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Facts & Figures

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Unpaid cost to society from fossil CO2 released from UK incinerators

Incinerators emit large quantities of CO2, roughly one tonne of CO2 for every tonne incinerated. About half of this CO2 derives from fossil sources such as plastic. For decades incinerators have been releasing harmful greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions without compensating society for the associated harm that this has caused. In June 2011 Defra acknowledged (in their Economics of Waste and Waste Policy publication) that incinerators were “creating GHG emissions without paying the relevant price”. Unlike power stations, waste incinerators are not part of the Emissions Trading Scheme, and therefore the relevant BEIS carbon prices to use are those for non-traded carbon.

Year Waste incinerated Fossil CO2e
per tonne of
waste incinerated
Fossil CO2e Non-traded
carbon price
Total cost to society
of fossil CO2e
from incineration
2017 10,883,000 tonnes [a] 0.458 tonnes [b] 4,984,414 tonnes [c] £66.25 [d] £330,217,428 [e]
2018 11,487,000 tonnes [f] 0.458 tonnes [b] 5,261,046 tonnes [c] £67.25 [d] £353,805,344 [e]
2019 12,626,000 tonnes [g] 0.526 tonnes [g] 6,641,276 tonnes [c] £68.25 [d] £453,267,087 [e]

Sources / calculations: [a] 2017 UK EfW Statistics (Tolvik, June 2018), [b] Evaluation of the climate change impacts of waste incineration in the United Kingdom (UKWIN October 2018), [c] Tonnes of waste incinerated multiplied by tonnes of fossil CO2 per tonne, [d] Table 3: Carbon prices and sensitivities 2010-2100 for appraisal, £/tCO2e from Data tables 1 to 19: supporting the toolkit and the guidance (BEIS, March 2019), [e] Tonnes of fossil CO2 multiplied by non-traded carbon price, [f] 2018 UK EfW Statistics (Tolvik, June 2019) [g] 2019 UK EfW Statistics (Tolvik, June 2020)

UK incineration capacity (December 2019)

As we get closer to achieving our recycling targets there is increasingly less ‘residual’ waste available to burn. It has been estimated that there could be around 10.4 million tonnes of residual waste available by 2030 but we currently have around 16.85 million tonnes of capacity (Source). As such, the UK already faces incineration overcapacity, with more incineration capacity than genuinely residual waste available to burn. Despite this, there are dozens of proposals for new incinerators in the UK (see map/table) which, if built, would exacerbate overcapacity and come at the expense of opportunities to improve recycling. These facts underpin calls for a moratorium on new waste incineration capacity in the UK.

Source: 2019 EfW Statistics (Tolvik, June 2020)

Status Number of Incinerators Headline Incineration Capacity
Fully Operational 48 facilities 14.60 million tonnes
In Late Stage Commissioning 5 facilities 0.80 million tonnes
In Construction 12 facilities 3.10 million tonnes
Total 65 facilities 18.50 million tonnes

Local Authority Collected Waste (LACW) sent for incineration in England

Between 2000/01 and 2001/02 Local Authority Collected Waste (LACW) in England rose by 3%, and in 2002 the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit noted that “at current rates of growth the amount of household rubbish will double by 2020” (Source). This alarming prospect was the basis for many long-term waste incineration contracts, but in reality instead of doubling to more than 50 million tonnes the level of total waste arisings has actually fallen by around 9% from 28.1 million tonnes in 2000/01 to 25.6 million tonnes in 2017/18.

However, whilst levels of waste arising have fallen the amount of waste sent for incineration has dramatically increased from only 2.4 million tonnes in 2000/01 to 10.8 million tonnes in 2017/18 (an increase of around 350%). Because this period has also seen an increase in recycling, the total percentage of waste sent for incineration has risen from 9% in 2001/01 to 42.3% in 2017/18 (a 370% increase in the proportion of waste sent for incineration). Such a high level of incineration is constraining the ability to meet recycling targets.

Year Total managed Sent for incineration % of waste sent for incineration
2000/01 28.1 million tonnes 2.4 million tonnes 9.0%
2001/02 28.9 million tonnes 2.4 million tonnes 8.0%
2002/03 29.4 million tonnes 2.6 million tonnes 9.0%
2003/04 29.1 million tonnes 2.6 million tonnes 9.0%
2004/05 29.6 million tonnes 2.8 million tonnes 9.5%
2005/06 28.7 million tonnes 2.9 million tonnes 10.0%
2006/07 29.2 million tonnes 3.2 million tonnes 11.1%
2007/08 28.5 million tonnes 3.2 million tonnes 11.1%
2008/09 27.4 million tonnes 3.3 million tonnes 12.2%
2009/10 26.6 million tonnes 3.6 million tonnes 13.6%
2010/11 26.3 million tonnes 4.0 million tonnes 15.1%
2011/12 25.6 million tonnes 4.9 million tonnes 19.1%
2012/13 25.1 million tonnes 5.5 million tonnes 21.9%
2013/14 25.6 million tonnes 6.2 million tonnes 24.4%
2014/15 25.8 million tonnes 7.8 million tonnes 30.2%
2015/16 26.1 million tonnes 9.3 million tonnes 35.4%
2017/17 26.3 million tonnes 10.2 million tonnes 38.6%
2017/18 25.6 million tonnes 10.8 million tonnes 42.3%
2018/19 25.6 million tonnes 11.0 million tonnes 43.8%
2019/20 25.6 million tonnes 11.6 million tonnes 45.5%

