When it comes to planet-friendly habits, recycling is by far the most popular in the UK, with 87% of households saying they do it regularly, according to the Action Program on Waste and Resources. But a Channel 4 investigation Dispatches Where our garbage is going and the role that waste energy incineration plants play, has found that millions of tons of our carefully selected empty containers are simply burned after they are collected.
Freedom of information requests reveal that, on average, 11% of garbage collected for recycling is incinerated. In some areas, the figures are much higher: 45% in Southend-on-Sea and 38% in Warwickshire.
the Dispatches The team also found a direct correlation between regions linked to incineration contracts and low recycling rates. In England, more waste is now burned than recycled: 11.6 million tonnes were incinerated in 2019, while 10.9 million tonnes were sent for recycling. There are 48 waste energy incinerators across the country, and industry figures show 18 more are planned.
Despite household enthusiasm for recycling, rates in England remain stagnant, at 45% according to government figures, the same level as in 2017, and far from the revolutionary change in waste and recycling promised by the environmental bill (postponed to the next parliamentary cycle).
Meanwhile, the push for industrialized nations to become circular economies, using reuse, recycling, and better design to tackle pollution, is beginning to guide policy elsewhere, especially in the EU Green Deal.
In the past, objections to incineration focused largely on air quality and public health concerns, but the focus has changed. In the era of net zero and before COP26, activists today are scrutinizing emissions and insisting that the green claims of the incineration industry are subject to scrutiny.
Other energy producers have to publish their total carbon dioxide emissions, however the waste energy industry must only account for C02 from burning fossil-based waste such as plastic. It does not report emissions from food and garden waste, known as biogenic C02. The industry also says that by diverting waste from the landfill (considered the worst possible outcome in waste orthodoxy) and recovering a percentage of the embodied energy from waste through electricity generation, waste energy technology represents a low carbon source of electricity.
Dispatches‘Program, Dirty truth About your trash, which airs Monday, analyzed whether these claims hold up. Those responsible for the program had access to a report from the consulting firm Eunomia, commissioned by the environmental law charity ClientEarth. This analysis shows that producing electricity from waste is more carbon intensive than producing it from gas, and second only to coal. In fact, as coal is removed, energy from waste will become the dirtiest form of electricity production in the UK. The report concludes that by 2035, incineration will be a more carbon-intensive process than even landfills.
While incineration may pretend to be a transitional technology, long-term PFI arrangements mean that many local authorities will be stuck at the net zero horizon for decarbonization.
“If you want to achieve net zero nationally, it must be achieved, on average, across all localities,” says Shlomo Dowen, spokesperson for the UK Incineration Free Network (UKWIN). “So if a town is cursed with an incinerator, then that town has to do without something else in order to pay for the carbon load. Will the local population be restricted in how often they can use their cars or how often they go on vacation? The question is: what are the local population willing to do without taking into account the emissions from an incinerator? “
The Edmonton EcoPark incinerator sign in North London remains clear: “Welcome to LondonEnergy. Boosting the circular economy ”, it reads. But increasingly, national and local governments may be looking for a less tortuous route to the circular economy.
Denmark, formerly a waste energy enthusiast, announced in June that it would review the country’s waste management infrastructure and reduce incineration capacity in 30%. On Saint David’s Day, the Welsh government declared a moratorium on new waste incinerators as part of its drive towards a circular economy.
But perhaps the most unexpected move came last month when Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Kwasi Kwarteng, rejected planning development consent for a large waste energy incinerator at Kemsley, outside Sittingbourne in Kent. One of the reasons cited was that the incinerator would cannibalize recycling.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism