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January 2021 debate on incineration and recycling rates

On the 12th of January 2021 Elliot Colburn MP (Carshalton and Wallington, Conservative) led a debate on waste incineration and recycling rates at Parliament’s Westminster Hall. The full transcript of the debate is available on Hansard and a video is available at parliament.tv.

The debate explored the adverse impacts of incineration on recycling and the need for action to be taken to move waste to the top tiers of the waste hierarchy. This included citation of research from WRAP Cymru which found that around 75% of residual waste in Wales could have been recycled. Similarly, Defra’s August 2020 Resources and Waste Strategy monitoring report was quoted as stating that: “The large amount of avoidable residual waste and avoidable residual plastic waste generated by household sources each year suggests there remains substantial opportunity for increased recycling”.

Other issues were discussed such as the reporting in The Guardian and by Greenpeace Unearthed that incinerators are more likely to be located in poorer areas. Reference was also made to Zero Waste Scotland’s October 2020 report ‘The climate change impact of burning municipal waste in Scotland‘ which found that: “EfW can no longer be considered a low carbon technology in the UK”.

Speaking for Labour, Daniel Zeichner MP stated: “we should now acknowledge that the time for incineration is over and that the age of incinerators should come to an end”, repeating a notion previously stated by Dr Alan Whitehead on behalf of Labour in the February 2020 Westminster Hall debate.

Zeichner went on to state on behalf of Labour that: “Once, one might have said that incineration was an improvement on the previous practice of landfill, but I no longer feel that that is the case. I note that across England, incineration has increased in inverse proportion to the reduction in landfill in recent years. I say to the Minister that an over-reliance on incineration as a means of tackling waste will, in the end, serve no one. That over-reliance will prevent us from moving up the waste hierarchy in dealing with waste generally and will stop us looking at waste as a resource that can be recycled and reused, its value unlocked rather than buried or contributing to toxic air.”

Zeichner also conveyed a number of points on behalf of several Labour MPs (Stephen Doughty, Kate Osamor, Darren Jones and Sharon Hodgson) who were unable to attend due to Coronavirus restrictions.

Quotes from the Westminster Debate

Elliot Colburn (Carshalton and Wallington) (Con)

“The Minister will know the concerns I have raised with her in the past about emissions breaches in incinerators; the need for independently run air quality monitoring stations near those sites, rather than leaving them to be self-reporting by the operator; the need to focus on the circular economy, reducing the amount of waste we produce in the first place; and the all-important knock-on effect of operating incinerators, such as traffic movements in the surrounding area.”

“As landfill sites have begun to close and be phased out, incineration has picked up much of that demand, with incineration rates rising nearly four times, from 12% to 44%, over the past decade. However, recycling rates have barely moved at all in the past decade, from 37% to 43%—just a 6 percentage point increase.

That is not coincidental or unrelated. According to very worrying research by the House of Commons Library, the data from the 123 waste authorities show a general negative relationship between incineration and recycling. In other words, higher incineration means lower recycling and vice versa. I have seen that at first hand in Beddington, where I watched as recyclable material was put into the incinerator to be burned. Even I did not know how bad the situation was until I read research from Zero Waste Europe, which revealed that more than 90% of materials that end up in incineration plants and landfills could be recycled or composted—more than 90%.

Quite apart from the obvious negatives, burning those valuable materials in order to generate electricity can discourage efforts to preserve resources and can create perverse incentives to generate more waste to ensure that the energy from these waste plants remains economical, rather than focusing on prevention and recycling.”

“I congratulate the Government on their work, but urge them to move at pace towards a circular economy. We must look further up the waste hierarchy to achieve this, so I have a few asks. The next steps up our waste hierarchy are recycling and reusing waste. We have heard startling figures about how much recyclable material ends up in incineration and this must be stopped. Things such as an all-in deposit return scheme to open up the concept to as many recyclable materials as possible as well as creating new responsibilities when sorting waste to prevent as much recyclable waste from ending up in incinerators as possible will certainly be good steps. Removing recyclable and compostable waste from incineration will greatly reduce the need for incinerators and help the Government achieve their target of moving away from this form of waste management.

However, we all know that the best approach is to reduce the amount of waste we produce in the first place. It is even better than recycling, because it involves less energy, less extraction of raw materials, and so on. That is why there needs to be a much greater emphasis on reducing production, such as placing responsibilities on producers, incentivising minimal packaging methods, for example, making it easier—indeed the norm—to choose the more environmentally-friendly option, whether that be domestic products such as food packaging, all the way through to heavy industry.”