Sources Table 2a of Local authority collected waste generation from April 2000 to March 2020 (England and regions) and local authority data April 2019 to March 2020 (Defra, December 2020)

Regional Local Authority Collected Waste (LACW) incineration and recycling rates in 2019/20

  • The South West regions have the lowest rates of incineration (30% and 35%) and the highest recycling rates (48% and 49%)
  • London has the highest rate of incineration (63%) and the lowest rate of recycling (30%).
  • In 4 of the 9 regions, councils are burning more than they recycle.
  • In 7 of the 9 regions, to achieve a 65% recycling rate for Local Authority Collected Waste the proportion sent for incineration would need to decrease (yet new incinerators are being built and even more are being proposed).
  • All 4 regions with above-average rates of incineration had below-average rates of recycling
Region Incineration Rate Recycling Rate Incineration rate exceeds 35%? Incineration exceeds recycling? Incineration above average? Recycling below average?
Eastern 30% 48%        
South West 34% 49%        
East Midlands 39% 44% Yes      
North West 42% 46% Yes      
South East 44% 48% Yes      
ENGLAND 46% 43% Yes Yes    
Yorkshire and the Humber 49% 44% Yes Yes Yes Yes
West Midlands 53% 39% Yes Yes Yes Yes
North East 57% 36% Yes Yes Yes Yes
London 63% 30% Yes Yes Yes Yes

Sources Table 2a of Local authority collected waste generation from April 2000 to March 2020 (England and regions) and local authority data April 2019 to March 2020 (Defra, December 2020)

Residual waste recyclability based on compositional analysis

Much of what is incinerated is not genuinely residual waste, but rather valuable material that could and should have been recycled or composted. Compositional analysis studies show that there are many instances where the majority (i.e. over 50%) of ‘waste’ collected at the kerbside could have been recycled or composted had it been put into the correct bin. And this does not even take account of the opportunities for Councils to extend the range of materials they accept for recycling at the kerbside.

The vast majority of incinerators in the UK have no facility to remove recyclable material prior to incineration, and so all of the recyclable and compostable material delivered ends up in the incinerator. Difficult-to-recycle materials are increasingly being redesigned or phased out, meaning incinerators are becoming increasingly reliant upon burning recyclable and compostable material.

Regional and National Compositional Analysis

Area Scope Year Result
Wales C&I Residual 2019 “The majority of the [residual C&I] waste analysed (74.5% (+/- 2.4%) or 450,478 tonnes annually) could have potentially been recycled.”
England Household Residual 2017 “Of total residual waste from household sources in England in 2017, an estimated 53% could be categorised as readily recyclable, 27% as potentially recyclable, 12% as potentially substitutable and 8% as difficult to either recycle or substitute.”
UK Municipal Waste 2017 “Some recyclable materials are still found in household waste, meaning there are opportunities to increase recycling further.”
Northern Ireland Kerbside Residual 2017 “The study estimates that 55% of the contents of the residual bin is made up of waste types that could commonly be recycled at the kerbside”
Wales Kerbside Residual 2015 “In the kerbside collected residual waste stream, 48.9% of the material was widely recyclable”
North West of England Landfilled C&I 2009 “…the recorded data suggests that up to 97.5% of the C&I waste landfilled in the [North West] region could be recycled if the correct facilities and services were available”
Scotland Total MSW 2009 “The findings from this study suggest approximately three quarters (76%) of MSW in Scotland is made up of potentially recyclable and compostable material.”
Wales C&I Residual 2007 “2007, when the proportion which could potentially have been recycled was 77% and an estimated 530,000 tonnes of recyclable materials were going to landfill.”

See also: Northern Ireland Kerbside Waste Composition 2017 on a per-authority basis (WRAP, April 2018)

English Local Authority Compositional Analysis of Kerbside Waste

Area Year % Recyclability of residual waste at kerbside (by weight)
Merseyside and Halton 2015-16 63% potentially recyclable (and 4.6% of the total kerbside waste was potentially usable, primarily textiles followed by WEEE)
Newcastle upon Tyne 2016 ~50%+ (extrapolated from metals recycling vs remaining metals extracted through MBT)
St. Albans (Hertfordshire) 2015 65.78%
Barnet 2015 56.8%
Hertfordshire 2015 51.2%
Wales 2015 48.9% widely recyclable
South Gloucestershire 2014-15 52% (and a further 10.1% through other existing services)
Warwickshire 2014 57.9%
Three Rivers 2012 54.1%
Bournemouth 2008-9 75%+

Sources: Local Authority composition analysis (see above for links)

Fossil CO2 released per tonne of plastic incinerated

Incinerators burn plastic and so they are reliant upon fossil fuel (as most plastics are made from crude oil). The small amount of energy produced by incinerators is generated inefficiently and comes at a high climate cost (see above).

When carbon (C) is incinerated it is combined with oxygen (O) which turns it into CO2. One can convert carbon content (% Carbon) to Fossil CO2 by multiplying by 44/12 (3.6667). Thus, to derive the CO2 release by the incineration of one tonne of Dense Plastic (which has a carbon content of 54.8%) one multiplies 0.548 by 3.6667 to get around 2.01 tonnes of Fossil CO2.

Type % Carbon Fossil CO2 released per tonne of plastic incinerated
Plastic Film 47.8% 1.753 tonnes of Fossil CO2
Dense Plastic 54.8% 2.01 tonnes of Fossil CO2

Source: Carbon Balances and Energy Impacts of the Management of UK Wastes Defra R&D Project WRT 237, Final Report, December 2006

Links to further information