A Channel 4 current affairs show airing today reveals that the UK is burning more waste than it recycles.
In spite of the UK government setting a 2008 target to recycle 50% of household waste by 2020, the UK is incinerating a large portion of its recyclables. According to Waste and Resources Action Programme data, 87% of Brits regularly recycle. However, since 2015, only 45% of recyclable waste is actually being recycled. In 2019, 11.6m tonnes of waste was incinerated while 10.9m was sent for recycling. This has resulted in a total of 12.6m tonnes of carbon emissions from incineration surpassing the 11.7m tonnes from coal.
Up in Smoke
More than 100 local authorities were contacted by the programme. “Dispatches” producers discovered large fluctuations in waste disposal statistics across the country. For example, West Lothian sends 27% of recyclable waste to be burned whilst Southend-on-Sea states 45% of collected recycling is currently incinerated. However, just 29% of all the waste collected by The North London Waste Authority is being recycled. According to the show, this is one of the lowest rates in the country.
The UK government’s tax on landfill came into force in 1996. This forced councils to find cheaper alternatives to dispose of waste. Burning rubbish to produce electricity is considered a sustainable solution by many waste experts. Professor Karl Williams is the Director of Waste Management at the University of Central Lancashire. He also supports the “energy from waste” process. In the “Dispatches” report, he argues, “We don’t have the facilities to recycle all the plastic. So currently we have a lot of material that we can’t do anything with it apart from landfill it. Therefore, it makes sense that we burn that to get some energy from it as opposed to burning other types of fossil fuel.”
Creative Carbon Accounting
However, there is growing concern that incinerating waste has created an economic incentive to justify huge governmental investment in power plants. According to a former chief scientific adviser to the Department of the Environment, Professor Boyd, “We end up a lot of the time creating a market for waste and therefore trying to generate more waste in order to generate the input for the power plants that we’ve made such large investments in. My feeling is that we’ve got to use the capacity we have rather than create more capacity.”
A 2018 UK government study showed that more than 50% of British waste could be recycled if it was put in the correct bin. “The reality is that about 60% of what goes into this incinerator is recyclable. And so essentially what they’re burning here is valuable resources that should remain in the economy, be recycled, be reused and not be burnt,” environmental engineer Georgia Elliott-Smith explains in the show. She points out that recycling targets are set for local authorities. But no penalties are applied when targets aren’t met.
Equally concerning, unlike other energy producers, the incinerating industry only needs to publish their total CO2 emissions from burning fossil waste. This includes plastic but doesn’t cover the “biogenic” C02 produced by organic sources such as food and garden waste. Elliott-Smith is highly critical of this “creative carbon accounting”. She explains, “At the moment waste incinerators are completely excluded from any kind of carbon tax. They don’t pay any tax on the fuel that they receive, which is the waste, and they pay no tax on the emissions that they create, so they have this double economic benefit which makes it really nice and cheap and profitable.”
These issues with incineration have been supported by data in a report commissioned by UK environmental charity Client Earth. The paper highlights that producing electricity from waste is more carbon intensive than producing it from gas, and second only to coal. Plus, the study confirms that, by 2035, incineration will become a more carbon intensive than landfill. Equally, the analysis pointed to the link between areas which invested in incinerators, also struggling to raise their recycling rates. For example, Newham Council in London only recycles 20.3% of collected waste but admitted that they were, “Tied into an expensive and inflexible waste disposal Private Finance Initiative contract until 2027 that limits our ability to improve recycling performance.”
Globally, most industrialised nations are attempting to transition to circular economies to tackle climate change. Denmark is leading the way in rejecting incineration as a transition technology. A 2020 agreement commits the country to restructuring waste management and reducing its incineration capacity by 30% over the next decade. Even in the UK, the Welsh government has declared that no new waste incinerators would be installed going forward. Most recently, planning permission for a new energy-from-waste incinerator in Kent was rejected because of the counterproductive effect on recycling.
“The Dirty Truth About Your Rubbish: Dispatches” will air on Monday 8th March, 8pm, Channel 4.