International, News, Waste & Resource Recovery

Johnson urged to ditch UK EfW expansion

A group of environmental organisations has told the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson that net-zero carbon emissions cannot be achieved if he allows continue development of energy-from-waste (EfW) plants.

In a letter to the PM , Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, UK Without Incineration Network, Extinction Rebellion and others have called for a law that would require the waste sector to decarbonise by 2035.

Letter co-author Rembrandt Koppelaar said: “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 a year by 2030, primarily from the burning of plastics.”

Koppelaar said the EfW sector’s carbon impact was 7.4 million tonnes, and last year gave rise to 13 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with electricity generation, while providing only 2.4 per cent of the UK’s electricity.

Misleading analysis

But trade body the Environmental Services Association (ESA) told UK media, Materials Recycling World that the letter showed “a deeply flawed and misleading analysis of energy recovery in the United Kingdom” and failed to recognise that EfW had helped to significantly reduce carbon emissions from residual waste treatment by displacing waste volumes from landfill.

Organisations supporting the letter said reuse, repair, remanufacturing and recycling should be used instead of incineration, with the aim of slashing the UK’s total CO2 emissions by 15 per cent by 2030.

The letter argued that large-scale waste incineration impaired the transition to a circular economy because councils become contractually obligated to continue burning materials so that EfW plants could operate at capacity.

Millions of tonnes of materials that could be recycled or composted was instead burnt.

Jacob Hayler, ESA executive director, condemned the letter as misguided.

“This is sadly another example of ill-informed and ill-conceived ‘analysis’. If we were to follow its prescriptions we’d end up with higher emissions not lower. 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,” he said.

The sector was developing a net-zero strategy which would see improved efficiency in energy recovery infrastructure and drive more fossil-based materials out of energy recovery into recycling streams.

EfW serves a vital public sanitation function

Hitting back at the letter’s claims on EfW, Hayler added, “EfW serves a vital public sanitation function in the United Kingdom and is a complementary part of an evolving, holistic, waste management system…there will always be residue to treat even if we achieve the most optimistic national recycling performance, and energy recovery will continue to serve this important purpose.”

EfW expert and independent waste consultant Keith Riley said most of the waste industry supported moves to a circular economy “and has probably done much more in practical terms to achieve it than most of the pundits who criticise the industry for what it does”.

Riley said the industry had to manage waste and could not just stop “without endangering human health and probably increasing its carbon intensity.

“It’s all well and good to say what is wrong, but what do we do to get it right without having waste piling up on the street and in warehouses, stores and even peoples’ garages?  We do not hear many real answers from these people.”

He said the waste industry was responsible for only some 3.2 per cent of carbon emissions and so concentrating on waste emissions – as the letter suggested –  would create a distraction that might mean the UK never reached its target.

“Given time, I am sure the waste industry will decarbonise itself,” Riley said.

“There are many decarbonising initiatives going on across the industry, including hydrogen technology development and carbon capture.

“By 2035 I believe waste management will be a very small contributor if indeed a contributor at all to the amount of fossil carbon emitted. Stopping building incineration plants is not the answer. They will stop being built just as soon as soon as there is no residual waste to burn, but that is not the case just yet.”

A ‘circular economy blueprint’ promoted by signatories called for changes including:

  • A law that requires a net-zero carbon waste and resource sector by 2035, inclusive of waste incineration
  • A recycling target of 70 per cent by 2030
  • A residual waste reduction target of 50 per cent by 2030
  • A waste market reform law to correct market distortions that favour EfW incineration over recycling