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ClientEarth Communications

9th March 2021

Plastics
UK

The environmental impacts of waste incineration

Burning refuse in incinerators to make electricity – so-called “Energy from Waste” (EfW) – has been touted as key to reducing the carbon emissions from waste treatment in the future. In recent years it’s been pushed as an alternative to sending waste – especially plastic waste – to landfill. As well as reducing what we send to landfill sites, which are becoming increasingly full, it would have the added effect of reducing the need to burn fossil fuels in conventional power plants. This has led to a number of local authorities in the UK ramping up the construction of such facilities.

Is there a case for burning our waste?

There’s a lot to consider when weighing up the ‘green credentials’ of a waste solution so we recently commissioned a report by Eunomia Research and Consulting into the medium and long-term impacts of incineration on climate and air quality in the UK.

The report was featured on a recent episode of Channel 4’s Dispatches: The Dirty Truth About Your Rubbish.

But despite the cases put forward for waste incineration, the report illustrates why incineration cannot be considered a ‘green’ or low carbon source of electricity, especially over a 15-year window. In fact, it tells us that incineration will become more carbon-intensive than landfilling in the UK by 2035 as well as a major source of toxic air pollution.

Our plastics lawyer Tatiana Luján said: "As the world drowns in plastics and countries like China close their doors to foreign waste, incineration will increasingly be pushed as an ‘easy’ alternative.

“But waste does not just disappear in a puff of smoke. The more waste and plastics are sent to be burnt, the more our environment and health will suffer in parallel.”

In addition to the direct impact of burning waste on the planet and our health, incineration could have a further, indirect effect by impacting the amount that gets recycled. The Dispatches team found a direct correlation between regions tied into incineration contracts and low recycling rates. And in England, we now burn more of our waste than we recycle. In fact, the documentary showed that around 60% of the waste going to incinerators could be recycled.

Electricity from incineration will become closer to fossil fuels than renewables

The report analyses the impacts in terms of both carbon emissions and air pollutants. It finds that:

  • Electricity generation at incinerators will soon become closer in carbon intensity to coal and gas than to wind and solar. This is because increasing proportion of hard-to-recycle plastic waste sent to incinerators will increase the carbon impacts of incineration. Plastic is derived from crude oil and the carbon is released when burnt. So while the electricity grid should be decarbonising as a result of more renewable energy sources coming online, electricity produced at the incinerator will become a major climate issue.
  • Due to increasing quantities of waste sent to incineration, incinerators will emit more toxins and pollutants that harm local air quality. Incineration makes a more significant negative contribution to local air quality than landfill.

Incinerators have a social impact too

Incineration contributes to air pollution and like many other forms of air pollution, it seems toxic fumes from incinerators are likely to affect deprived areas, as well as areas with high populations of people of colour the most.

An investigation by Greenpeace’s Unearthed has found that waste incinerators are three times more likely to be built in the UK’s most deprived neighbourhoods while more than two thirds of the potential incinerators in England are planned for the northern half of the country.

People living near incinerators complain of noise, litter, increased vehicle traffic, smells and air pollution. As temperatures rise in the summer, the smell often gets worse, forcing people to close their windows and avoid sitting outside.

Stopping the flood of plastics

We need to reduce what we’re sending to landfill, but rather than turning to short-term ‘plasters’ like incineration, the government needs to tackle the problem at the source and turn off the tap of unnecessary plastic production.

Luján added: “Countries like Denmark have already understood that incineration won’t square with their climate goals and ordered a reduction in their incineration capacity.

“At the end of the day, converting plastic waste into energy does nothing to reduce demand for new plastic products and even less to mitigate climate change. To push for these approaches is to distract from real solutions like reuse systems at scale.”

In 2018, the European Union came out with a set of laws which many hailed as the world’s most ambitious to cut waste and incentivise reuse. EU countries and the UK are under a legal obligation to:

  • Adopt economic instruments, including incineration and landfilling taxes, to provide incentives for the application of the waste hierarchy.
  • Take measures to ensure that waste that has been separately collected for preparing for re-use and recycling is not incinerated.
  • Adopt measures to increase the share of reusable packaging including through deposit return systems and reuse targets

But as is the case with any legislation coming out of EU institutions, the key is how EU countries put them into national law – and EU countries are missing key implementation deadlines.

Luján said: “With the current situation likely to lead to an increase in all sorts of waste, governments cannot bury their heads in the sand. By not moving forward with a more circular model, we are losing out on massive environmental and economic benefits – and digging ourselves deeper into the rubbish heap.”

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