Waste management is a huge problem all of the world. Plastics have quite literally been discovered at the highest peaks and the deepest depths, poorer countries are receiving waste from richer countries despite not having the capacity to get rid of it, and its now being reported that 1 billion tonnes of food are being wasted each year in every country in the world. The global population is still growing and as countries develop, their consumption of plastics and other materials increases to levels seen in much of the developed world. How we manage that waste, not just locally and nationally, is vital to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the incredibly damaging impact we’re having on the environment.

Here in the UK we produce a huge amount of waste and that appears to be increasing – it’s almost doubled since the start of this century. As a whole, the UK generated 221 million tonnes of waste in 2016 across all sectors. Specifically looking at household waste, it’s estimated that the average household will throw out a tonne of waste each year, totalling around 31 million tonnes of household waste for the whole country.

Within our homes and workplaces we should rightfully be recycling all we can. The materials used for things like food packaging have some value in being repurposed and should be recycled as much as possible as we look to keep waste out of landfill. Many of us believe we are doing the right thing and recycling at home; a recent YouGov poll of 1,250 people in the UK found that 79% claimed to be recycling at least three-quarters of the plastic waste that was produced at home. Given the complexity of what materials are recyclable and what can and can’t be recycled depending on what council manages your waste, it’s certainly positive to see that number of people committing to recycle as much as they can.

The UK had produced goals on how much waste they aimed to recycle. Back in 2014 the target for 2020 was to recycle half of all household waste produced but that hasn’t been achieved. In the last few years there has been little increase in the amount of waste that is being recycled with around 45% of annual household waste being recycled since 2016. Improving the rate of recycling has long been a goal for many countries around the world but here in the UK there are signs that those recycling goals are being dropped with the growth of energy-from-waste incinerators.

The creation of goals to divert waste from landfill are great – landfills take up huge amounts of space and slowly release dangerous greenhouse gases as waste breaks down. However, what we do instead of send waste to landfill is also important. The rapid rise in energy-from-waste has shown how the UK Government intend to deal with waste management here in the UK, but its far from the silver bullet they’d like us to believe.

Betting Big on Energy-from-Waste

Energy-from-waste has been marketed as the alternative to sending waste to landfill because its a way of producing energy from waste that was otherwise going to be buried in a landfill site and left which, on face value, makes sense; producing energy from something that would otherwise only adding dangerous greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere is surely a great thing?

The Waste Hierarchy (Source: whatplastic.co.uk)

Looking at the waste hierarchy (above), recovery is just one step above disposal which is just sending waste to landfill on the regional/national scale. Recovery is one step up and that’s where waste incineration fits. It’s a step up, but given the scale of the problems of waste, it’s nowhere near where we should be – recycling should be the lowest point of the hierarchy we aim for.

However, the UK Government have committed the UK’s future to incinerating waste. There are 48 energy-from-waste plants here in the UK with 18 more being planned. In 2018, the total capacity of fully operating energy-from-waste plants was around 14million tonnes per year but is expected to increase to over 16 million tonnes by 2023. We’re now sending more waste to be incinerated than we’re recycling and it isn’t just residual, non-recyclable waste that is being sent there. Increasingly, recyclable material is being sent to incinerators.

As the capacity and number of energy-from-waste plants increase here in the UK, so will the demand for waste to be burned and keep these plants functioning. In the rush to build more and more energy-from-waste plants the amount of residual waste that is produced has been forgotten and long term trends have been ignored – more and more companies are selling products in recyclable packaging, the UK population is becoming increasingly aware of the environmental impact of the waste they produce, and changes in laws, regulations and taxes will all play a role in the UK’s waste make up.

Burning Recyclable Waste

This new report and investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches (which is well worth a watch and available on All 4 for the next 13 days) shows just how damaging waste incineration is. The process often markets itself as ‘renewable’ and part of the ‘circular economy’ and there is an argument for that; there will likely always be waste that cannot be recycled and may only have a single use so at least the energy can be reclaimed and used to power homes, for example. However, they are a very far from being a clean form of energy production.

