Readers' Blog: Incineration of waste is no value to the environment

I could not object to the incineration of toxic organic waste, some of which may be of assistance for the excellent pharmaceutical initiatives based in Cork.

Readers' Blog: Incineration of waste is no value to the environment

I learned last week that planning permission has been granted for a municipal and hazardous waste incinerator in the Cork Harbour area. I could not object to the incineration of toxic organic waste, some of which may be of assistance for the excellent pharmaceutical initiatives based in Cork.

I must, however, express my deep regret if the proposed incinerator will process materials such as putrescible wastes, paper and lignocellulosic materials (wood straws, garden wastes, etc). I listened to the very valid objections made on radio to incineration by Mary O’Leary of Chase (Cork Harbour Alliance for a Safe Environment) and by Eamon Ryan TD.

In my view there is no such thing as an organic waste, except when it is toxic. Rather it should be considered as a resource.

When Dennis Greenland and I produced two research texts — The Chemistry of Soil Constituents, Wiley, 1978 and The Chemistry of Soil Processes, Wiley 1981 (long out of print, but both have been reproduced accurately by the New India Publishing Company, 2015) — we stressed that all that comes from the soil that is not used as fuel and fibre should be returned to the soil.

Most of the highly fertile soils of the world are under long-term cultivation and the soil organic matter (SOM) in these is being seriously depleted. That depletion of SOM takes place to the depth that it exists in the soil profile (Hayes et al. EPA Research Report, STRIVE 58, 2010).

It is estimated that 100 crops from now (much less in many cases) the SOM in long-term cultivated soils will be depleted, the soil structure will be degraded, fertility lost, and serious soil erosion will take place. That should not apply in Ireland for as long as the vast majority of our soils are used to support grass and forest, but the situation is very serious for most of the fertile soils of the world because long term cultivation practises in these have already seriously depleted their SOM reserves.

Consideration should also be given to the fact that the atmospheric CO2 levels do not discriminate between that from fossil fuels and that from SOM in soils long-term cultivation. (We are not being credited for our vast sequestration of carbon in our grassland soils.)

Ten years ago I opposed (and was among the losers) the Poolbeg incinerator initiative. I invited Mr Tierney, then head of Dublin City Council, to open debate (for which he could be supported by anyone he might select), but he did not respond.

I strongly urge those who are considering incineration to take account of the modern technologies that process so-called organic wastes.

These technologies render putrescible organic wastes and sewage sludges pathogen free and the products are excellent sources of slow release fertilisers, and of soil conditioners (transforming to SOM and acting as preservers of soil structure).

We also have technologies that can process paper and lignocellulosic biomasses into chemicals that will replace petroleum.

Incineration will stymie progress, and be of no value to the environment.

Dr Michael HB Hayes MRIA, Hon Member SSSA, ASA, IHSS

Research Professor Carbolea GroupCS DepartmentUniversity of Limerick

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