None of us want to see our carefully separated recycling burnt and, as such, I find it shocking that the UK is on the verge of burning more waste than it recycles. There are already three English regions doing this and, according to current trends, it will soon be a national problem.
There is a logic to generating energy from the waste that we cannot recycle or reuse, but it is meant to be the last resort option. What we have created instead is a market-driven system of incinerators that constantly need to be fed. Many councils have signed up to long-term contracts with incinerators and my research shows that some of these have among the worst recycling rates in the country. In fact, many of these councils have gone backwards and recycle proportionately less than they did six years ago.
As restrictions have been placed on sending rubbish to landfill, our waste has been diverted into these newly built incinerators, rather than increasing levels of recycling. In the last few years, recycling tonnages in England have flatlined, hovering around 11 million tonnes, while incineration has grown from 5.5 million tonnes in 2012/13 to over 10 million in 2016/17. By next year, incineration will overtake recycling and make a mockery of any government targets for reusing plastic, or composting kitchen waste.
Burning waste is bad for climate change and there are fears over the health impacts of incinerators because of reported weaknesses in their air pollution monitoring systems. However, it is the sheer waste of burning a valuable resource that irritates me most. I personally try my best to refuse and reuse, but when I do recycle, I want the reassurance that my efforts to do so will not be betrayed by someone shoving it all into a furnace.
Nature doesn't waste anything and neither should we. Our use of materials must be a closed loop, where everything possible gets reused. Companies and consumers need a steer and a nudge from the government, but I think there is now public recognition that we value our planet and the wealth of its wildlife more than we enjoy the convenience of a plastic-lined, disposable coffee cup.