incinerators across Europe, with the number of municipal waste incinerators in the UK falling from 32 in 1992 to just 12 in 2001.

With the implementation of the EU Landfill Directive in 1999 however a new wave of incinerator proposals, many of them subsidised through PFI schemes, were appearing across the UK. These proposals were often met with strong opposition. Indeed, opposition to proposals for waste incinerators have been so strong that many such plans have been met with the largest number of planning objections ever received by Waste Planning Authorities across the UK.

By December 2022 the number of UK incinerators grew to 75, with proposals for many more. Greenpeace Unearthed found that UK waste incinerators ‘are being disproportionately built in low-income areas and neighbourhoods with high populations of people of colour’, raising issue of health inequality and environmental justice. Other evidence shows that incineration overcapacity is harming recycling.

The emergence of UKWIN

Opposition to incineration in the 2000’s was a key feature in campaigning by environmental organisations including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth (FoE), and in 2006 FoE hosted a national gathering of anti-incineration campaign groups where it was agreed that the national movement required a national campaign organisation.

In 2007 the United Kingdom Without Incineration Network (UKWIN) was established to support campaigners by sharing knowledge and to act as an umbrella organisation for those opposing incineration. Since then UKWIN has worked with around 200 local grassroots campaign groups and has helped stop more than 100 incinerator proposals from going ahead whilst supporting prudent resource use in line with a more circular, zero waste, society.

Raising awareness of air quality issues

Because of the difficulties in deploying arguments about air quality within the contexts of planning and permitting regimes, for many years UKWIN’s successful focus has been on other ‘material planning considerations’. Yet concerns about air quality have persisted, and UKWIN attracted various experts who have contributed to UKWIN’s efforts to draw decision-makers’ attention to the adverse environmental impacts of incineration, including with respect to climate change and air quality.

In November 2017 an Early Day Motion (EDM) calling for a halt to all new incinerators in the UK was introduced. EDM 581 was signed by at least one member of every political party at Westminster.

At the House of Lords in July 2018, as part of our Bin the Burners campaign, UKWIN released a report entitled ‘Waste Incineration and Particulate Pollution: A Failure of Governance’ with cross-party support from John Grogan MP (Labour), Philip Davies MP (Conservative), and Lord Tyler (Liberal Democrat Peer). The report showed how the reported particulate matter released by English incinerators in 2017 was equivalent to particulate matter emitted by more than a quarter of a million 40-tonne lorries travelling 75,000 miles a year, and how the reported NOx emissions released equated to around 80,000 lorries.

The report revealed how incinerators were exceeding pollution reporting thresholds for particulates and how a loophole – the widespread use of emissions factors instead of real world data – meant the public was not accurately informed of these particulate emissions. As a result of UKWIN’s report the Environment Agency began work to address this regulatory deficiency by asking incinerator operators to provide better quality data for the Pollution Inventory.

This was followed in December 2019 by another UKWIN publication, ‘Particulates Matter: Are emissions from incinerators safe to breathe?’ which included analysis of Government answers to dozens of Parliamentary Questions asked by Dr David Drew, then MP for Stroud, about particulate matter emitted by municipal waste incinerators. The evidence showed how Ministers omitted important caveats and provided incomplete information – resulting in criticism that the Government misled Parliament.

UKWIN’s 2019 report raised concerns that by focussing attention on the mass of particles released instead of the number of particles released the Government was failing to do their utmost to protect the public. The report highlighted how, despite the fact that for some health outcomes the number of particles is the most relevant factor, the Pollution Inventory only included information about the tonnes of particles and not their quantity.

Ramping up engagement with regulatory bodies

Over the past few decades since the establishment of the Environment Agency (EA), those with concerns about the health impacts of waste incinerators attempted to engage EA officials, including as part of consultations on proposed new incinerator permits. Frustratingly for these concerned citizens, the EA typically responded to detailed and evidenced apprehensions about health outcomes with little more than declaring themselves ‘satisfied’ with the applicant’s submissions whilst saying little or nothing about the substance of the concerns raised.

Such incomplete and inadequate responses from the EA led to much dissatisfaction amongst campaign groups, giving rise to numerous information requests and even more detailed and evidenced concerns being submitted to the EA and other public bodies.