A major problem with the burning of waste is the greenhouse gas emissions that are produced. As coal power generation continues to decline here in the UK, emissions from the burning of waste have now surpassed those produced from the burning of coal. 12.6million tonnes of CO2 was produced by burning waste and will likely increase with the increased capacity, whereas coal produced only 11.7million tonnes which is only going to decrease with all coal power plants to be decommissioned by 2024. As coal emissions drop with the decommissioning of coal power plants, energy-from-waste is set to become the most pollutant form of energy production.

Steam bellows from London Waste Eco park, the largest waste management centre in London. Waste materials are incinerated and the energy created is turned into electricity. London. UK (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)

As more and more plants are constructed, capacity for the burning of waste will increase and so will the emissions produced by these plants. It’s already at a point where councils are sending recyclable material to these plants, adding the amount of fossil fuel-based material that is being burned. Carbon that shouldn’t need to be emitted is being transferred to these plants just to ensure that they’re viable, regardless of the environmental consequences.

The compounding effect of this is that we require more virgin plastics to satisfy the need for plastic packaging and other items. That requires the production of more oil and therefore more greenhouse gases. As well as the demand, a lot of this comes from the lack of infrastructure here in the UK for plastics and other materials to be recycled. For many years the UK shipped its recyclable waste, which they still do, but after China blocked imports of plastic waste, countries like the UK had to work out what they were going to do with the mass of plastic waste that we all go through. Given how cheap it is to incinerate waste and the lack of infrastructure the UK has to do anything with that waste, incineration becomes the cheapest and most convenient way to manage it.

Burning Taxpayer Money

In order to build the number of energy-from-waste plants that are currently operating at such a speed, the UK Government needed help from the private sector. Private companies invested in these plants, later receiving taxpayer money in the form of local council long-term waste contracts. In order to remain viable, incinerators would receive a certain amount of waste that local councils were contractually obliged to provide.

This is a perfectly legal way of doing things and when you need to build infrastructure in a hurry it makes sense to look to the private sector for investment. However, these contracts require more residual waste than local councils can supply. In order to fulfil the requirements of the contract, councils have been sending recyclable waste to incinerators and burning it rather than recycling it.

Those that have tried to exit out of these contracts have found it incredibly difficult too. As highlighted in the Dispatches programme, Sheffield City Council voted to cancel the waste contract they had with a private waste service company, but after the threat of legal action they were forced to continue with it. Greater Manchester did manage to get out of their contract, but they did so at the cost of £500million. Even energy-from-waste plants that were never constructed came at a cost to local councils. Norfolk were forced to pay £33.7million to exit a contract even though the incinerator was never built.

Energy-from-Waste is not a Silver Bullet

The rapid growth of energy-from-waste plants around the UK makes it clear what the UK Governments plan for waste management is. Yes, there are other recycling initiatives like the deposit return scheme in the works, but for the majority of waste incineration is the future. Even as the country does a great thing in moving away from coal, we’re just replacing it with another dirty form of electricity production rather than properly invest in green energy.

There is no doubt that waste incineration will be spun as being part of the transition to the circular economy. If you really want to get technical then there is an argument that there is, particularly with residual waste. However, the burning of recyclable plastic is only adding to the greenhouse gases being emitted from an already dirty form of electricity production and doing nothing to reduce the demand for virgin plastics. At a time when we should be striving to achieve the higher reaches of the hierarchy, the UK Government are going all (and then some) in on just one step up the waste hierarchy, regardless of the consequences of doing so.

Unfortunately, incinerating waste in energy-from-waste plants will likely be a necessary evil in waste management unless we can get to a point where everything we throw out can be repaired, reused or recycled. If there’s nothing else we can do with it that is cleaner and more sustainable, then burning it for energy is certainly better than letting it rot in landfill. Having said that, improving the efficiency and capturing as much of the greenhouse gases produced by the burning of waste should be prioritised and enforced through the use of taxes and regulations – a move that would help limit the harmful impact of what the UK Government deem as necessary.

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