Press release: 8 March 2021

Plastic burning will make net zero impossible for waste sector

Incineration will become more carbon-intensive than landfilling in the UK by 2035 as well as a major source of toxic air pollution, according to a new report by Eunomia Research and Consulting, commissioned by ClientEarth.

The report comes after Channel 4’s Dispatches investigated the rise of burning waste in the UK.

Making electricity out of refuse – so-called “Energy from Waste” (EfW) – has been touted as key to reducing the carbon emissions from waste treatment in the future. This would be done through diverting waste away from landfill and 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.

But the report illustrates why incineration cannot be considered a ‘green’ or low carbon source of electricity, especially over a 15-year window.

ClientEarth 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.”

Driven by changes to waste management policy, the composition of our waste is going to change in the future. 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.

Ann Ballinger, Principal Consultant at Eunomia, said: “As recycling improves, the carbon intensity of EfW is set to increase over time as the proportion of plastics in the residual waste feedstock increases. To achieve the UK’s goal of becoming a net-zero carbon emitter by 2050, all sectors of the economy must take action to reduce their carbon emissions. For waste incineration, this means focusing on plastics recycling to remove fossil carbon from the feedstock heading to EfW facilities if they are to achieve a net-zero waste management system.”

ClientEarth’s lawyers argue that rather than incinerating waste, 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.”


Notes to editors:

Rates of incineration in England doubled between 2012 and 2018, reflecting a global trend buoyed by an international waste crisis. At the end of 2019, there were 53 incinerators in the UK and 11 more in construction.

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.

You can read the report “Greenhouse Gas and Air Quality Impacts of Incineration and Landfill” here.

About ClientEarth

ClientEarth is a charity that uses the power of the law to protect people and the planet. We are international lawyers finding practical solutions for the world’s biggest environmental challenges. We are fighting climate change, protecting oceans and wildlife, making forest governance stronger, greening energy, making business more responsible and pushing for government transparency. We believe the law is a tool for positive change. From our offices in London, Brussels, Warsaw, Berlin and Beijing, we work on laws throughout their lifetime, from the earliest stages to implementation. And when those laws are broken, we go to court to enforce them.