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“Nothing green” about soaring waste incineration, says former Defra chief scientist

Burned waste is marketed as “renewable” energy, but it produces more carbon emissions than natural gas and is no substitute for recycling.

By Nick Ferris

Solar power and wind are not the only “green” electricity sources currently booming in the UK. Waste incineration rates are also soaring across the country: the latest data from shows there are more than 50 facilities across the country, and the volume incinerated has increased from seven to 15 million tonnes over the course of just seven years. The burning of municipal waste represents almost 3 per cent of the UK’s total electricity generation.

Yet, while the low-carbon credentials of solar (generation up 17 per cent in five years) and wind (up 74 per cent) are not in doubt, there are serious, growing concerns about the categorisation of incineration alongside them.

The waste management companies that carry out the incineration are quick to proclaim the process’s eco-credentials: Veolia describes household waste as a “resource from which green energy can be produced”; Viridor says its ten UK waste-to-energy recovery facilities are helping create “a net zero, circular economy by 2050”; while Grundon goes so far as to call the electricity source “renewable”.

But Professor Ian Boyd, who was chief scientific adviser at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) from 2012-19, told Spotlight that “there is nothing ‘green’ about burning waste”, and that the UK’s current waste management programme “represents policy failure”.

“It is probably satisfactory to incinerate some residual waste,” he said, “but there should be heavy penalties for any company that incinerates more than a small percentage of total waste. While we continue to invest in waste incineration infrastructure this simply drives up the need for waste to make it pay. The UK has never managed to settle on a coherent policy for waste management and the incineration rates are indicative of a lack of long-term strategic vision and leadership.”

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Boyd believes that the current high price of energy “adds to the incentives to incinerate even more waste”, and that there “needs to be regulation to stop this happening”.

There are several reasons why booming UK incineration is such a cause for alarm. Unlike the burning of biomass – a process that has legitimate criticisms over where its inputs come from – there is no theoretical “balancing out” of emissions between plants being grown and subsequently burned. Burning waste produces net carbon emissions: in 2019, incineration produced 5 megatonnes of CO2-equivalent, representing around a quarter of emissions from UK waste. Separate research has found that the total CO2 emissions from burning waste in EU incinerators in 2018 was around 95,425 kilotonnes of CO2, which is almost the same as the CO2-equivalent emitted from landfills, which was 99,429 kilotonnes in the same year.

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Around half of UK incineration emissions come from the burning of plastic, according to data compiled by the pressure group United Kingdom Without Incineration. Other means of dealing with plastic waste – such as recycling, or repurposing for industries like cement and tar production – have a much less detrimental impact on the environment. “Materials made from fossil fuels like plastics will emit greenhouse gases when burned,” explained Libby Peake, from the think tank Green Alliance. “Even natural materials like wood are too often now burned when before they would have been recycled into furniture or plaster boards.”

Burning plastics also produces toxic pollutants that are harmful to human health, contributing to respiratory diseases and increasing the risk of cancer. Research by Greenpeace’s journalism arm, Unearthed, suggests that incinerators are three times more likely to be in poorer areas of the UK, raising environmental justice concerns.

Then there are concerns over incineration’s relationship with the wider waste management ecosystem. Most waste management companies involved in incineration usually argue it is a “green” solution only when all the waste that can possibly be recycled has been. But while the companies might have good intentions about that, they do not typically have control over the public-service providers who can put it into practice.

We know for a fact that not all of the UK’s recyclable waste is currently recycled. England’s current rate stands at around 45 per cent, compared with 70 per cent in Germany. According to Greenpeace, less than 10 per cent of every-day plastic is currently recycled, while half a million tonnes of recycling is rejected at the point of sorting, typically as a result of contamination.

Comparing regional recycling and incineration rates also means bad news for the incineration industry’s “green” credentials. As the below chart illustrates, regions with higher recycling rates tend to have lower incineration rates, and vice versa.

For those that have studied the sector, the conclusion is clear: the rising incineration rate is a cause for alarm, locking the UK into a polluting future when it should be doing all it can to reach the target of net zero emissions by 2050. Janek Vähk, from the pressure group Zero Waste Europe, told Spotlight that the “current over-reliance on waste-to-energy incineration has contributed to a lock-in effect in waste management systems, which prevents proper recycling and makes climate change worse”.

Peake, from the Green Alliance, agreed that we should “absolutely be concerned about rising incineration rates”. He said that the trend is symptomatic of the failure to design an effective waste management approach. “In the absence of complementary policy to reduce the amount of waste we produce in the first place, and very limited incentives to increase UK recycling rates, the current approach simply leads to more and more material diverted into incinerators.”

[See also: “We have an open goal”: how Labour plans to unlock the climate vote]

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