Incinerators: Environmental Injustice in the UK Waste Industry
Updated: Apr 28
The BLM movement raised awareness of the continued systematic racism that BIPOC are victim of. However, instead of turning inwards, gazes focused on the United States oblivious to the fact that racial oppression and white supremacy pervade our own backyard. A clear indicator that environmental racism is alive and well in the UK is the evidence that waste incinerators disproportionally affect communities of colour
A recent Unearthed investigation revealed that incinerators are 3x more likely to be built in the most deprived areas of the UK. And this trend isn’t close to coming to an end. Planned and current construction sites are also three times more likely to be located in the poorest areas than in the richest areas. Half of these new incinerators are concentrated in the top 25% deprived neighbourhoods where POC are overrepresented.
Because wealthier neighbourhoods are often perceived as more worthy of preservation and protection, the nation’s rubbish is left to be dealt with in the most deprived communities
According to Asad Rehman, executive director of War on Want, people of colour have less political sway because of their precarious living conditions. He states that these communities are shut out of the political system because of their socioeconomic status, pointing out that individuals juggling two or more jobs to make ends meet don’t have the luxury of time to devote evenings to local political activities. He argues that the government should be held accountable for the disproportionate impact of incinerators on already vulnerable communities.
However, if we learn anything from the past it’s that the government does not have the interest of all its citizens at its heart. These statistics show that “wealthier neighbourhoods are more worthy of preservation and protection” than deprived regions.
Incinerator emissions were previously controlled by EU standards which the government and waste industry have been working to weaken. Since January, these limits will be decided domestically. In 2020, MPs rejected an amendment to the Environment Bill that would have aligned the UK’s particulate matter targets with World Health Organisation guidelines.
The government is currently considering plans to expand the Edmonton incinerator site, located in North London where 65% of residents are people of colour. Ambiant air pollution levels are already above EU limits, and expansion plans would worsen the quality of air. The North London Waste Authority, which manages the Edmonton site, stated that the new incinerator will use state-of-the-art equipment with selective catalytic reduction technology, which should in theory reduce NOx emissions to 60% below EU law.
The science on the health impacts of incinerators is still unclear. An Imperial College study conducted in 2019 found no significant increase in local pollution due to incinerator activity. However, another study detected a correlation between incinerators and risk of cardiac and respiratory diseases. Authors of the study acknowledged that the study did not control for all social factors, where occupation and lifestyle may contribute to these increased health risks.
The challenges in assessing the danger of incinerators to public health lies in our inability to clearly attribute the exposure to a specific source of pollution (road transport, incinerator, etc). This becomes especially difficult in deprived areas where communities are impacted by a number of inequalities like a lack of access to green spaces, food deserts, and environmental pollution.
However, incinerators clearly contribute to nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter concentrations. A recent study commissioned by the government found that a total of 15 deaths per year are attributed to emissions from the five incinerators in London. And less than 1 hospital admission per year for respiratory and cardiovascular conditions is attributed to particular matter emissions.
Incineration plays an important role in UK waste management and the industry is expected to grow over time at the expense of recycling. Areas that have high incineration rates typically have low recycling rates as seen in London where incineration has already surpassed recycling in London as the main waste stream. On top of the health implications of burning waste, incinerators are not compatible with a circular economy and support the production of virgin materials, in particular plastic.