Incineration plant

Sadiq Khan urged to bring in moratorium on waste incineration

Image credit: Dreamstime

The London mayor’s long-awaited draft environment strategy contains no clues as to how UK capital can break its reliance on burning household rubbish, much of which could instead be recycled or composted.

London’s mayor is being pressed to introduce an urgent moratorium on new waste incineration plants after a belatedly released draft of his new environment strategy was discovered to contain no details on how the widespread and environmentally harmful practice of burning household rubbish which could instead be recycled or composted might be halted.

The United Kingdom Without Incineration Network (UKWIN), a nationwide campaign organisation, has demanded that Sadiq Khan set out a waste incineration “exit plan” after the Labour mayor acknowledged that the city-wide recycling rate needed to be increased. 

He also admitted household food waste alone was producing around 250,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions yearly through being burnt or sent to landfill sites.

Several of London’s waste incinerators generate electricity from heat produced when “fuel” from bin bags is dumped into their furnaces. This electricity is fed into the National Grid, but because the facilities also consume large amounts of power to run themselves, the overall energy efficiency of this technique for waste disposal is debatable.

The government regards these kinds of incinerators, which have become increasingly prevalent across the country in recent years, as generators of renewable energy, but critics say they are little better than traditional power plants that burn fossil fuels. Green groups such as Friends of the Earth have long opposed waste incineration, regarding it as a barrier to the circular economy vision entailing reusing packaging and converting trash into objects of value.

Some so-called waste-to-energy plants are currently working at full pelt because financial penalties punishing councils for sending waste to landfill have caused much household rubbish to be diverted there. However, a report released earlier this year by environmental consultancy Eunomia found that by 2021 UK’s waste incineration capacity will outstrip the quantity of rubbish being produced by households in the country - a trend that could frustrate efforts to increase the recycling rate.

In London as a whole, just 32 per cent of all household waste is currently recycled. This figure is below the nationwide average of 44 per cent and well below the figure in many other European cities. The capital already has the second-highest incineration rate in the whole of the UK, with several new incinerators already in the pipeline.

Khan’s draft environment strategy was finally released - several months behind schedule - earlier this month. It stated that by 2026 no biodegradable or recyclable waste will be sent to landfill by councils in the city, but it contained no mention of any target for cutting incineration, nor any suggestions about what could be done to reduce it.

UKWIN national coordinator Shlomo Dowen said: UKWIN is eager to see the mayor take the next logical step and start working on an incineration exit strategy for the nation’s capital that would introduce an immediate moratorium on new incineration capacity accompanied by ambitious recycling and composting targets across London.

“Such an incineration exit strategy would be consistent with the emerging emphasis on resource productivity and with the mayor’s intention to take responsibility for London’s waste.

“Reducing Londons incineration rate would also be good for the climate, as energy produced by burning waste releases significant quantities of greenhouse gasses.”

Abraham Jacobson, a Liberal Democrat councillor in London who has been involved in schemes to try and boost the recycling rate, said people who were lackadaisical about recycling should be punished by way of fines or infrequent rubbish collections.

“The bottom line is, households that don’t recycle, give them fortnightly collections or monthly collections and you’ll see the recycling rate picks up,” he said.

Khan’s strategy also came in for flak from the Green Party, which accused him of breaking a pledge to establish a publicly owned energy company for Londoners.

Some waste analysts contend that burying some forms of waste, for example plastics, can be less of a contributor to climate change than incineration as landfilling effectively acts as a crude form of carbon capture when used as a means of disposing of some relatively chemically stable materials.

A hotly anticipated report analysing the relative benefits of different waste disposal techniques, co-authored by the government’s chief scientific adviser Professor Sir Mark Walport, was supposed to have been published last year but has been serially delayed. A civil servant told E&T they now expected this report will be released later this year.

In response to E&T’s enquiries, a spokesman for the mayor’s office acknowledged that incineration as a means of waste disposal is “better than landfill but not as desirable as recycling, going on to say that where energy from waste was required for non-recyclable materials, Khan would encourage “clean and efficient” heat and power.

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