Birmingham could see a big change in the way it deals with household waste. The City Council is considering what to do when its 25 year contract with waste giant Veolia expires in 2018. We see this as a once-in-a-generation chance to put in place a sustainable waste system. Members of Birmingham Friends of the Earth have made a submission to the scrutiny committee. BFoE has had a unique role being independent and focussed on the overall health of people and the environment. The councillors are now taking this issue very seriously and we feel that we are being listened to, as indeed we were a year ago.

Of the waste collected by the City Council almost 70% is burned. Incineration produces a huge environmental footprint, so this technology is everywhere opposed by Friends of the Earth, as a movement (1). Local groups have had some successes around the Midlands in opposing new incinerator plans. BFoE opposed the building of the incinerator at Tyseley in the 1990s, because we argued it would divert the city from recycling and would misuse our wastes by treating them as ‘fuel’. Since then £30 million a year has been spent on ‘waste disposal’, which the Council can no longer afford.

Wastes are not really the problem, nor are people, rather we have a system that is organised on the wrong principles. Waste is burned because the incinerator must be fed, not because the waste is useless and truly “residual”. In the resource-scarce 21st century almost all waste has some value. Waste paper is worth £85 a tonne. Recyclers have to import waste because the incinerator is burning the material that they need. We argue that Birmingham should move from a model of “paying to dispose” to one of “collecting to sell”.

A choice must be made. The target of 60% recycling and composting set by the 2012 Waste Scrutiny can never be achieved if we continue the mass burning of waste. We call upon the Council to declare a target of “no incineration of mixed refuse in air” and a date for achieving this.

Up in smoke

The scrutiny process has looked at the future of Veolia’s Tyseley incinerator, which dominates East Birmingham. At the end of the contract, it will become the property of the Council. We think it will be a liability rather than an asset. There will be the maintenance costs of an ageing plant. As the city’s recycling rate rises, more and more rubbish will have to be imported to keep it running and cover its running costs. The rubbish ‘fuel’ is vastly expensive, as it costs the Council millions to collect it from every home.

The Council will become in 2018 the owner of the largest emitter in Birmingham of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide: Tyseley emitted 321,810 tonnes of C02 in 2011(1) according to the Environment Agency. We say it will be impossible to meet the City Council’s CO2 reduction target of 60% by 2026 if the city’s waste continues to be turned into air pollution. National and EU targets will require increasing regulation of waste burning if CO2 is to be cut as science says is required. Burning rubbish is a very dirty and inefficient way to produce electricity. The plant is in the wrong location for the waste heat to be piped to large users. As a power station, it is a disaster.

Breathing rubbish

Burning anything on a large scale in a city must be bad for people’s health. People in East Birmingham have a shorter life expectancy by some years than other parts of the city and although this cannot be definitely linked to the incinerator, much evidence of the health effects of incineration have come to light, since it was built (2). Since the City Council is now responsible for public health, we are calling on them to investigate the health effects of incineration.

Dioxins are a carcinogen, and levels are rising as the proportion of plastics in waste increases. The bursts of pollution whenever the plant starts up are a particular concern. Smoky particulates are another issue, being additional to those from diesel vehicles. They are accompanied by nitrogen oxide, hydrogen chloride and other irritating chemicals. Birmingham as a city is exceeding its limits on nitrogen dioxide NO2 (3). 2013 is the “Year of Air” and the EU is reviewing the limits, which are likely to be reduced in line with World Health organisation advice (4). Running the incinerator at full capacity, which will be required on economic grounds, is likely to be impossible within health and environment limits.

Waste Savers

Fortunately we do not have to choose between burning wastes and burying them. We are calling upon Birmingham City Council to develop a new approach as “Birmingham Waste Savers”. As the largest local authority in Europe, the size of seven London boroughs, Birmingham can be in the driving seat and design the future waste industry.

The collection system creates the waste stream; it should be designed backwards to produce outputs that have value. The coming change from bags to bins gives a great opportunity to design for less rubbish and to collect wastes you actually want.

The key point is to separate at source the biodegradable waste that may rot and smell, from the other items that can be stored in the home or the bin. The former can be used viaanaerobic digestion” to make biogas, which does not produce problematic emissions. The gas can be injected into the main or used for combined heat and power in buildings. The Tyseley plant could become a site for composting or anaerobic digestion for sorting and storing wastes, perhaps a ‘wood station’ chipping for fuel.

This leaves clean materials that can be reused or recycled. The city’s 60% recycling target can be just a beginning, since there are authorities in Britain past 70% and aiming for 80%. A lot of second hand goods can be recovered by local projects and sold to low income families instead of being burned.

Ultimately, there will always be some problem wastes. Aston University’s European Bioenergy Research Institute (EBRI) has demonstrated a pioneering plant using pyrolysis and gasification to reduce any carbon-based waste including mixed plastics into oil, gas and biochar. This yields much more useful energy than burning waste and could even be zero carbon (5).

We encourage Birmingham to adopt the aim of A Zero Waste City, and look forward to seeing how Birmingham will make this happen! If you’d like to find out more about Birmingham’s waste systems and how they can be more sustainable, then get in touch:


(1) In Your Backyard website details for Veolia waste disposal plant Tyseley

(2) The Health Effects of Waste Incinerators 4th Report of the British Society for Ecological Medicine Second Edition June 2008 Dr Jeremy Thompson and Dr Honor Anthony

(3) Air Quality Action Plan 2011 BCC

(4) Review of Evidence on Health Aspects of Air Pollution WHO 2013

(5) EBRI