Recycling

In the UK, more waste is burned than recycled

An investigation by UK's Channel 4's show Dispatches reveals that 11 percent of UK household waste put aside for recycling is sent to incineration plants instead of being re-used or recycled. The total carbon emissions from incineration have now overtaken those from coal.

Up until the mid-90s the UK sent 90 percent of its waste to landfill, as a cheap and easy way to dispose of rubbish. The UK-Government brought in a new tax on landfill making it much more expensive, so councils found an alternative.  The solution was ‘energy from waste’, where rubbish is burned to produce electricity.

In 2008 the UK-Government set a target to recycle 50 percent of household waste by 2020, but for the past five years the recycling rate has stalled at 45 percent. One of the UK’s top recycling experts, Professor Karl Williams, Director of waste management at the University of Central Lancashire, has cast serious doubts on even that figure: “It’s not a true figure because when we talk about recycling rates, what we’re really talking about is collection rates. So, the way we collect recycling figures at the moment, it’s how much material we collect from the households – and that is then measured and weighed and that goes as the recycling figures.” Studies show that more than 50 percent of what people put in the residual waste could be recycled or composted if it was put in the correct bin. 

"What they’re burning is valuable resources"

Supporters of incineration say it’s a sustainable solution to the waste problem that diverts millions of tonnes of rubbish from landfill. “The attraction for them at the moment is 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”, Professor Williams says. 

But Georgia Elliott-Smith, an environmental engineer, believes more could be done to stop recyclable materials being burnt: “The reality is that about 60 percent of what goes into this incinerator – and every other waste incinerator in the UK – 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. So, at the moment there are recycling targets which every local waste authority in London is failing to meet but there’s no penalty for failing to meet a recycling target.”

A former chief scientific adviser to the Department of the Environment is also concerned. Professor Boyd: “There are a lot of people who are highly incentivised to incinerate waste because of the investments we make in waste to power plants, 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, because if you create more capacity you create more demand for materials, and that is simply cranking up the amount of material that comes into the system.”

The total carbon emissions from incineration have overtaken those from coal

Carbon emissions, C02, are a prime driver of climate change, which is why there has been a move away from coal-fired energy, however more energy-generating incinerators has meant they are steadily producing more C02. 

Figures for 2019 show the UK’s 48 incinerators emitted a total of around 12.6m tonnes of CO2.
In comparison the dwindling coal sector produced 11.7m tonnes of CO2. All energy producers have to publish their total carbon dioxide emissions, but the incinerating industry only have to account for the C02 from burning fossil waste like plastic. They don’t have to report emissions from sources like food and garden waste known as biogenic CO2. Environmental campaigners claim this is ‘creative carbon accounting’.

“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”, says environmental engineer Georgia Elliott-Smith-

The Eunomia report

Dispatches have been given exclusive access to the Eunomia report, commissioned by the environmental law charity Client Earth, one of UK’s leading environmental consultancies. It raises major concerns over future emissions from incinerators. 

Producing electricity from waste is more carbon intensive than producing it from gas – and second only to coal. When coal is phased out, incineration will become the dirtiest form of electricity production in the UK. The analysis found that over the next 15 years there’ll be a big change in the make-up of our waste stream, there’ll be less materials like cardboard, paper and food waste because new regulations mean more of those will be recycled and composted.

Every tonne of waste sent for incineration will contain a higher proportion of plastics. By 2035 incineration will become a more carbon intensive process than even landfill. Figures also show a direct correlation between areas which invested in incinerators and who are now struggling to raise their recycling rates.