Energy from Waste, A Guide to the Debate 01Mar2013

Those with an interest in the coalition government’s approach to waste policy may recall DEFRA’s  Review of Waste Policy in England 2011. The review amounted to little more than a ‘stop gap’  expression of intent addressed to both sides of the development divide pending the production of a new Waste Plan for England. However, it would appear that despite the radical overhaul of planning brought about by the National Planning Policy Framework; PPS 10 and the 2007 Waste Strategy for England will still be with us for some time yet.  

Whatever the Review’s shortcomings it contained a number of helpful statements of government policy and a commitment to get to grips with waste management planning in the England. One eagerly anticipated commitment was to “Provide a clear position on the health implications of the recovery of energy from waste, based on the best available evidence, to support a reasoned, evidence based evaluation of risks and benefits.”[1].

Energy from Waste is an emotive topic and a quick search of your favourite internet search engine will reveal a plethora of information, of varying quality, which will equally reassure or worry the reader.

So with a considerable degree of optimism I had the pleasure of reviewing DEFRA’s Energy from Waste a guide to the debate published in February 2013.

Given the scope of the commitment, which focusses on health, I was initially mildly disappointed to find only a single paragraph re-iterating the Health Protection Agency’s long held view “that modern well-managed incinerators make only a small contribution to local concentrations of air pollutants.” However, given the extent that modern EfW facilities are subject to rigorous monitoring, regulation and impact assessment this should not have come as a surprise.

It appears then that, rather than focussing on health, DEFRA has set itself the goal of summarising the main issues surrounding the Energy from Waste debate in straight forward ‘acronym light’ language.

Throughout all of its 57 pages The Guide is surprisingly successful at achieving this goal. It is useful for anyone who is new to the field and it is essential reading for elected members and planning officers who may not have previously encountered such a scheme.

While the Guide contains many worthy passages; of note is the discussion of the ‘proximity principle’ contained in paragraphs 149-156.

The ‘proximity principle’ enshrined in Article 16 of the Waste Framework Directive obliges Member States to ensure that waste is recovered in one of the ‘nearest appropriate installations’. The point is one that is prone to be misunderstood by objectors to EfW schemes who will apply the principle at a local planning authority area level rather than on a national level. The author of the Guide observes that often ‘proximity’ is used as a proxy for an underlying objection that a given scheme is too large and that a larger number of smaller EfW facilities would enable waste to be treated nearer to where it arises.

The Guide makes it clear that: ·        

  • “one of the nearest” means it doesn’t have to be the absolute closest facility to the exclusion of all other considerations, including cost; ·        
  • It says nothing about administrative boundaries (except the overall EU border). As such the nearest solutions may be all in administrative areas that are different from those in which the waste arises. Equally it does not imply a facility can only process ‘local’ waste.

In conclusion, the Guide is essential reading for all those involved in planning and EfW. For the newcomer it provides a helpful introduction; for the experienced practitioner it is a valuable reference resource.

Jonathan Leary Specialist solicitor with Zyda Law

[1] Paragraph 239, second bullet, DEFRA, Government Review of Waste Policy in England 2011