UK WIN-ner

We at Resource love a good waste campaigner, and the UK Without Incineration Network’s (UKWIN) Shlomo Dowen is no exception. Resource spoke to the man himself

Shlomo Dowen. A name that’s not easily forgotten and one that deserves recognition. A regular in the Resource Hot 100 list of movers and shakers in our industry, UKWIN’s Dowen often receives praise for his campaigning against incineration. So, what’s he like? And what are his thoughts on waste?

Originally hailing from Brooklyn, New York, Dowen came to the UK to continue his studies: biomedical ethics. “When it became clear I wasn’t looking to be a biomedical ethicist in order to be an apologist for the pharmaceutical corporations, then [sponsorship] for my career path lessened and I was drawn to the UK.”

However, two sets of twins and one child in the middle (!) diverted his route when he and his wife opted to home educate their children throughout the 1980s. When he emerged from that decade, he was drawn into adult education and the Bridlington Active Citizenship Project that brought together a wide range of different communities within the Yorkshire seaside town.

A move to Mansfield in Nottinghamshire in 2004 saw Dowen looking for a way to contribute to his new community, little realising that it would lead to waste. “Attending community meetings, we were presented with the council’s accounts and on them was money raised from waste management services... and I was interested to better understand what happened to material that had gone for recycling but had been rejected in the form of contamination.” Dowen was disappointed with the council’s proposed solution of allowing Veolia to build an incinerator to deal with the problem. “I ran to the internet to undertake research about waste incineration... I went around different collection authorities raising questions not only about incineration but about the prospect of entering into a waste PFI contract... the collecting authorities were not only unable to answer my questions, but they were unable to access the draft waste partnership agreement that they were being asked to sign... and the lawyers told them what I’d been telling them, which is that it’s a bad idea to sign contracts sight unseen.” Not only that, but with the consultation pre-dating the incinerator proposal, Dowen contented there was no evidence of a need for an incinerator in addition to Nottingham’s existing Eastcroft energy-from-waste facility.

Shlomo DowenDowen was baffled by the council’s justification of the incinerator proposal. He suggests, echoing Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: “Waste officers were shocked out of a sort of complacency with the notion that waste would double, that there would be huge landfill fines, and were immediately presented with the solution in terms of integrated waste management contracts and PFIs that they went for as a solution to the crisis that they suddenly embraced as real.”

He adds: “Once they had embarked on that road based on those figures they were effectively living in a bubble, and they refused to review the figures in light of the reality. Even today there are waste PFIs that are going ahead based on 2001 [municipal waste generation] figures.”

The incineration plans were eventually dropped in Forest Town. But then, Veolia proposed one for another location two miles deeper into Sherwood Forest. Dowen didn’t want his victory to come at the expense of his Rainworth neighbours, so agreed to continue his support. Though the second site was granted planning permission by Nottinghamshire County Council in January 2009, the campaigners were successful in getting planning permission refused. “We secured a letter from the RSPB confirming that more than four per cent of the country’s population of woodlark and nightjar use the site, which then put it in the frame for a special protection area.”

By this time, UKWIN had taken shape. It had begun at a Friends of the Earth anti-incineration summit in 2006 where it was decided that a unified organisation was needed. In April 2008, once funds from the Ecology Trust had been secured, Dowen was appointed UKWIN Coordinator. “There were about a dozen different groups at that original summit, and now UKWIN represents 86 different groups. Many of the people who approach me are completely new to the planning system, completely new to waste management, completely new to any sort of environmental justice issue... mostly they are newbies – I’m not going to say NIMBYs – people who like me got wind of the idea that there might be an incinerator being proposed for their area then went on to the internet and got the UKWIN website.”

They may start off as newbies, but Dowen says they soon see the issues in a larger socio-political context, “when they realise that it’s not only their community that is being singled out but that incinerators tend to be proposed for deprived areas that don’t have the financial means to resist”.

