Back to the drawing board?

JERSEY’S Environment minister claims it makes neither environmental nor economic sense for his island to take any of Guernsey’s rubbish.

JERSEY’S Environment minister claims it makes neither environmental nor economic sense for his island to take any of Guernsey’s rubbish.

Those worrying, but highly-predictable, comments made me reflect on the whole waste saga. How time has flown. It’s getting on for three years since the States decided – by 21 votes to 20 – to ditch plans for an incinerator in February 2010.

That decision ensured the island had spent many millions on two abortive waste to energy plants. The Guernsey Press actually calculated a notional cost of about £60m. when factoring in the lost landfill space. But campaigners were cock-a-hoop. So were many States members, with one Vale deputy claiming an alternative waste strategy could be in place within a few months.

In the event it took two years to draw up and even then it was simply a hopeful wish list rather than a certain and costed plan for waste disposal.

I’m very aware that I may have sounded like a bit of a Jonah over waste in recent years. Particularly to those who are convinced that some secure and yet environmentally perfect disposal route is on offer. Sorry if I sound unconvinced, but it’s because I am. It’s not that I don’t want it to be true. I’d love to be proved wrong. But I really fear that this 15-year soap opera that has been played out in the States, with more twists and turns than the Val des Terres, could have a very unhappy ending indeed.

The reasons for my cynicism are two-fold.

Firstly, it seems perverse that a bitter fight that went on for years over the perceived evils of incineration could end with the opponents of burning waste hailing a decision to incinerate our rubbish somewhere else as a victory. That strikes me less as environmentalism and more as nimbyism.

More worrying are all the dangerous uncertainties which remain in our much-vaunted waste strategy. It relies on a massive and sustained increase in recycling rates. It also relies on someone else wanting to take and burn our residual waste, at the right cost, on a long enough contract to justify the required on-island investment. As Jeeves often opined to Bertie Wooster – ‘any plan which relies on so many variables is fraught with the possibility of failure’.

Certainly the cheerful assumption that Jersey would be bound to take our rubbish always seemed somewhat over-optimistic.

So does the Jersey Environment minister’s statement that he doesn’t want our waste mean the wheels have already come off the strategy? Not necessarily.

He could be overruled by the Jersey States. Or some other community in the UK, France or beyond could decide they’d love to burn our rubbish if international conventions permit. But it does at the very least highlight the extreme fragility of our preferred waste disposal plan. Relying on others is always risky and we should be demanding that PSD reveals its ‘plan B’ should export prove impractical.

Frankly, it’s hard to think what plan B might be. It surely can’t be to go back to incineration.

The States have twice shown themselves to lack the resolve to stick to that plan in the face of public opposition and there’s no reason to believe a third attempt would be any different. We all know Einstein’s definition of insanity.

Anyway, what sensible provider of incinerators would touch Guernsey with a barge pole given its track record? Particularly when the UK is on a drive to commission as many waste to energy plants as possible because they’re seen as much more environmental than landfill.

If the delicate house of cards that is Guernsey’s waste strategy does collapse there really only seems to be two, almost opposite, alternatives remaining.

One is going for some cutting-edge, novel technology, which is a very high-risk option in itself given that we are an island and can’t quickly adopt an alternative if something goes wrong with the kit.

The more likely scenario is that in desperation, we would identify a new landfill site to replace Mont Cuet. That would be an environmental disaster, a real own goal for those who campaigned against on-island incineration. And as it would very likely be Les Vardes, it would also sterilise forever valuable granite reserves and potential water storage.

I hope all my doom mongering is proved wrong, but this saga really feels like a political and strategic car crash being played out in slow motion.