Government action on EfW plants too little, too late

With the Climate Change Committee warning that the UK’s waste sector is seeing rising CO2 emissions due to the construction of new Energy-from-Waste plants, Green Peer Jenny Jones outlines the urgency with which the UK Government must recognise the damaging effects of these ‘polluting towers’.

Burngreave EfW plant

© Neil Theasby (CC BY-SA 2.0) geograph.org.uk

Sheffield incinerator from Burngreave

Jenny Jones

The Government’s advisory body, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), has warned that the waste sector could see rising CO2 emissions due to new Energy-from-Waste plants being built:

“Many new energy-from-waste (EfW) plants are under construction and have been granted planning permission, which if built without carbon capture and storage (CCS) will likely significantly increase sector emissions.”

The fact it is recognising the urgency of the problem is progress, and I have been lobbying hard to encourage this shift in approach, but there is still a naive belief in the ability of a techno-fix – CCS – to solve what will become a major headache for future governments. Along with incinerators comes a whole contractual arrangement that binds local authorities into a climate-damaging system of providing the fuel (the packaging and things we throw away) that makes these polluting towers financially viable. As local authorities have rapidly reduced the amount of waste they send to landfill, most of them have diverted their lorries to carry the waste for burning instead.

A whole new generation of EfW plants is in the planning system, yet the amount of residual waste going to landfill, or being exported, has declined to the point where there won’t be enough to fuel the fires. The result of doubling our capacity to burn waste will be financial pressures to find new sources of waste, and that means either importing the stuff or reducing the amount that is recycled.

The CCC does recognise this, but instead of putting a halt to new incinerators, its solution is to put a halt on the reduction of waste going to landfill. It wants carbon capture introduced before even more landfill waste is available to burn. The same applies to a ban on biological waste to landfill (in other words, food waste), as Scotland introduced a ban in 2021 and the result was a big jump in EfW capacity that it is now trying to reverse.

I warned back in 2009 that incineration in London was holding back recycling. A national report I produced in 2018 showed how recycling had halted or gone into decline within many waste authority areas because of the switch to EfW plants. My fears for the future are based on evidence from the recent past.

The CCC wants local authority waste contracts and planning policy to align with the targets for waste reduction and recycling. It wants the Government to encourage carbon capture with either a carrot-and-stick approach or just a straightforward limit on greenhouse gases. All this is good, but indirect. Its strong appeals for the Government to meet its targets to recycle, reduce and repair have had little impact on results in recent years and the CCC has been slow to figure out why. It's not just the lack of political will; it's become a question of the vested interests within the waste industry to promote its own profit line above what is good for the planet.

Wales has mandatory recycling targets that local authorities must meet. It has also recognised that its EfW plants will have to be phased out by 2050 to achieve Welsh Zero Waste targets (no waste sent to landfill or incineration).

In its final set of recommendations, the CCC does have a couple of useful things to say:

“If EfW plants under construction and granted planning approval in the UK were all built, and plant utilisation rates remained unchanged, this would add 3-10 MtCO2e/year to UK emissions. To prevent this major increase, either a substantial fraction – potentially a majority – of the EfW plant pipeline will have to remain unbuilt, EfW fleet utilisation rates will have to fall, or else carbon capture and storage (CCS) will need to be installed on plants from the mid/late-2020s onwards to mitigate the additional emissions.”

It recognises the problem of renegotiating existing contracts and that “Government support to assist Local Authorities will likely be required.“ That is the carrot, while the stick is the suggestion that EfW emissions could be reduced “… either through carbon taxation or inclusion in a UK Emissions Trading Scheme”.

While I feel that the CCC could have gone a lot further in promoting the proper use of waste and a circular economy, there is enough in its advice for campaigners and local councillors to use in their local battles against incineration.