Evaluation of the climate change impacts of waste incineration in the United Kingdom (October 2018)
This report evaluates the climate change impacts of waste incineration and is intended to inform policy makers, decision-takers, and the public. The need for this study arises in response to the increasing quantities and proportions of UK waste that are incinerated and the necessity to consider the outcomes arising from this increasing level of incineration alongside the various conflicting claims that are made about the climate change impacts of waste incineration.
Based on the data and methods set out in the report, the study found that:
- 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’.