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Chief Defra scientist says incineration extinguishes innovation

Prof. Ian Boyd appeared before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRACOM) on the 31st of January 2018 to discuss his work as Defra Chief Scientific Adviser.

Professor Boyd was one of the principal author’s of the recently-published ‘From Waste to Resource Productivity’ report which emphasised the importance of moving away from incineration and landfill and towards more efficient and sustainable uses of resources. This report will provide an important part of the evidence base for the Government’s forthcoming Resources and Waste Strategy, due out in the second half of 2018.

You can listen to Prof. Ian Boyd speak critically about incineration from around from 15:17:12 at

Prof. Boyd explains how: “If there is one way of extinguishing the value of the materials fast, its to stick it in an incinerator and burn it. Now it may give you energy at the end of the day, but actually some of those materials, even if they are plastics, with a little bit of ingenuity, can be given more positive value. And one of the things that worries me is that we are taking these materials, we’re putting them in incinerators, we’re losing them forever, and actually we’re creating carbon dioxide out of them as well, which is not a great thing, when in fact we could be long-term storing them until we have the innovative technologies to re-use them and to turn them into something that is more positively valued. And this brings me to a more general point about landfill… landfill is actually a very low marginal-cost method for storing materials – highly resistant materials such as plastics and metals – for a long period of time. If we cannot extract the value from them now, so one caveat I would put around the current direction of travel on landfill, is that we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that in a few decades time, or maybe a bit longer, we might be mining our landfill sites for the resources they contain, and rather than put some of those resources into incinerators and just lose them forever we might want to think differently about the landfill sites.” (15:17:12)

He later stated: “I think that incineration, and this is a personal view, I think incineration is not a good direction to go in. I think that if you are investing many tens of millions, hundreds of millions, in urban waste incineration plants – and those plants are going to have a 30 to 40 year lifespan – you have to have the waste streams to keep them supplied. Now that is the market pull on waste, so it encourages the production of waste, it encourages the production of residual waste, it encourages people to think that we can throw what could be potentially valuables materials if we were to think about them innovatively into a furnace and burn them.” (15:20:50)

Boyd also cited how Sweden’s pursuit of incineration may have encouraged the production of residual waste and he explained how historic UK waste policy encouraging incineration over landfill may have created perverse outcomes.

EFRACOM’s Chair Neil Parish MP compared incineration with diesel as an option that was once promoted as being environmentally friendly but that is now being seen increasingly as a mis-step that is bad for the environment.

Later in the discussion, Prof. Boyd indicated that an incineration tax and a moratorium on new incinerators were worth considering as means to promote recycling alongside investing in innovative recycling processes and ‘designing out’ waste as part of a holistic approach to resource management.

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