In an open letter sent to Prime Minister Boris Johnson today (16 November), a group of campaigners, including Extinction Rebellion’s Zero Waste group, are calling for ‘concerted government action to decarbonise the waste sector’.
The letter claims that carbon emissions from waste disposal are ‘growing rapidly’ due to the ‘unfettered expansion of carbon-intensive energy-from-waste (EfW) incineration plants’.
Authored by Extinction Rebellion’s Zero Waste group, the letter is supported by signatories such as Biofuelwatch, Friends of the Earth, Green House Think Tank, Greenpeace, Resource Recovery from Waste, ShareAction, The Climate Coalition, the UK Without Incineration Network (UKWIN), the UK Youth Climate Coalition, the Zero Carbon Campaign, and Zero Waste Europe, as well as Jon Cruddas MP, Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb, London Assembly Member Caroline Russell, and author and activist George Monbiot.
The groups say that large-scale EfW ‘impairs the transition to a circular economy’, saying that once EfW infrastructure is in place, a local authority is ‘contractually obligated to continue burning materials’ so that the EfW facility can operate at capacity, typically for at least 10 years.
Without a change in government policy, we can expect large-scale expansion of EfW incineration to lock us into an additional 10 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year by 2030, primarily from the burning of plastics
It says because of these contracts, millions of tonnes of materials that are ‘readily recyclable or compostable’ are being burnt throughout the UK. It says these materials account for more than 50% of the waste that goes to incineration.
‘The UK will not be able to deliver on its net-zero commitments unless the government intervenes in the waste sector,’ said Rembrandt Koppelaar, an environmental economist and co-author of the open letter.
‘Without a change in government policy, we can expect large-scale expansion of EfW incineration to lock us into an additional 10 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year by 2030, primarily from the burning of plastics,’ he added.
‘The past decade has witnessed a rapid expansion of EfW incineration capacity, which has already led the sector’s carbon impact to reach 7.4 million tonnes. Last year waste incineration gave rise to 13% of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with electricity generation, even though it provided only 2.4% of the UK’s electricity.’
Decarbonise by 2035
The open letter calls for a law that would require the waste sector to decarbonise by 2035, akin to laws passed in the Scandinavian countries and Finland, the groups say, which have published a ‘Circular Economy Blueprint’ intended to ‘kick-start a world-leading transformation of the waste and resource sector’ by boosting reuse, repair, remanufacturing, and recycling, with the aim of slashing the UK’s total CO2 emissions by 15% by 2030.
Dr Anne Velenturf from the Resource Recovery from Waste programme said: ‘Building EfW plants now, when we need to decarbonise, is inconsistent with the Paris Agreement and the UK’s legally binding net-zero commitments.
‘Extracting resources and manufacturing products costs a lot of energy and we should not let such invested energy go to waste in incineration plants. Ministers must consider whether planned construction of incinerators is compliant with climate obligations, otherwise the government effectively inhibits the decarbonisation of the UK economy.’
The groups also claim that the EfW sector’s ‘continued expansion’ hinders green job growth, deprives the UK economy of a ‘critical economic boost’, and heightens the ‘risk of billions of pounds in stranded EfW plants by 2035’.
The groups suggest EfW does not conducive to a circular economy, which it says could cut CO2 emissions by 68 million tonnes per year, create 200,000 jobs, and inject £35 billion into the economy by 2030.
It says the Circular Economy Blueprint is designed to help the UK government ‘curb the burning of resources’, while simultaneously ‘weaning the country off EfW incineration, landfilling, recyclate exports, and dependency on imports of raw materials’.
The Circular Economy Blueprint:
- a law that requires a net-zero-carbon waste and resource sector by 2035, inclusive of waste incineration;
- a recycling target of 70% by 2030, as recommended by the Committee on Climate Change, under the Environment Bill
- a ‘residual’ (non-recyclable) waste reduction target of 50% by 2030 under the Environment Bill
- a waste market reform law to correct market distortions that favour EfW incineration over recycling
- a circular economy capital investment programme as part of the National Infrastructure Strategy
- a law to support consumer rights and transparency on product lifespan, reuse, and repair
- a requirement for waste planning authorities to demonstrate that no readily recyclable materials are sent to landfill or EfW incineration.
“Scandinavian” approach to EfW
The recommendations in the Circular Economy Blueprint, however, are at odds with a recent Policy Connect report which, in the summer this year (2020), said that prioritising EfW policy will ‘cut costs and carbon for UK taxpayers’ in a ‘win-win’ for economic & environmental recovery.
The report from the UK think-tank argued that diverting the UK’s 27.5m tonnes of residual waste for ‘green heat’ is better for the economy and the environment than current solutions of overseas export or landfill.
It said ‘widespread deployment’ of EfW plants across UK regions is needed to deliver a ‘coherent circular and sustainable waste policy’ that heats and powers UK homes and avoids expensive shipping of waste abroad, and carbon intensive landfill.
Heat networks are playing a vital role in decarbonising the way we warm our homes and businesses and that’s why the Government has committed £320 million of funding through the Heat Networks Investment Project.
The report stated that a more ‘Scandinavian’ approach to UK domestic waste management policy could see the UK on track for its ambitious recycling targets by 2030.
Last week, low carbon heating provider Vattenfall announced it will work with one of the UK’s biggest recycling and energy recovery companies, Viridor, to capture heat from Viridor’s EfW plants across the UK.
The heat will be delivered through pipes developed and operated by Vattenfall to homes and businesses in the area, providing ‘clean, affordable heat’. The waste collected from the community will be recycled into ‘clean heat’ for the same community, creating a local closed-loop energy system, it says.
Minister of State for Business, Energy, and Clean Growth, Kwasi Kwarteng commented on the contract, stating, “Heat networks are playing a vital role in decarbonising the way we warm our homes and businesses and that’s why the Government has committed £320 million of funding through the Heat Networks Investment Project.”
Executive director of the Environmental Services Association, Jacob Hayler, commented on the letter, saying the delivery pipeline for new energy recovery infrastructure will save a million tonnes of CO2e from entering the atmosphere each year, by displacing millions of tonnes of additional waste from landfill.
There will always be residue to treat even if we achieve the most optimist national recycling performance, and energy recovery will continue to serve this important purpose
The ESA said that ‘scaremongering statements like this’ [the letter] create a ‘confrontational discourse’ about energy recovery and only serve to ‘hinder the efficacy of this essential infrastructure’.
Mr Hayler said: “The recycling and waste sector accounts for only a very small percentage of UK carbon emissions, largely thanks to the huge greenhouse gas savings we’ve made as an industry by driving waste material out of landfill over the last two decades.
“ESA members remain in pursuit of ever-lower carbon emissions for the sector and, alongside the Government’s ambitious Resources & Waste Strategy, we are collectively developing a sector-leading net-zero strategy which will improve the efficiency of energy recovery infrastructure; drive more and more fossil-based materials out of energy recovery into recycling streams; and identify a range of wider measures to reduce the carbon intensity of recycling, collection operations and ancillary services.
“Energy-from-waste (EfW) serves a vital public sanitation function in the United Kingdom and is a complementary part of an evolving, holistic, waste management system. Ambitious new policies being introduced through the Resources & Waste Strategy, and those of the devolved administrations, will help our sector to drive recycling performance, while limiting the proportion of plastics in residual waste – but as the open letter coordinated by Extinction Rebellion acknowledges, there will always be residue to treat even if we achieve the most optimist national recycling performance, and energy recovery will continue to serve this important purpose.”