The UK has a huge rubbish problem – but building new waste incinerators isn’t the answer

Some take waste directly from businesses, but the vast majority burn the contents of our wheelie bins – and around 12 per cent of that is plastic

Josephine Moulds
Tuesday 09 March 2021 09:25
<p>‘Plastic is made from fossil fuels, so it doesn’t take an atmospheric scientist to realise that burning it will emit carbon dioxide’</p>

‘Plastic is made from fossil fuels, so it doesn’t take an atmospheric scientist to realise that burning it will emit carbon dioxide’

If it is – according to Theresa May – a man’s job to take the bins out, whose job is it to know what can and can’t be recycled? Nobody’s, it seems, or at least that’s what the data would suggest. The UK has a huge rubbish problem.

Every year, UK households throw out more than 25 million tonnes of rubbish, less than half of which gets recycled. The other 55 per cent either ends up in landfill or, increasingly, it is burned in incinerators to generate energy. Last night’s Dispatches programme lifted the lid on the fact that in 2019, 11.6m tonnes of waste was incinerated, with just 10.9m sent for recycling.

This is touted as a green solution to dealing with our waste. After all, what’s not to like? We have mountains of rubbish to dispose of every year, why not extract some value from it rather than burying it in a hole in the ground, which could leak toxic chemicals into our rivers and emit methane – a greenhouse gas that is 28 times more effective than carbon dioxide at warming the Earth over a 100-year period.

Incinerator operators say that around half of the waste they burn is food, paper and other organic materials, so half the energy they generate should be considered renewable. The government agrees and energy from waste incinerators have received around £60 million in renewable energy subsidies, and are set to receive another £600 million of public money.

But it’s worth looking at what makes up the rest of the rubbish they burn. Obviously it depends on where they get it from. Some take waste directly from businesses, but the vast majority burn the contents of our wheelie bins and around 12 per cent of that is plastic.

Plastic is made from fossil fuels, so it doesn’t take an atmospheric scientist to realise that burning it will emit carbon dioxide. In fact, the data that incinerator operators publish in their annual performance reports suggest their plants emit almost as much carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour of electricity they export to the grid, as a coal-fired power plant.

The energy from waste industry will jump up and down at this point saying they save carbon by burning waste that otherwise would have gone to landfill. “Think of the methane,” they’ll cry.

It is, however, getting harder to back up claims that energy from waste is a much lower carbon way of dealing with waste than landfill. We are sending less food, paper and wood to landfill, which is what breaks down and emits methane; and UK landfills are getting better at capturing the methane that does escape, which is also burned to generate energy. 

Looking at the whole process – from transporting the waste, dealing with it (either by burning or landfilling), and recovering energy from it – scientists found that sending one tonne of rubbish to energy from waste incinerators in Scotland emitted just 15 per cent less carbon dioxide than sending it to landfill. And they showed that a slight increase in the amount of plastic in waste would, in fact, tip the balance in favour of landfill. 

The UK Climate Change Committee is increasingly worried about emissions from energy from waste incineration. In the last Carbon Budget, it celebrated the fact that emissions from the waste sector have fallen significantly over the past two decades, as we have weaned ourselves off a dependence on landfill. But, the committee notes that emissions “have not improved in the past few years due to a plateau in UK recycling and significant growth in fossil emissions from energy from waste plants”.

Despite this, incinerators are excluded from the emissions trading scheme, which charges polluters for burning fossil fuels. That exemption saved operators more than £80 million in 2019 and could see them avoid over £15 billion in payments to the government if they burn waste at the same rate over their 25-year life span.

Weighing up whether energy from waste or landfill is worse for the environment is, however, missing the point – both are extremely damaging. It is much more important to reduce the amount of waste we are sending to either incinerators or landfill by improving recycling and changing systems so we don’t create waste in the first place.

With a bit more support from central government, local councils can (and many have) got recycling rates up to around 50 per cent. Beyond that, Tim Walker, who used to run waste and recycling services for Belfast, says the government needs to step in with policy changes. That might mean introducing bottle deposit schemes and making manufacturers responsible for recovering and recycling the plastic they produce.

There will always be some waste that cannot be reused or recycled but we already have enough facilities to deal with that. There are 48 energy from waste incinerators operating in the UK and ministers say we won’t need any more if we hit our recycling targets.

Yet councils continue to approve planning applications and the Environment Agency has not stopped issuing permits for new energy from waste incinerators, which will belch out millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide over the next 25 years – at the precise time the government is having to take increasingly drastic action to meet its legally-binding target to reduce emissions to net zero by 2050.

This debate will soon reach the courts. Last year, plans for a third runway at Heathrow airport were ruled illegal by the court of appeal because ministers did not take into account the government’s commitments to tackle the climate crisis. Next month, the same legal team is challenging the government’s decision to exclude incinerators from the emissions trading scheme.

As the UK gears up to host the vital UN Cop26 climate talks in Glasgow later this year, the government must not only accede this point; it must also call for a moratorium on building any new incinerators. A failure to do so would, at this point, be a staggering own goal.

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