Incineration to outstrip recycling by 2020

“We have created a market-driven system of incinerators which constantly need to be fed.” A new report from Green peer Jenny Jones is calling for an incineration tax to curb the rise of waste incineration and incentivise the development of better recycling infrastructure.

Rob Cole

Waste incineration is set to outstrip recycling for the first time as burning waste almost doubles since 2012/13, according to a new report released today (17 July) by the Green Party.

The report, entitled ‘A burning problem: How incineration is stopping recycling’, highlights the increase in waste incineration in England since 2012/13, with the total amount of waste going to incineration increasing from just over 5.5 million tonnes to 10 million tonnes in 2016/17.

Although there has been a corresponding fall in waste sent to landfill – down from just over eight million tonnes in 2012/13 to under two million tonnes in 2016/17 – recycling has stagnated, hovering around 11 million tonnes in the same time period. Waste incineration is set to outstrip recycling by the end of 2018/19.

Three regions in England already burn more waste than they recycle – London, the West Midlands and the North East – while several local authorities’ recycling rates have actually fallen since 2010/11. Birmingham’s recycling rate fell to 25 per cent in 2016/17 from just over 30 per cent in 2010/11, while the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham fell from 28 per cent to 24 per cent and Wandsworth fell from around 26 per cent to 23 per cent.

Baroness Jenny Jones, author of the report and the only Green peer in the House of Lords, said in the report’s introduction: “There is every chance that some of the plastics, cardboard and paper that people took care to separate for recycling will end up being burnt alongside everything that was thrown in the waste bin. None of us wants to see our carefully separated recycling burnt and our elected councillors must stop this from happening.

“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 which constantly need to be fed.”

The influence of the market on recycling rates is particularly evident in West London, where recycling rates in Lambeth, Wandsworth, Hammersmith and Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea fell dramatically after they started using the Belvedere waste incinerator back in 2012.

Aside from its impacts on recycling rates, waste incineration is also a producer of harmful emissions, including CO2, which contributes to climate change, and particulate matter (PM) and nitrous oxide (NO), which pose a threat to public health, causing heart and lung problems upon inhalation.

Monitoring of these emissions remains inadequate, with anti-incineration campaign group UK Without Incineration Network (UKWIN) stating in a separate report today that although incinerator operators are obliged to report their PM emissions, there is no ‘commercially available’ equipment to enable the continuous monitoring of such emissions by the government, meaning there is no separate data source for emissions recorded against which reported emissions levels can be compared.

In order to increase recycling rates and reverse the trend towards incineration, the report makes the following recommendations:

  • Introduce weekly separate food waste collections as standard;

  • Councils should all collect plastic tubs, pots and trays;

  • The financial details for any incineration contract should be made public;

  • Existing incineration contracts with local councils should not be renewed upon expiry;

  • Residual waste bin sizes should be reduced;

  • Recycling facilities in public and ‘on-the-go’ spaces should be introduced;

  • Government should tax incineration to incentivise the development of recycling infrastructure; and

  • Encourage innovation in waste management to find new ways of dealing with existing problems.

In response to the report, Jacob Hayler, Executive Director of waste management trade association the Environmental Services Association (ESA), which represents many of the companies that operate waste incinerators in the UK, told the Guardian: “Too often the debate is set up as recycling vs incineration – that’s the wrong way to frame it. Really, it’s landfill against incineration for things you can’t recycle.”

While incineration is nominally tasked with recovery energy from non-recyclable waste, the latest composition analyses of the residual waste stream – the rubbish you throw in your black bin – show that up to 50 per cent of what goes into our rubbish bins is recyclable, meaning that much of the waste sent for incineration is, in fact, recyclable.