“We need to look further up that waste hierarchy and do much more to recycle, reuse and ultimately reduce the amount of waste we produce to help make the need for incinerators, such as the one that has caused my constituents so many problems, obsolete.”

Alex Sobel (Leeds North West) (Lab/Co-op)

“Sustainability is one of the biggest and most important challenges facing our country. On a finite planet, we cannot afford to run a throw-out society indefinitely.”

“The incineration of waste with energy recovery is slightly preferable to waste being incinerated without any energy recovery or sent to landfill, but without carbon capture and storage technology I cannot in good conscience support it. I admit that the Government are investing in CCS, but we have no full-scale working models. Without trying to pre-empt what will be said by my neighbour, the hon. Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore), I am sure he will touch on the campaign started by his predecessor [John Grogan] against the proposal for an incinerator there. He has my sympathy and support on that, and I think he knows that—we have discussed it previously on the train.

Waste incineration is usually referred to as energy from waste, but the energy generated by energy-from-waste plants represents just 1.9% of overall UK electricity production. While electricity and reusable waste heat are clearly valuable by-products of incineration, they cannot legitimately be claimed to be the main purpose of incineration, nor can there be an economic or sustainability justification for using it as a disposal method. However, there is still no large-scale Government funding programme to support the development of anaerobic digestion, which is the solution for much organic waste that local authorities will and do collect.”

“We should also consider the fact that the smelly, loud waste incinerators that regularly breach pollution guidelines are three times more likely to be built in poorer areas than in the UK’s wealthiest areas. Nearly half of the new incinerators on track to be built will be in the UK’s 25 most deprived neighbourhoods, and more than two thirds are planned for the northern half of the country. More than 40% of existing incinerators are sited in areas more diverse than the local authority average.”

“At COP24, which I attended…in Poland, Sir David Attenborough warned delegates that ‘we are facing a man-made disaster of global scale. Our greatest threat in thousands of years: climate change. If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.’

I am fairly sure that the action he had in mind did not consist of building new incinerators up and down this country. We need to come up with more innovative measures, alternative solutions to reducing consumption, boosting recycling and increasing the proportion of recycled material manufacturing. We need a green industrial revolution and a circular economy. That is the way forward, and I look forward to the Minister outlining how the Government will achieve that.”

Jane Hunt (Loughborough) (Con)

“I have made clear in previous debates and correspondence with Ministers my concern regarding the building of new incinerators because of their impact on the environment and the health of local communities around them. I have pressed for more research to be undertaken to better understand their impact on those with higher activity respiratory levels. That is particularly relevant to my constituency, where an incinerator is being built in close proximity to elite athlete training grounds.”

“…following the Climate Change Committee’s recommendation that all 2020 incinerators should have carbon capture and storage, the local group would also like it to be a requirement at the point of construction in any planning conditions, including those currently under construction.”

“We are also actively encouraging individuals and companies to recycle more and produce less waste. Over time, we will become less reliant on incinerators, and there will not be enough waste to keep existing incinerators open. In my constituency, there is already not enough commercial and industrial residual waste locally to keep the new incinerator going, so waste will inevitably be brought in from afar by road, leading to increased vehicle emissions around the M1 and the A512 and creating further pollution in our local area from waste produced elsewhere.

Finally, I would argue that the incinerators could impact on the Government’s commitment to net zero emissions by 2050 by not encouraging recycling and reuse, as my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington mentioned earlier. If we are to achieve this ambitious target, we must work to reduce emissions from all sources.”

Craig Williams (Montgomeryshire) (Con)

“Research done by WRAP Cymru in Wales found that 75% of the ‘ingredients’ for incinerators in Wales could have been recycled. We are missing a trick as we look at the development of incinerators, and I will touch on that in respect of my constituency of Montgomeryshire. Equally, turning to my Celtic cousins in the north, the Zero Waste Scotland review found that the only energy source with a comparable carbon intensity to energy from waste was coal. We know full well what has happened to coal power stations in this country. If incinerators follow them, I hope the Minister will promptly look at the waste-to-energy plans going forward.”

“My chief concerns around incineration are that, while there is a role for it, there is new technology emerging that will deal with things that are non-recyclable at the moment. The landfill of the past was awful, and I speak on behalf of a massive rural constituency when I say that landfill is not something we enjoy. However, now we have taken a lot of organic matter out of landfill, there is a role for looking at the non-recyclables and a way to store them either in warehouses or in some new landfill of the future where that resource could be mined when the technology is available to recycle it. I welcome the Minister’s thoughts on looking at the current non-recyclables and a way of storing them for the short period while we invest in technologies to increase our recycling.”

