The United Kingdom Without Incineration Network (UKWIN) has today (Monday 22nd October 2018) launched a report that looks into the climate change impacts of waste incineration in the UK.

Click on image to download UKWIN Climate Change Report

UKWIN report into the climate change impacts of waste incineration in the UK

The 56-page report found that in 2017 the UK’s 42 incinerators released a combined total of nearly 11 million tonnes of CO2. Around 5 million tonnes of this CO2 was emitted through the incineration of fossil-based materials such as plastic. The 5 million tonnes of fossil CO2 released by UK incinerators in 2017 is estimated to have resulted in an unpaid cost to society of around £325 million.

The report highlights yet another way that plastic is harming our environment, with polluters getting away without paying their fair share for the climate damage that they are causing. The study says that over the next 30 years the total cost to society of fossil CO2 released by UK’s current incinerators equates to more than £25 billion pounds of harm arising from the release of around 205 million tonnes of fossil CO2.

Figure 1 - Fossil carbon intensity of waste treatment options

Waste is rubbish feedstock for generating energy. Burning plastic for a small amount of electricity comes with a high climate cost.

Each tonne of plastic incinerated releases around 1.43 tonnes of CO2. According to the report, a typical waste incinerator built in 2020 would release 2.8 million tonnes of fossil CO2 over its 30-year lifetime. Even when electricity generation is taken into account, this is equivalent to releasing around 1.6 million tonnes of CO2 more than sending the same waste to landfill.

Josh Dowen, Associate Coordinator of the United Kingdom Without Incineration Network (UKWIN), says: “The study shows waste is a rubbish feedstock for generating energy. Burning large quantities of plastics gives rise to a small amount of electricity that comes with a high climate cost. To add insult to injury, those profiting from waste incineration are not paying for the huge cost to society of emitting all these greenhouse gases, and so a UK-wide waste incineration tax is long overdue”.

Climate change impacts of waste incineration are worse than landfill

Dowen continued: “The climate change impacts of incineration are worse than landfill. Most of what is incinerated could and should be recycled or composted. It is time to stop thinking of waste as potential incinerator feedstock and time to recognise the urgent need to reduce, re-use and recycle”.

The report, ‘Evaluation of the climate change impacts of waste incineration in the United Kingdom’, is available to download from http://ukwin.org.uk/climate

KEY FINDINGS OF THE REPORT

  • Waste incinerators currently release an average of around 1 tonne of CO2 for every tonne of waste incinerated.
  • The release of CO2 from incinerators makes climate change worse and comes with a cost to society that is not paid by those incinerating waste.
  • In 2017 the UK’s 42 incinerators released a combined total of nearly 11 million tonnes of CO2, around 5 million tonnes of which were from fossil sources such as plastic.
  • The 5 million tonnes of fossil CO2 released by UK incinerators in 2017 resulted in an unpaid cost to society of around £325 million.
  • Over the next 30 years the total cost to society of fossil CO2 released by UK’s current incinerators would equate to more than £25 billion pounds of harm arising from the release of around 205 million tonnes of fossil CO2.
  • Electricity generated by waste incineration has significantly higher adverse climate change impacts than electricity generated through the conventional use of fossil fuels such as gas.
  • The ‘carbon intensity’ of energy produced through waste incineration is more than 23 times greater than that for low carbon sources such as wind and solar; as such, incineration is clearly not a low carbon technology.
  • When waste is landfilled a large proportion of the carbon is stored underground, whereas when waste is burned at an incinerator the carbon is converted into CO2 and immediately released into the atmosphere.
  • Over its lifetime, a typical waste incinerator built in 2020 would release the equivalent of around 1.6 million tonnes of CO2 more than sending the same waste to landfill. Even when electricity generation is taken into account, each tonne of plastic burned at that incinerator would result in the release of around 1.43 tonnes of fossil CO2. Due to the progressive decarbonisation of the electricity supply, incinerators built after 2020 would have a relatively greater adverse climate change impact.
  • Composition analysis indicates that much of what is currently used as incinerator feedstock could be recycled or composted, and this would result in carbon savings and other environmental benefits. Thus, incinerating waste comes with a significant ‘opportunity cost’.
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