New Green Party report warns surge in waste incineration levels mean valuable materials are going up in flames

By April 2019 England is on course to be burning more waste than it recycles, according to a new report released today by the Green Party.

Across London, the West Midlands, and the North East more rubbish is already burnt than recycled, and other regions are set to ensure the overall UK rate of incineration reaches a similar level by the end of this financial year, the report claims.

Between April 2018 and April 2019, just over 12 million tonnes of waste are predicted to be incinerated, compared to just under 12 million tonnes of rubbish which is set to get recycled, according to predictions extrapolated from current trends and cited in the report.

Green Party peer, Baroness Jenny Jones, said the high rates of incineration are holding back improvements in recycling rates, which have plateaued at 45 per cent in recent years.

“There is every chance that some of the plastics, cardboard and paper that people took care to separate for recycling, will end up being burnt alongside everything that was thrown in the waste bin,” she said.

“There is a logic to generating energy from the waste that we cannot recycle, or reuse, but it is meant to be the last resort option. What we have created instead is a market driven system of incinerators which constantly need to be fed.”

Incineration levels across the UK have soared from 5.5 million tonnes of waste in 2012/13 to more than 10 million tonnes in 2016/7, according to the report. The trend has driven a major drop in the amount of rubbish heading to landfill, from almost nine million tonnes in 2012/13 to four million tonnes in 2015/6. But critics claim it has contributed to a stalling in recycling rates in parts of the country as local authorities divert rubbish to incineration plants.

“Many councils have signed up to long term contracts with incinerators and my research shows that these have some of the worst recycling rates in the country,” Jones said. “In fact, many of these councils have gone backwards and recycle proportionately less than they did six years ago. Let me be clear that it is not the case that people in central London, or Birmingham, or Portsmouth are bad people who are unwilling to recycle, it is because their council is bad at recycling and has let them and their environment down.”

But the Renewable Energy Association (REA), which represents Energy-from-Waste (EfW) firms, argued the paper makes no distinction between rubbish that is simply burnt, and energy-from waste plants where the energy from incineration is captured to generate electricity.

“There is a stark difference between incineration and EfW plants and it is inappropriate and misleading to group them together,” REA head of policy and external affairs James Court told BusinessGreen. “Energy from Waste has a crucial role to play at the end of the waste hierarchy, ensuring that the amount of waste going to landfill is minimised and that we are able to recover energy in the form of power and heat, as well as using advanced conversion processes to produce transport fuels and green chemicals for the capital.”

Instead, he blamed the stagnation in the country’s recycling rate on austerity measures and poor regulatory enforcement. “Reductions in local council funding and the relaxation of regulations are responsible for the stagnating recycling rates across England, so it is quite wrong to point the finger at a modern technology that is quite obviously a crucial piece of a broader puzzle,” he said.

In light of Baroness Jones’ findings, the Green Party is calling for councils to be forced to hit tougher recycling targets. The report also calls for a moratorium on new incinerator plants being built, arguing any new capacity will simply increase the likelihood that waste which could be recycled is sent for incineration.