“Anaerobic digesters are taking a lot of the organic waste out, so then we can look at the non-recyclables. That is not necessarily needing to burn them, but looking in the future to see how we can store and mine them as a resource. I know there is a time limit, so I will wind up but I reinforce my point that while incineration has had a role to date, I look forward to a way that we can wind it out of our circular economy over the decades.”

Robbie Moore (Keighley) (Con)

“I am sure we are all aware of the waste hierarchy. It gives top priority to preventing waste in the first place. When waste is created, it gives priority to preparing it for reuse, then for recycling, then recovery, and last of all disposal—landfill and waste incineration. I believe all Government policy should be based on this hierarchy.

There is a strong case to argue that if sufficient weight is given to utilising waste incineration as an option for dealing with waste, then a fiscal disincentive, an incineration tax, should be considered as an option, as we have with the landfill tax—I would also favour increasing landfill tax—because otherwise that can become a barrier to developing a greener circular economy, by preventing resources from being reused and depressing recycling rates, and, as a method, incineration gives rise to air pollution concerns.”

“Residents are quite rightly concerned about air quality—not just from the incinerator itself, but from the increased traffic flows bringing waste to the site. In questioning the decision making for the environmental permit that has just been issued by the Environment Agency, unbelievably, I was told that the Environment Agency could consider only emissions from the incinerator itself, not the emissions from increased traffic flows, because that was a planning matter, which Bradford Council, in already giving the green light, had considered acceptable in the first place. This raises a much bigger issue: the process of how permits are awarded for incinerators. My concern is that a cohesive, full-picture review is not taken into account when looking at the impact on air quality from the whole incineration process itself, which includes the emissions from traffic flow.

For me, this debate is vital. As a Member who sat on the Environment Bill Committee, I am pretty excited about what the Government are doing going forward. However, I reaffirm my commitment that all Government policy should go back to that first waste hierarchy and look at adopting a review of whether an incineration tax is the right route to go down, as I believe it should be.

The message from Keighley is that we do not want this incinerator. It is unfortunate that it looks as if the green light has been given, but local voices should be heard much more loudly and clearly in any decision-making process for anything that is likely to have an impact on air quality or human health.”

Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab) (Speaking for the Opposition)

“As we have heard, incinerators emit large quantities of CO2, with roughly 1 tonne released for each tonne of waste incinerated. About half of that is derived from fossil sources such as plastic, meaning that England’s incinerators rely on fossil fuels for feedstock, as most plastics are derived from crude oil or natural gas. I am told that incineration capacity in England is currently around 17.2 million tonnes—some 14.6 million of built capacity and 2.6 million under construction—and the waste industry is proposing a further 20 million tonnes of capacity for England.”

“As we have also heard, however, existing capacity already exceeds the quantity of genuinely residual combustible waste. Allowing even more incinerators would exacerbate that overcapacity, giving rise to avoidable pollution and expense while harming waste reduction and recycling efforts.

In short, we should now acknowledge that the time for incineration is over and that the age of incinerators should come to an end. Once, one might have said that incineration was an improvement on the previous practice of landfill, but I no longer feel that that is the case. I note that across England, incineration has increased in inverse proportion to the reduction in landfill in recent years.

I say to the Minister that an over-reliance on incineration as a means of tackling waste will, in the end, serve no one. That over-reliance will prevent us from moving up the waste hierarchy in dealing with waste generally and will stop us looking at waste as a resource that can be recycled and reused, its value unlocked rather than buried or contributing to toxic air.”

“I also know that a number of my hon. Friends around the country have raised concerns about incineration in their communities in recent months. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), who wanted to speak in this debate but could not be here today, has asked me to emphasise a point he has made about the urgent need for clarity from the Minister on waste movements around the UK, including between England and Wales. In previous debates, he has made clear his opposition to the incinerator planned by an English company for the east of his constituency, which is currently with the Welsh planning inspectors and which likely plans to burn commercial waste shipped across the border.

I will also mention my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), who has a particular interest in the impact of incineration on the health and wellbeing of her constituents in north London, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), who chairs the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, and who I remember expressing concerns in this very Chamber about the planning decisions that he feels do not consider the cumulative impact of multiple sites in close proximity. Similarly, my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Sharon Hodgson) has an incineration facility at Hillthorn Park in her constituency. I know she is watching the debate this afternoon.