Citizen frustration grew as it became clear that while the EA was prepared to devote a great deal of time and resource to meeting with permit applicants to support them to achieve the bare minimum required for a permit to be issued, the EA was unwilling to answer some of the most basic questions from members of the community about what deficiencies in the applications might constitute a barrier to the issuance of an environmental permit. This unwillingness to engage with the public was explained away by the EA by reference to their decision documents, which the EA asserted were sufficient to allay public concerns.

From 2021 engagement between UKWIN and both the EA and the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) was ramped up. Several virtual meetings took place, including with the EA’s Air Quality Modelling & Assessment Unit (AQMAU) and the UKHSA.

Communications with the EA made it clear that they were unwilling to change their approach of not responding to questions from members of the public about EA permitting procedures. However the EA agreed in principle that because they were relying on their decision documents to explain their permitting process they should consider how to improve such documentation to address the apparent inadequacy of EA attempts to accurately convey their decision-making process to a worried public.

As a result of sharing this criticism with the EA, UKWIN was told that the EA ‘would welcome any feedback as to how we might improve our decision documents in future” to explain their decisions “as accurately, comprehensively and plainly as possible’.

In response to this invitation, in August 2021, UKWIN provided the EA with 62 pages of initial comments on the Draft Decision Document for the Kirk Sandall incinerator. On 10th September 2021 the EA issued a permit for the Kirk Sandall incinerator, and the accompanying Decision Document completely failed to reflect any of UKWIN’s comments regarding how such documents could be improved, with the Draft and Final Decision Documents being almost identical.

As a result, later in September 2021, UKWIN submitted 9-pages of further comments on the EA’s response to the issues raised. This submission included the following expression of UKWIN’s growing frustration with the EA: ‘Pages of detailed arguments and evidence were in most cases summarised to a single line of argument and then summarily dismissed by the EA simply by referring back to the very passages we critiqued, vaguely stating that the disputed section provides sufficient basis for the EA to have reached the conclusion which we disputed without adequately explaining why the EA maintained their position despite our critique. In some cases our arguments were not even mentioned, or were listed in such an obscure way as to make it difficult to know which comments were being responded to within the summary…rather than giving the impression that the EA had engaged with the substance of what we were saying it came across to us as if ‘processing’ our comments was simply treated as a checkbox exercise so that the EA could provide a formal but hollow assurance that they had provided a reference to having considered the topics raised within their decision document’.

When it became apparent that the EA’s decision documents for permits issued after Kirk Sandall remained deficient UKWIN’s focus shifted from relying on the EA to provide the public with better explanations to providing our own explanations.

Exposing regulatory failings

Early in 2023 UKWIN campaigners met to consider priorities for the year ahead. Exposing regulatory shortcomings was identified as a top priority by local anti-incineration campaign groups.

As noted in written evidence submitted by UKWIN to the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRACOM) in March 2023: ‘There are many examples of where the Environment Agency’s practice with respect to transparency, environmental protection and clear communication falls below the standard the public could reasonably expect…’ The submission focussed on three aspects of the EA’s work: maintaining the pollution inventory, taking part in planning processes as a statutory consultee, and overseeing environmental permitting.

This work was followed up by additional research that brought together a range of concerns regarding health impacts of waste incinerators and shortcomings in the EA’s regulatory approach and how that approach is conveyed. This resulted in both a complaint to the Office for Environment Protection (OEP) lodged in September 2023, and the production of ‘Incinerators & Health: Fact or Fiction?’ in November 2023.

While the OEP complaint questioning the lawfulness of the Environment Agency’s permitting decisions was accompanied by more than 1,000 pages of supporting information, the Fact or Fiction briefing document – which features 120 endnotes with numerous references – was intended to be accessible to a wider audience.

Commenting on the release of the briefing, UKWIN stated: ‘Everyone deserves clean air, and nobody should have to suffer the blight of living near an incinerator. It makes no sense for us to be polluting our environment and putting the health of our population at risk for the sake of incinerators that are completely unnecessary, and yet the Government continues to allow the Environment Agency to grant pollution permits for this outdated technology’.

This message was amplified with a comment provided by Kate Bernard of Medact North East who added: ‘As nurses and doctors campaigning against proposed waste incinerators on Teesside, we are deeply concerned about the effects of incineration for the health of the local community. Waste incinerators are an example of health injustice – disproportionately built in deprived areas, often without consent of communities living there. Informed by health and environmental concerns, Scotland and Wales have already placed a ban on building new waste incinerators: our government should be doing the same. We need to invest in improving recycling, reuse and waste prevention as safer, healthier alternatives for the future’.

