An international environmental group is warning Kaipara District Council’s (KDC) decision to investigate waste-to-energy plant options could lock local councils into a disastrous deal that will be costly to ratepayers and have negative impacts on people’s health and the climate.
KDC is working with the mayors of the Whangārei, Far North and Auckland councils, as well as Northland Inc and Kaipara hapū Te Uri-o-Hau, to explore the possibility of a waste-to-energy plant, either in northern Auckland or southern Kaipara, for electricity generation.
But Greenpeace plastics campaigner Juressa Lee (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi, Rarotonga) said the waste-to-energy plant posed serious threats to public health and the environment.
Carbon emissions would be created from the fuel required to feed the incinerator burning the rubbish. This would add to other pollution issues from the plant.
“The entire waste-to-energy incineration concept undermines efforts to reduce waste in Aotearoa by incentivising waste production,” Lee said.
One way this would happen is the waste-to-energy plant would incinerate the organic material now being mooted for composting.
KDC’s move is also worrying Kaipara’s Mangawhai-based Sustainable Kaipara - which is partially funded by the council.
Sustainable Kaipara spokesperson Sarah Bray said it was great the council was considering waste, but a plant such as that being investigated was not the best option.
Bray said the technology was not clean or sustainable.
“Although waste-to-energy technology has improved over the years, it still poses a significant risk to public health, particularly for those living near the facilities,” Bray said.
“It produces toxic pollutants such as dioxins, mercury and cadmium which have been linked to cancer, nerve damage and birth defects.”
Bray said the fly ash* produced as a result of the waste-to-energy process was classed as hazardous and still needed to be landfilled.
She said the byproduct could be used for roading and construction.
“However, studies show heavy metals are released from the ash into the environment, which even in low concentrations are highly toxic and bioaccumulate over time.”
Bray said it was hugely expensive to build and maintain a waste-to-energy plant.
“In the United States, at least 31 municipal solid waste incinerators closed between 2000 and 2020, largely due to the financial burden caused by necessary pollution control requirements,” Bray said.
Zero Waste Network spokesperson Dorte Wray said KDC’s waste-to-energy plant investigation appeared to be based on a false choice between a landfill and an incinerator.
“Incinerators still need landfills for the toxic ash and wastewater they create. Incinerators don’t eliminate waste – they just transform it into new, more toxic waste, including air, land and water pollution containing deadly dioxins,” Wray said.
“We know that people in the Kaipara and surrounding areas are extremely angry and worried about the Dome Valley landfill.”
Zero Waste agreed that was an unacceptable project. The zero-waste approach offered a different solution to the landfill.
She said waste-to-energy incinerators were toxic.
“Burning plastics emit a wide array of ‘forever chemicals’ that cause birth defects, cancer and infertility. The major contribution of incinerators is to carbon emissions that cause climate change. Incinerators are really fossil fuel power plants, not waste minimisation projects.
“We can’t build a place that adds more carbon to the atmosphere. Incinerators are expensive, inefficient and lock councils into long-term contracts to produce enough waste to keep them going instead of actually reducing waste. Waste-to-energy incineration may seem like an easy solution to landfills. The reality is that they create more problems than they solve.”
* Fly ash from waste-to-energy plants is usually considered as hazardous waste because of its chemical and physical properties (i.e. metals content, leaching), hence it requires specific handling, disposal and/or treatment. Most fly ashes are being landfilled, often after washing and/or stabilisation/solidification, in dedicated sites such as salt mines to prevent the leaching of hazardous substances into the environment.