Serious concerns over waste incinerator proposal

Tuesday January 23, 2018 Published in Letters to the Editor

I am writing to express my concern about the national waste incinerator that was proposed by Infrastructure Cook Islands.


I am concerned because I heard the finance minister is actively negotiating with the EU to have this incinerator installed.

Some five years ago, when we had an Energy Commissioner, a feasibility study was done for a proposed Rarotonga waste incinerator. The final report concluded it was not feasible because if waste was properly sorted and treated, the remaining volumes would be too small. I see now that the proposal is for a “national waste incinerator”, which implies that wastes would be brought from the pa enua islands to be incinerated here.

One major concern, among others, is the well-documented impacts on the health of any community living near a waste incinerator. In 2014, the EU supported SPREP in a project plan to install 28 healthcare waste incinerators throughout the Pacific. When GAIA (Global Anti-Incineration Alliance) evaluated the specifications of that healthcare waste incinerator model, their experts said it was too small to have suitable pollution controls.

In a 2014 letter to the EU, it was pointed out that use of such incinerators would put Pacific Small Island Developing States in non-compliance with the Stockholm Convention.

I do not have access to the specifications for the current proposed national waste incinerator, but it needs to be evaluated by an independent expert engineer who understands chemistry. All-inclusive incineration of household and business wastes would also be in non-compliance with the Basel Convention, under which a waste hierarchy should be used to classify waste treatments, and incineration is only permissible under stringent conditions as a last resort. The Cook Islands acceded to both these UN Conventions in 2004, and since they are legally-binding, suitable provisions should be included in Cook Islands legislation.

Dioxin, a gas that causes cancer in humans, is created when plastics, such as wrapping, packaging or PVC medical intravenous drips, are burned inadequately.

Any pollution control will trap it in the chimney soot, or in the grate of the incinerator. This residual ash will contain highly toxic substances if items like torch batteries or plastic packaging are burned. The liner to the Rarotonga landfill was damaged by high winds shortly after it was laid. It also suffered damage from a subsequent landfill fire which was hard to put out. Landfilled ash would therefore mix with liquids to produce leachate that would seep through porous soils into the lagoons and contaminate our seafoods.

Case studies abound about communities living near waste incinerators in which people have suffered not only cancers, but also cardiovascular or heart disease caused by the fine particulates released to the surrounding air.  So if there is no pollution control for the incinerator, or any pollution control is made less effective by the mix of waste the incinerator burns, you would not want to live nearby. Those who currently suffer the effects of smoke from the exhaust of the airport incinerator have often complained about poor air quality.

Burning household and commercial waste is not really a “renewable” source of energy and the hidden cost to the community and the government is in healthcare costs. The Ministry of Health figures for the quarter to September 2017 indicated that cardiovascular disease continues to be responsible for most Cook Islands deaths. And 60 per cent of the health budget is spent on curative measures.

A report from the waste audit conducted in October 2017 showed that on Rarotonga, household and commercial waste is still not being sorted well. If food waste is included in the waste for incineration, the resulting “wet” mix makes for an inefficient burn and a greater chance of pollution.

In summary, I think the current Infrastructure Cook Islands strategic plan is right to advocate the principle of zero waste.  Professors Paul Connett recommends 10 effective steps towards zero waste:

Separation of waste at source (in the case of Cook Islands at household or business)

Door-to-door collections



Reuse, repair and establishment of a Community Centre

Waste reduction initiatives

Economic incentives

Residual separation and research centre

Industrial responsibility (in the Cook Islands’ case, business responsibility)

Temporary landfill

Connett promoted an alternative strategy consisting of intensive recycling, composting, reuse, repair and re-design; to this I would add “re-export hazardous waste for environmentally sound disposal”.

We need an advance disposal fee, paid by the user of the article, on such intractable waste (like discarded electronic, packaging) to build up funds to cover the cost of doing this. 

I acknowledge and thank those businesses which buy as “green” as they can, as they are reducing the problem at time of import.  Let us not destroy our environment with a national waste incinerator but instead avoid costly, deadly mistakes by learning from overseas experience. As Professor Connett says, “God composts, the Devil burns!”

            Concerned Citizen

            (Name and address supplied)


Leave a comment