My hon. Friends’ passion crosses regional and national borders within the UK. As we grasp the challenge of reducing our reliance on incinerators, our response needs to be an all-nation response. Will the Minister outline what specific discussions she has had with Environment Ministers in the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive, and with the Cabinet Secretary in the Scottish Government on tackling the over-reliance on incineration?”

“Over the past two decades, the household waste recycling rate in England has increased significantly, from just 11.2% to almost 50%. I am pleased that for half of that time a Labour Government ambitiously pushed for a change of behaviour and real action on the green agenda. However, I must point out that England still falls short of the EU target of recycling a minimum of 50% of household waste by 2020. Our departure from the EU does not mean we should shift gear or slow down. We need to go further and faster.”

“The Minister knows that England is responsible for the overwhelming majority of waste in UK households. It is vital that England and therefore this Government show leadership and act. If we need further evidence of the need for swift action, we need look no further than DEFRA’s own resources and waste strategy monitoring report from August last year. It tells us: ‘The large amount of avoidable residual waste and avoidable residual plastic waste generated by household sources each year suggests there remains substantial opportunity for increased recycling.’

The message from that assessment is that a substantial quantity of material appears to be going into the residual waste stream, where it could at least have been recycled or dealt with higher up the waste hierarchy. So there it is. We have to take this seriously now.”

“Labour is committed to increasing recycling rates and improving the processes around doing so. We recognise the importance of taking people with us and argue that if we do not have buy-in from the public, we are unlikely to achieve the sort of change and progress that our planet desperately needs. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington for calling this debate and optimistically encourage him to support our amendments to the Environment Bill when they are debated on Report, because that is how we will seize the opportunity to put incineration behind us and move forward to a new world of ambitious and effective recycling, one that recognises and unlocks the value in what was once seen as waste.”

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Rebecca Pow) (Speaking for the Government)

“As I have said in previous debates, the Government’s intention remains very firmly on ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’, moving the country towards a circular economy. Every hon. Friend and Member has mentioned this, even the shadow Minister and I agree on this, and it was very eloquently put in particular by my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams). Actions that we are taking will minimise the amount of waste that reaches the lower levels of the waste hierarchy. That is very important, as we heard about from my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore), who uses his experience in the industry to draw our attention to that issue. This is the Government’s intention, and everything in the Environment Bill is moving us in that direction.

Evidence of our determination and commitment to limiting the waste that needs to be treated at energy-from-waste facilities, or in landfill for that matter, can be seen quite clearly through the landmark Environment Bill, which we introduced to Parliament in January 2020. Among other things, it contains broad powers to establish deposit return schemes, such as for drinks containers, and extended producer responsibility, and to stipulate a consistent set of materials, including food waste, that must be collected from households and businesses to help to make recycling services more consistent.

The Government are committed to improving the quality and increasing the quantity of materials collected for recycling so that we meet our target of 65% of municipal waste being recycled by 2035. However, to meet that target, recycling will have to be easier for householders. My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) raised the issue of students being confused when they go from one area to another, and she is absolutely right. That is why we are making consistent collections law under the Environment Bill.

In those collections, the core set of materials that will need to be collected will be plastic, metal, glass, paper, card, food and garden waste. The hon. Member for Leeds North West raised food waste…food waste is going to be collected; that is absolutely essential. Just over £16 million is in the process of being awarded, or has already been awarded, to ensure that food waste is collected and redistributed by more than 300 organisations. That has been really important during the coronavirus pandemic, and I wanted to highlight that.

Anaerobic digestion is the preferred treatment for food waste. We are seeking views on that in our consultations, and we will be publishing them shortly. My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley also raised that. We have to take a balanced approach as we consider all these things. Anaerobic digestion can also produce digestate, and one has to consider what the effect of that will be on the environment, so all these options have to be considered in the round.

The Environment Bill will help us drive towards a minimum 70% recycling rate of packaging waste by 2030, and we will be consulting shortly on those measures, together with further action on waste prevention. That will help us reduce the amount of England’s waste that goes to incineration and landfill.”

“Should wider policies not deliver the Government’s waste ambitions in the long term, the introduction of a tax on incineration of waste will be considered, taking into account how a tax would work alongside landfill tax and the possible impacts on local authorities”

Elliot Colburn (Carshalton and Wallington) (Con)

“…I want to press again the point about the need to look further up the waste hierarchy in dealing with waste in the United Kingdom, and to get compostable and recyclable waste out of incinerators and therefore reduce the need for them. Through behaviour, and through policy incentives, we can move to a place where incinerators are needed less and less. Let us hope that in future they will not be needed at all.”