Political Ecology and Power Generation in North London

Rachel Parsons
MSc Anthropology, Environment, and Development

On a mild day, upwind, there’s not much that would give it away. Only the small, thin puffs of white smoke floating out of the stack and a barely-noticeable odour – similar to an acrid bonfire – would signal that the industrial building sitting alongside the River Lea navigation channel is torching household rubbish. But downwind of the place the stench can be “absolutely vile when you go close to it … it’s stomach churning,” says Georgia Elliott-Smith, a resident of Enfield.

The facility is a municipal waste incinerator in north-east London that burns hundreds of thousands of tonnes of rubbish per year from seven of the city’s northern boroughs and other regions. Dubbed the Edmonton EcoPark and operated by a corporation owned by the North London Waste Authority (NLWA), the 50-year-old plant is coming to the end of its operational life. Elliott-Smith would like to put the final nail in its coffin. 

Not only will the patient live, however, it is getting a new lease on life via a massive rebuild that will increase its capacity from 500,000 tonnes of household waste a year to 700,000 tonnes a year. 

“That’s mental,” says Elliott-Smith, an environmental engineer. “That’s three times the amount of waste they produce in the seven North London boroughs that they serve.” 

The NLWA provides waste services, including recycling, to Barnet, Camden, Enfield, Hackney, Haringey, Islington, and Waltham Forest. The authority got permission to rebuild and expand Edmonton, one of five incinerators in the Greater London Authority boundary, in 2017. 

Not long after that, professional environmental campaigner Carina Millstone moved to south Chingford, a quiet suburb about a mile-and-a-half from the incinerator, in part because she was after better air quality for her family. She recalls wondering about the chimney piercing the skyline. Millstone, whose work focuses on moving the UK toward a circular economy, says she quickly realized that few people in the area, from elected officials to environmental activists to next-door neighbours, knew that the chimney belonged to a waste incinerator. She was annoyed, she says, to find out it was burning waste, but not nearly as annoyed as when she learned it was going to be redeveloped. 

“I was in complete disbelief,” Millstone says. “We can’t take responsibility for mistakes that happened in the ‘60s. But you know, it’s the 21st century. We now know we need to do something about incineration.”

Some things about incineration

It sounds like a pretty good idea: household rubbish that isn’t, or can’t be, recycled is burnt instead, often creating electricity and or heat that serves local homes. Incineration keeps the refuse out of landfill, something the UK government disincentivized through taxation in the late 1990s under EU environmental regulation. The move expanded the market for incineration and the number of facilities in the UK mushroomed. In 2013, 25 municipal waste incinerators, or MWIs, with energy recovery ability operated in the UK. As of 2019, there were 53 operating or about to begin, with 11 more under construction.

They generate revenue through fees charged to councils for waste collection and the sale of heat, electricity and by-products such as ash that result from incineration. Elliott-Smith says the industry is also the recipient of large renewable power generation grants from government so, she adds, it’s “profit upon profit upon profit.”

The North London Waste Authority argues that if the Edmonton facility isn’t rebuilt, 700,000 tonnes of trash will go to landfill every year. It projects its seven boroughs will churn out about 850,000 tonnes of waste per year by 2025. The NLWA did not respond to detailed questions for this story. 

The arguments against waste incineration vary. They range from public health concerns to the evidence that the practice disincentivizes recycling thereby hindering the development of the circular economy. Evidence of health problems can be contradictory and inconclusive. Smoke stack emissions include particulate matter, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, heavy metals, nitrogen oxides, dioxins, and furans in various combinations depending on what is burned. 

One Imperial College/Public Health England study, for example, found no increased risk of infant mortality directly related to incinerators when looking at particulate matter from various UK sites. However, the research did find a slight increase in two forms of birth defects in children who live within 10 km of an incinerator, though it could not conclusively link these defects to incineration facilities. This prompted Public Health England, in a statement, to say “that modern, well run and regulated municipal waste incinerators are not a significant risk to public health. While it is not possible to rule out adverse health effects from these incinerators completely, any potential effect for people living close by is likely to be very small.”

But a 2020 report commissioned by the Greater London Authority attributed 15 deaths per year in the city directly to pollution from incineration. And one study from the Netherlands found elevated levels of dioxin – a highly toxic, carcinogenic chemical found in incineration emissions – in grass and backyard chickens’ eggs from homes around one facility. Those researchers determined the dioxin was directly linked to the local incinerator by examining the congener patterns from the dioxin in their egg and grass samples and finding that they were similar to those from the incinerator’s smoke stack.  

As an environmental engineer, Georgia Elliott-Smith admits that what comes out of the stack does get cleaner with each new generation of incinerator technology, but activists say that point eschews the broader environmental argument. 

“We cannot move towards a circular economy unless we also move away from waste incineration,” says XR Zero Waste cofounder Tania Inowlocki. “It’s not either/or. It’s not, you have to choose between landfill and incineration. You have to move away from those two and move towards the circular economy by reducing waste in general, you know, before it becomes waste.” She adds that increasing reuse and repair of objects is critical. 

Sticks, carrots, and political ecology

Back near Edmonton, as crews prepared to break ground on the new construction at the EcoPark, Carina Millstone went on a local knowledge-sharing tour. As a professional environmental campaigner, she was particularly well positioned to form a coalition of groups against the expansion. Her campaign, Stop the Edmonton Incinerator Now (STEIN), is a network of groups including Black Lives Matter Enfield, Extinction Rebellion, and some local politicians and MPs – both Labour and Conservative – who are pressuring local councils and the NLWA to pause work and reassess the project. She also initiated a judicial review of the plan, which was unsuccessful.

