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A burning issue, a choking reality

Shasha KhanIncinerators are not just environmentally-dangerous, but they are being built in areas with high BME populations, protests Shasha Khan of the Green Party

Whilst staffing the Green Party stall at last months Thornton Heath Festival I was reminded just how many local authorities are keen to put on a party to celebrate the multi cultural nature of their borough. However, they appear much less inclined to consider the very same residents in decisions that inherently impact on the quality of their lives.

Here in Croydon the debate surrounding the South London Waste Plan is a case in point. For a year now I have been spending too much time learning about thermal treatment technologies associated with incineration such as gasification, pyrolysis and plasma arc.

I can tell your eyes are already glazing over and your forefinger is primed to click on another link…but wait..if you live in south London this will impact on you! The emissions from an incinerator are associated with cancer, lung disease, kidney disease and birth defects! Thus the reason for my new found interest.

An EU Landfill Directive requires national governments to reduce the level of biodegradable municipal waste sent to landfill by 2020. The government has passed these targets to councils under the Landfill Allowance Trading Scheme (LATS) which is a kind of landfill credit system, except these credits cost councils millions of pounds.

Suddenly councils need to find ways to reduce the amount biodegradable waste they send to landfill otherwise they will have to cut services or increase council tax. Here in South London four borough councils – Sutton, Kingston, Merton and Croydon – with a combined population of well over one million have pooled together to form the South London Waste Partnership.

The problem is the EU gave authorities a get out of jail card. It decided to rebrand incinerators as ‘energy from waste plants’, voted for by Labour and Conservative MEP’s, which opened the door for waste companies to make money from burning waste – all waste. Hence what was originally a method to tackle landfill and greenhouse gas emissions has now become a ticket to burn waste and make lots of money whilst doing so.

Private contractors are signing 25 or 35 year deals when they build these waste disposal sites, locking councils into providing a continued waste stream.

There are dozens of schemes cropping up all over the country opposing the new generation of incinerators because they depress waste resources, release twice as much CO2 as a coal fired power station and most importantly are a danger to human health. Given the aforementioned combination of health jeopardy, hands up who wants to live next to such a site? Not me I hear you cry! Locally, we have founded the Stop the Incinerator campaign.

But, what if you do not know that the shiny metallic dome with a 100 foot chimney stack being built is an incinerator? In fact, given that it won’t be required to be called an incinerator and instead be pushed through planning as an ‘energy from waste plant’ – something with an environmentally friendly ring to it – you could be blissfully unaware.

Last autumn’s initial consultation had a booklet with fields of daisies and woodland on the front cover. Inside the booklet was a questionnaire. This questionnaire was completed by only forty one people. Just 41 out of a population of 1.1 million! Nevertheless due to the leading questions in the booklet, it triggered a billion pound procurement process allowing companies all over the EU to bid for the site. Does this smack of, “what the people don’t know won’t harm them”?

So who will end up living next to these incinerators? Well, Friends of the Earth have produced a report which shows that 50 per cent of the incinerators are situated in 10 per cent of the poorest wards in the country.

Back in October the Croydon Green Party calculated that the most plausible location for this incinerator is the existing Beddington Lane waste management site in Sutton. However, being just across the border from Croydon, it would be residents in north Croydon that would predominantly be affected.

The wards in Croydon which are immediately downwind from Beddington Lane are unsurprisingly poorer wards that make up Thornton Heath. They also have a higher proportion of BME residents.

Which leads me back to my original musings. We can assume that the authorities are more likely to push an unpopular decision upon a community which doesn’t have the technical, financial or legal expertise to fight it. It’s the advantaged exercising their status over the disadvantaged; the ruling class imposing their solution on the working class. Some would argue that if the outcome of a decision disproportionately affects BME communities then it is racist regardless of the intention.

UK society is increasingly unequal. Studies show that life expectancy differs up to six years within Croydon – much of this differential attributable to air quality. If the authorities continue to look for neo-liberalistic economic solutions (8) to environmental issues such as waste, which fail to take into consider social and ecological costs, then the future is bleak. From north Croydon to New Orleans, it is the poorer predominantly non white communities that are most affected both locally and globally.

Back at the festival the experience was nothing short of a sensory treat. The smells, sounds and colours that gushed from the jerk grills, steel bands and carnival procession brought the Caribbean to the local High Street. What is tragic is that a couple of years from now, the likelihood is we won’t just be catching the aroma from the jerk seasoning, we could also be breathing in the toxic nanoparticles from the incinerator that go deep down into the lungs, through the membranes, into the bloodstream and finally into the brain.

Shasha Khan is a Green Party Parliamentary Candidate for Croydon North

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