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We need political fuel on the fire to halt waste incineration

Link's Resources and Waste Policy Officer Matthew Dawson sets out the environmental and social harms of incineration, writing that we need a moratorium on new incinerators alongside measures to reduce their harm. On the day that MPs announce their chosen topics for Private Members' Bills, he writes that Link's Resources and Waste group has drafted the ‘Waste Incineration (Consenting) Bill 2022’ which it it is hoped will spark a debate on the future role of incineration in England and spur further action on an incineration tax.

June 2022

Today MPs are announcing the topics they have chosen to take forward as Private Members’ Bills. While the causes they are addressing are commendable, action on one very important issue is missing - the waste incineration that blights the environment and communities across the country. 

It's perhaps not too surprising that it's hard to secure national political action on waste incineration; waste disposal is for many people out of sight and out of mind. Yet the scale of incineration taking place across the UK is staggering. We currently burn 12.5 million tonnes of our waste per year, a rise of 420% since 2001; this means that the percentage of waste incinerated has risen from 9% in 2001/01 to 48.2% in 2020/21.

While incineration advocates promote the benefits of these ‘Energy Recovery Facilities’ (where homes are often heated, or electricity generated, from the waste burned), this is a small compensation for the wasteful combustion of potentially useful resources; a fact that is only more pressing given current stresses on supplies of crucial materials.

At temperatures often in excess of 850 degrees celsius, incinerators burn all kinds of products which enter the waste stream such as textiles, wood, metals or plastics. These are all items which we should be striving to repair, reuse and recycle; keeping the items and materials in use for longer. 

Because waste is poorly sorted before entering these facilities, plastic is frequently burned; indeed many participants in Greenpeace UK’s recent Big Plastic Count were surprised to find that a huge amount of their plastic waste was being incinerated, releasing large amounts of greenhouse gases each year. Because of this burning of plastics, electricity generation at incinerators will soon become closer in carbon intensity to coal and gas than to wind and solar.

Further, with negative health impacts from air pollution, it’s no surprise that so many communities are fighting incinerator proposals; with recent battles in Edmonton, Horsham and West Yorkshire among others. Incinerators are also overwhelmingly located in low-income areas and ethnic minorities are more likely to live in neighbourhoods where waste is being burned.

With the Government targeting a 50% reduction in black bin bag (residual) waste by 2042, demand for incineration should fall; in fact there is already a risk that overall UK capacity is too high. Indeed according to a recent analysis, England incinerated 16.3 million tonnes of waste in 2020, against a capacity of 21.9 million tonnes - meaning capacity is well above the input level. Yet more incineration plants continue to be built (there are currently 54 incinerators in England, with a further 15 currently under construction).

So, there is clearly a strong environmental, social and economic case to be made for reducing our reliance on incineration and the construction of additional capacity. The Scottish government is already taking a lead, with a recently published independent review calling for an immediate moratorium on planning permission for new incinerators.

In England, we need the same sense of ambition. To deliver meaningful reform to this area, we need a moratorium on new incinerators alongside measures to reduce their harm. 

This is why we have drafted the ‘Waste Incineration (Consenting) Bill 2022’. The proposed legislation would place a ban on the consenting of new waste incinerators and the expansion of existing waste incinerators, would place a duty on incineration plant operators to better prevent the combustion of plastic waste (with its associated high greenhouse gas emissions), and compel the Government to commission annual independent reviews on incinerator capacity.

Deputy Speaker Dame Eleanor Laing recently said
“it’s not only the Government who can instigate changes in legislation. Every member of Parliament has an opportunity through this (Private Members’ Bill) process and others to make a difference”. Although no MPs have taken this issue forward today, there will be opportunities over the coming months for campaigning MPs to advance this cause. We hope this proposed bill can spark a debate on the future role of incineration in England and spur further action on an incineration tax (which can’t be introduced as a Private Members’ Bill) to ensure that incinerator operators pay for the harm caused by their activities.

With effective legislation in place, we can halt the rise of the damaging practice of burning our waste, restoring confidence in the waste system, protecting communities from pollution, and helping us meet crucial climate and circular economy goals. 

You can read the proposed Waste Incineration (Consenting) Bill 2022 here.

Watch out for a range of similar  legislative suggestions from Link over the coming months - there is much that needs to be done for nature in Parliament!

Matthew Dawson is Link's Resources and Waste Policy Officer. The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.