Georgia Elliott-Smith picked up a hefty stick when she took the fight to the national level in 2020 by filing a legal challenge with the High Court against the incineration industry writ large, claiming a too-high cap on emissions violates the Paris Agreement and the UK’s emissions trading scheme (ETS) excludes incineration emissions pricing. The case was heard in April and as of this writing, the court has yet to publish its judgement. 

Campaigners are also concerned with carbon accounting from incineration. As it stands, under IPCC reporting regulations, only carbon emissions from burning fossil fuel sources, i.e. plastics, are accounted for, says activist and environmental software engineer Rembrandt Koppelaar. That excludes carbon emissions from biogenic sources such as food waste and anything else that may end up being burned. The burning of plastics has become a major focal point for the resistance. 

Koppelaar is cofounder of XR Zero Waste which is focused on carrots by presenting various councils within the NLWA with clear, viable plans to increase recycling rates – something that the Waste Authority has said is a top priority. 

But there is evidence that suggests the more incineration capacity an area has, the lower the recycling rates, whatever the stated priorities. This is at odds with the UK government’s publicized goal of moving toward a circular economy. In 2018, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) announced that its “plan is to become a world leader in using resources efficiently and reducing the amount of waste we create as a society.” 

While many activists would like to see the UK eliminate incineration altogether, Koppelaar sees some utility in it under certain circumstances. But, he says, “we should have as little as possible of incineration … [because] it impedes all the other things around resources and what you can do with them [to] make things more sustainable.”

Others see eliminating incineration as a matter of social justice. The Edmonton EcoPark sits in an industrial neighbourhood on the A406 in the Edmonton Green Ward. The ward is among the 20% most deprived neighbourhoods in the UK, and the population is nearly 60% BAME. In contrast, a proposed MWI in wealthier Cambridgeshire was roundly rejected in 2020. Though, even when sited in underserved areas, Elliott-Smith says stack emissions can blow over the immediate surroundings and affect wealthier neighborhoods without residents’ knowledge. 

The core actors of this socio-ecological system of resistance are well educated, well organized, and have resources or the ability to fundraise, which reflects the broader landscape of environmental activism and resistance in the UK. They tend to be white, middle class, and skew middle-aged and older. They have the knowledge necessary to sue the government, time outside their jobs to attend council meetings and create detailed alternative policy recommendations, and make deputations. 

Even so, Shlomo Dowen of the UK Without Incineration Network, says “I think it’s fair to say that the Edmonton campaign is one of the most ethnically diverse anti-incineration campaigns in the sort of 20 years or so that I’ve been involved with the movement.”

Black Lives Matter Enfield is a part of the STEIN coalition. But other campaigners admit the movement broadly has not been as actively inclusive as they feel it should be. 

Exactly how much of its activity translates into political power is another question. There have been some successes. The XR Zero Waste effort has spurred Camden’s council to form a scrutiny subcommittee to look at the Edmonton plan and its recyclable materials recovery scheme. In response to popular calls for a moratorium on new incineration facilities nationally, DEFRA has stated that it will re-examine its waste projections and disposal methods in light of its commitment to increasing recycling and a circular economy, according to letters it sent to UKWIN and seen by Anthropolitan. The department recently announced proposals to reform waste laws, potentially making packaging producers responsible for costs of recycling and levying fees on companies if materials are harder to recycle, along with a deposit return scheme for drinks containers. 

At the citywide level resistance to incineration in London convinced Sadiq Khan, mayor of London, in 2019 to publicly oppose a planned second MWI in Bexley and initiate a legal challenge against it, which he later dropped citing the cost of litigation. 

“It also sets up the a priori argument that if Sadiq Khan was finding it difficult to fund a legal challenge,” says Dowen, how do low-income residents of Edmonton, for example, “go about funding a legal challenge to the government?”

Georgia Elliott-Smith’s challenge was funded in part through a CrowdJustice fundraising campaign.  

In North London, activists argue that increased recycling rates and a potential ban on single-use plastics will decrease demand and smaller amounts of residual rubbish could be routed to other existing incinerators. Further, they say, if the second Bexley MWI is built along with Edmonton there will be enormous overcapacity (something Sadiq Khan also cited), creating competition for waste feedstock, which would deem it necessary to import more rubbish from other regions. 

The NLWA counters that a projected population increase in the area in the coming decades will negate that decrease and justifies the larger incineration capacity. Although, according to the authority’s website, the building under current construction at the EcoPark is a resource recovery facility to collect recyclables. So there may be time to negotiate a lower capacity for the incinerator before its construction begins. The NLWA did not respond to a question about whether this recovery facility will presort all black bag rubbish (as opposed to only recycling bag contents) that comes through the site prior to incineration which would keep misplaced plastics out of the furnace. 

In late May, Mayor Sadiq Khan told the London Assembly he would be “more than happy” to meet with campaigners and cross-party MPs about a pause and review of the Edmonton rebuild, though he added that he has no power to pause the plan unilaterally. 

The prospect of failure is daunting, activists admit. But they are still hopeful, knowing that they are essentially playing a chess match. 

“So do I think we’re going to stop it?” says Carina Millstone, who founded Stop the Edmonton Incinerator Now campaign. “No. … Do I think we might end up with a smaller incinerator than is currently planned? Yes. So that would be partly a victory, but I think that’s most likely to happen. But maybe not. Maybe not.” 

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