What sets UKWIN apart from other anti-incineration groups is that rather than focusing on the health issues surrounding incinerators, it believes other areas are worthy of attention, and that how you say something can be as important as what you say. “What characterises a good campaign is understatement. A good campaign always gives some sources of information so that a neutral or even a sympathetic observer can trace any claims that are being made. Campaigners who use phrases like ‘the incinerator will damage local people’s health’ don’t tend to do as well as those campaigns who say ‘were an incinerator to be built it would such and such’, as it varies the mindset that it’s not a done deal, that it can be derailed, that their campaign could succeed is an important element.”

For Dowen, the common ground, however, is uncertainty. “[Scientists will] only say that the safety concerns had been addressed but that does not make it safe.” Dowen further notes that not all of the dangerous chemicals produced by the incineration process are monitored; in fact, he claims, they’re not even known. “Mass spectography reveals that there are many more chemicals coming out of the incinerator than are subject to any form of regulation... but then of course even with the regulated emissions you have a situation where, yes, there are emissions limits values but when emissions are breached then the Environment Agency doesn’t take adequate action. For example, the Wolverhampton incinerator exceeded its emissions limit by a factor of 16, in other words 1,600 per cent, and yet when that was brought to the Environment Agency’s attention they said, ‘These tests can be off by a factor of two per cent either way and if it over estimated the emissions by two per cent that would bring it more or less in line with the emissions limits.’ And obviously we pointed out that it could also be two per cent worse.”

Dowen explains that every incinerator operator is obliged to produce an annual report that gives details of emissions and emissions breaches and actions taken, but this is self-regulating (and expensive). “An incinerator produces two kinds of ash. Fly ash, also known as air pollution control residue, is captured by the filters, and the bottom ash is what is beneath the grate. Air pollution control residue is highly toxic and some bottom ash would qualify for hazardous status [depending on the quantities of zinc and lead]. What an incinerator operator would have to pay out to dispose of a consignment of bottom ash that is eco toxic relative to the cost of landfilling or even using as an aggregate is dramatic – £80 a tonne versus £2.50 a tonne on tax alone, before gate fees, transport, etc – and obviously the financial pressures are to declare as much as possible not toxic.”
In fact, Dowen calculates that a 200,000 tonne per annum incinerator with about 60,000 tonnes of bottom ash every year would have to pay an additional £6 million if it was all declared toxic (and that’s with a conservative estimate of only £100 difference in disposal per tonne). “And yet it is all self reporting and when it comes to the degree of toxicity of the incinerator bottom ash that is purely self regulating and they don’t even have to report their results to the Environment Agency.”

Indeed, Dowen is disappointed with the Environment Agency’s lack of direction. “First of all, the Environment Agency is under-resourced. Second, the data tends to be confidential and not easily available to the public... the Environment Agency was established in order to respond to concerns that had been raised by environmentalists... upon reflection, the Environment Agency is there to protect the financial environment of multi-national corporations. And indeed the Health Protection Agency is there to protect the health of their balance sheets.”

Yet financial and environmental concerns can move in the same direction, Dowen points out. He welcomes a suggestion in the recent Waste Review for a lower, middle band in landfill tax that recognises bio-stabilised waste’s benefits: “Similarly, if there are undesirable consequences arising from incineration, then incineration or combustion should be taxed.”

He adds: “The waste hierarchy, which is now enshrined in law, is violated by incinerators, every incinerator, and by design... We already have an over-provision of incinerators in the UK so what that means is that waste will be transported from increasing distances in order to service existing incinerators.”
Dowen cites Veolia’s 200,000-tonne incinerator in Sheffield, which, he says, has already tried to top up with commercial and industrial waste unsuccessfully. “They found that their gate fees were so uneconomic that local companies had other ways of disposing of their waste that were cheaper and waste that was provided was of the wrong calorific value.”

Moreover, Dowen says, incinerators already operating in this country, never mind a new generation, are in competition with each other, as well as incinerators on the Continent for dwindling feedstock.

As the final word, Dowen adds: “Defra’s approach to prudence is to take the worst case scenario and add 10 per cent to it. If you live in that imaginary world, then imaginary incinerators provide an
imaginary solution.”