Perhaps most telling is the lack of engagement from both the UKHSA and the EA. Both agencies were provided with a draft of UKWIN’s ‘Incinerators & Health: Fact or Fiction?’ briefing for comment. The UKHSA did not respond, whereas the EA said nothing more than: ‘We do not intend to engage with UKWIN on the content of the briefing. We are satisfied that our permitting and regulatory processes are sufficient to ensure that municipal waste incinerators meet all the relevant legal requirements, and that their emissions will not give rise to any significant pollution of the environment or harm to human health’.

As with their permit decision documents, the EA is quick to offer reassurance but slow to actually explain the basis for their position or the meaning of their terminology.

The fact that the EA is unwilling to improve the quality of their decision documents or to engage positively with UKWIN’s attempts to help set the record straight indicates that the EA has still not learned lessons set out in a 2009 Environment Agency report that: ‘…the process of approval or disapproval of an application to establish a facility for [waste incineration] should be demonstrably open and fair, both to local people and to those making the application. By this we mean that it is generally assumed that the decisions that form part of the process should be based upon scientific evidence and upon the accepted principles of scientific thinking…’

As demonstrated by UKWIN’s health briefing, the EA’s decision making process is often opaque and the scientific basis of their decisions are often outdated, unclear, or simply absent, leaving such decisions open to accusations of unfair pro-developer bias on the part of decision-makers.

Underplaying or even falsely denying health risks associated with waste incinerators further undermines public trust, stifles debate, blocks measures to reduce pollution, harms public health, and increases costs to society.

UKWIN advocates for genuine steps to be taken to minimise local pollution and health risks. Much more could be done including greater better technology, higher stacks, greater controls over feedstocks, and more rigorous monitoring and enforcement. UKWIN also calls for greater transparency about how decisions about incinerators are made.

Shlomo Dowen is the national coordinator of UKWIN.

Images: UKWIN and Kanenori


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David Orchard
David Orchard
4 months ago

Does anyone else also have issues with neighbours burning waste in their incinerators?

Michael Ryan
Michael Ryan
7 months ago

To have clear proof of how incinerator emissions affect infant mortality, you need access to two large sets of ONS data:

Firstly, access to Vital Statistics 4, which lists has to be purchased from ONS (I have a 22-year set 1993-2014) and which lists numbers of births & deaths (deaths also by age groups) in every electoral ward in England & Wales, thereby enabling infant mortality data to be mapped, eg:

Secondly, trends of infant death rates at Council level to see what happens to Councils exposed to incinerator emissions when incinerators start-up, or shut down. eg:

The above graph was the first I prepared showing post-incinerator rises in rates of infant deaths in Councils exposed to emissions and this Liverpool Echo letter explains it:

“SUGGESTING that incinerator emissions don’t harm health is very easy (Liverpool Echo, 25 January 2014).

But providing evidence of “lack of harm” has so far eluded the Environment Agency, Health Protection Agency and also Veolia’s legal team at the Shrewsbury incinerator public inquiry in 2011, where Dr Dick van Steenis was my expert witness.

Infant mortality rates are accurate indicators of the health of a community and a rapid fall in rates in England and Wales followed the switch to the cleaner North Sea Gas- but no causal link was apparently made between the two events.

In December 2012 the Office for National Statistics kindly released the 1970-2010 infant mortality rates for all London boroughs and I doubt if any of the above can offer any explanation, other than changing levels of airborne pollution, for the similar, falling rates in the boroughs of Wandsworth, Lewisham, Newham and Tower Hamlets prior to the start-up of the SELCHP (South East London Combined Heat and Power) incinerator in 1993 and the sudden rise in rates in the three boroughs most exposed to emissions from SELCHP, while the rate in ‘upwind’ Wandsworth continued to fall.

Michael Ryan, Shrewsbury”

More info on my November 2007 submission the EFRA committee with details of the fifteen-fold difference in infant death rates (2002-2013 ONS data) in the two “groups of four” London electoral wards with highest & lowest average rates on page 8:

See also:

Best wishes,

Michael Ryan

Colin Buick
Colin Buick
7 months ago

Lack of scrutiny and investigation into air pollution in general is pathetic from a supposedly leading nation. Follow the science! they couldn’t follow their nose

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