I have just returned from a fascinating visit to the Cornwall Energy Recovery Centre at St Dennis in Cornwall. The plant, run by Suez, opened for business earlier this year.
This was completed just over a year ago, following a very controversial planning process involving multiple protests from the public and appeals made to Parliament. The plant cost £150 million to build and uses state of the art technology to ensure that environmental impacts are minimal.
The unit processes all household black bag waste generated in Cornwall, and a significant proportion of commercial waste, and the energy produced as a result is sufficient to power 21,000 homes. The main by product is the residual ash which is used for aggregate, concrete production and other such products. No household waste goes to landfill in Cornwall.
I have always had mixed feelings about incinerators and I had hoped that my visit today would help ameliorate these – which to some extent it has.
I am still concerned about the choice of location. Although it is in an area which already has significant heavy industry, there are several small villages close by who are having to cope with increased traffic and the associated hazards. Access is poor with huge waste lorries having to navigate narrow, windy lanes to reach the Centre. Could it have been located close to a railway hub, so most of the waste could have been moved by freight train, reducing the strain on the roads?
The environmental controls are strict, with daily monitoring shared with the Environment Agency. The processes in place seem stringent, but only time will tell whether any toxins are being released into the atmosphere. Early incineration plants at other sites were shown to be highly contaminating, with farming in the areas becoming quickly unviable leading to the incineration of dairy herds and crops.
I found it slightly surprising, given the early resistance to the unit by local residents, that the offer of environmental monitoring kits has not apparently been taken up. So other than the monitoring done inside the plant prior to leaving, there doesn’t seem to be any check on the environmental impacts of any emissions.
Impact on recycling rates
I am also concerned that as the plant needs a higher level of waste than normally produced in Cornwall, there is less incentive for the Council to improve our dismally low recycling rates. Currently, Cornwall and Isles of Scilly only recycle 20.9%, whereas our neighbour West Devon achieves 54.5% and South Oxforshire achieved over 66%. Cornwall and Isles of Scilly lies at 346th out of 351 local authorities 1. Hardly something to be proud of.
So, what is stopping us from recycling more? Nothing except laziness and lack of awareness.
We all have the opportunity with special bags and boxes and kerbside collections every two weeks. The Council alongside with Suez, do run events at the Cornwall Energy Recovery Centre and the Materials Recycling Facility in Bodmin where groups can go along to learn about how we can reduce our waste, and these visits are particularly popular with school groups. But we can’t wait until our children are grown up to tackle recycling.
In other parts of the country, authorities have moved to two weekly rubbish collections, whilst making their recycling every week. I am sure this would be unpopular at first, but as always we would adjust, and those who don’t recycle would be encouraged at least to throw milk cartons, tins, cardboard and paper into the proper bins each week, knowing they would be taken away. It might also encourage people to compost more and reduce the amount of garden waste that gets put in the black household bags.
Cornwall is in a pitiful state with its recycling, yet we promote ourselves as being green and environmentally friendly. We need urgent action to address this problem and it is something we can all get involved with.