Are incinerators good for the environment?

Across the UK, incinerators are being given the green light by councils. With low-income and minority communities disproportionately bearing the brunt of the pollution coming from these wood and waste-burning plants, Shaista Hussain looks at one city’s battle to protect local people from a new incinerator.
  Published:  30 Mar 2021    |      3 minute read

What's an incinerator?

An incinerator is a container or device used for burning things that are considered waste. Some incinerators burn waste on a massive scale and turn it into energy, leading them to be touted as green alternatives to landfill.

But as campaigner Gareth Ludkin knows, incinerators are far from sustainable. Gareth has been campaigning with his local group Friends of the Earth Cardiff against a proposed biomass incinerator. The incinerator in Splott, Cardiff would burn wood to generate energy.

"The woody biomass (which would be shipped in from Latvia) is not a clean or green form of energy. We should be protecting forests and planting more trees rather than cutting them down. The Drax power plant in Yorkshire [pictured below] already burns more wood than the UK produces in a year, and Splott plant will only fan the flames of greater deforestation in Europe and beyond without regulation.

Drax power station, North Yorkshire, UK
Credit: Philip Silverman via iStock/ Getty Images Plus

"I’m concerned by the continued reference to burning wood as being a renewable form of energy. Science already tells us that burning wood produces more CO2 than burning coal, and at a time when we are supposed to be phasing out coal alongside plans to restrict or ban the use of wood burners and open fires at home."

And it's not just the environment that would suffer.

How incinerators impact our lives


Burning materials at incinerator plants produces toxic pollutants that can harm our health:

  • Dioxin impacts your immune system and, in some cases, can even cause cancer.
  • Hazardous ash can cause both short-term effects (such as nausea and vomiting) to long-term effects (like kidney damage and cancer).
  • Greenhouse gas emissions from incinerators and other sources like diesel and petrol vehicles contribute to respiratory disease.

Environmental injustice

In the UK, it's often impoverished and industrialised areas that are earmarked for these sorts of plants, affecting some of the most vulnerable and marginalised members of society. It's a trend that happens the world over.

According to sociologist Dr Robert Bullard, "environmental justice embraces the principle that all people and communities have a right to equal protection and equal enforcement of environmental laws and regulations."

If environmental justice is about the right we all have to protection from environmental harm, then environmental injustice is what happens when some of us aren't afforded that right.

Splott, Cardiff is one of those places. An industrialised area, it already has low air quality. Building a biomass plant would only make the issue worse. Yet in 2018, a proposed biomass plant for the area was approved despite resistance from the community. Right next door to the proposed plant is a Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) site, whose inhabitants would be hugely impacted by the development.

Historically, GRT communities haven't had an equal voice in matters of local and community decisions, and are often pushed to the fringes of cities and regions to live on land which isn't fit for habitation. What's more, access to internet is limited within the community, making it harder for them to access information and participate in debate, especially during COVID-19.

Cities are already unequal places, and developments such as the plants can worsen those inequalities. Councillors and developers need to do more to consider how socially just their developments are.

Local resistance to incinerators

Gareth and Friends of the Earth Cardiff became active in the campaign against the biomass plant in 2020. The proposal had already been granted permission by a majority council vote and was in the planning stages, making it harder to stop the build.

But this didn't deter the group. They spoke to developers and councillors about the human and environmental cost of the plant, as well as alternative ways to use the land, and managed to convince half the planning committee to oppose the plant. It signified an impressive U-turn.

Given the vote, the decision-making process has been granted an extension by the planning committee. This allows Gareth and the group to continue to campaign against the plant, and they remain hopeful the land won’t be used for the biomass plant.

Things are looking positive from a national perspective too. The Welsh government recently announced a moratorium (temporary ban) on incineration. Regulations are a bit different for biomass incinerators (wood-burning plants) like the one proposed in Splott, so Friends of the Earth Cardiff will campaign for those to also be included in the moratorium.

You can see if you have incinerators local to you on the UK Incinerators Map, as well as information on the campaign groups challenging them.

Community activism and peaceful protest

Challenging developers and council decisions can be difficult, but getting your voice heard is your democratic right and you don’t have to take on the battle alone.

Joining or starting a community group like Friends of the Earth Cardiff is one way of getting like-minded people together to oppose harmful plans and encourage more climate-friendly measures in your area.

Another way of opposing plans is through protest. Over the past 50 years, Friends of the Earth has been part of many exciting victories for our planet and our biggest wins (like Fracking and the Climate Change Act) have used nonviolent protest to pressure politicians to act.

But our right to protest is under threat. The government is trying to push through a new Policing Bill that would carry harsh sentences for engaging in nonviolent protest. The Bill’s vague language means that under new laws, even a single school striker could potentially face arrest for making noise or causing annoyance.

The Bill also proposes extreme new trespass laws that would target our most marginalised communities and limit access to British countryside at a time when we need it most.

Nonviolent protest is an essential part of a functioning democracy, and our ability to campaign for a liveable future. Join us and protect your right to have your voice heard.

A new Bill threatens our right to protest peacefully and targets the nomadic life of some of the UK's most marginalised communities.

A new Bill threatens our right to protest peacefully and targets the nomadic life of some of the UK's most marginalised communities.