Head to head: Is waste incineration right for the UK?

18th March 2011


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Two experts give their opinion on plans to increase energy from waste

Matthew Farrow

Director of policy at the Environmental Services Association

The UK produces 75 million tonnes of waste a year. Even though we have stabilised the historical growth of waste arisings, the waste management industry is going to be dealing with tens of millions of tonnes of waste for many years. The industry’s priorities are twofold: to ensure that waste is dealt with safely and responsibly, and to extract as much value from waste as possible.

The good news is that municipal recycling rates have steadily increased, from 12% in 2001 to 39% last year. But we need to do even better – 24 million tonnes of waste still goes to landfill each year.

How high can recycling rates go? Some wastes – such as heavily mixed or inseparable wastes, and particular plastics – are not suitable for recycling because there is no way to reprocess them back into a product. With analysis suggesting it is likely that nearly one-third of the waste stream will continue not to be recycled, the Environmental Services Association believes energy from waste (EfW) has a role to play alongside higher levels of recycling: evidence from Europe shows that the two can go hand in hand.

EfW has many attractions. With coal plants being phased out, gas-fired power stations are likely to supply one-third of our electricity deep into the 2020s and gas will remain a major heating fuel. This gas increasingly comes from the global market rather than the North Sea, so has a higher carbon footprint given the energy required to liquefy and regasify the fuel before and after shipping.

The family of EfW technologies – thermal treatment, anaerobic digestion and landfill gas – can displace this imported gas using a lower carbon footprint. Of course, these benefits would be undermined if EfW plants posed a threat to health and the environment. But today’s plants operate under some of the most stringent regulations and permitting procedures that exist for industrial facilities anywhere.

No plant has been rejected for permitting by the Environment Agency, while a Health Protection Agency review concluded in 2009 that if risks to human health exist at all they are so small as to be undetectable.

We all recognise the need to do more recycling and less landfilling in the future. But residual waste will still exist in significant volumes and needs treating. Modern, well-regulated EfW plants offer a sensible way to do this, extract incremental value from the waste stream and contribute to the UK's energy needs.

Becky Slater

Resource use team, Friends of the Earth

Although energy-from-waste (EfW) plants generate electricity, they create it at a cost in terms of climate emissions as the technology is inherently inefficient, even if the heat generated is used.

Energy from incinerators is neither renewable nor low carbon: DECC estimates the emissions from incinerators to be 540g CO2/kWhr – more than the UK grid average and more than 10 times the limit the Committee on Climate Change recommended for energy generation in 2030: 50g CO2/kWhr.

At the moment, many councils are wasting £billions on EfW plants that send valuable materials – and taxpayers’ money – up in smoke. Incineration is hugely expensive, tying councils to inflexible contracts often in excess of 25 years. They must be fed with a constant stream of waste for decades, creating a demand for rubbish and removing flexibility from waste management. This leaves councils unable to adapt to changes in future waste composition or take advantage of new technologies.

Incineration suppresses recycling. This can already be seen in many European countries, as well as parts of the UK. The Hovedstaden region of Denmark, for example, burns about 77% of waste, recycling just 21%. EfW plants inevitably burn recyclable materials, unlike other residual-waste technologies that will separate out recyclables, including plastics. And it’s actually better for the climate to landfill plastic, not incinerate it, if you can’t recycle it.

The Waste Review [Defra consulted last year and expects to publish the results of the review shortly] is due to set goals and policies to 2020 that put England on course towards the coalition government’s ambition to “work towards a zero-waste economy”. The government must not interpret this as “zero waste to landfill” and burn our waste instead. Rather than building more EfW plants, and committing the UK to being a wasteful society, we should be boosting recycling and reuse services, including food-waste collections. Aiming to prevent, reuse and recycle our waste would save much more energy – and climate-changing gases – than EfW plants will generate from burning it.

Recycling creates 10 times as many jobs as incineration, is cheaper and provides essential raw materials to the manufacturing sector we hope to rebuild in this country – allowing us to be more efficient with the world’s natural resources.

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