There are many reasons why people oppose incineration, including because:
- Incineration harms recycling
- Incineration exacerbates climate change
- Incineration is a barrier to the circular economy
- The UK already faces incineration overcapacity
- Incineration harms air quality
The alternatives to incineration are cheaper, more flexible, quicker to implement and better for the environment. Rather than incinerating waste, local authorities should focus on maximising re-use and recycling alongside providing a weekly separate food waste collection for treatment by composting or anaerobic digestion (AD). See UKWIN briefing on how local councils can improve their recycling rates.
Incineration harms recycling
Studies indicate that at least half of what is currently in the ‘residual’ waste stream is readily recyclable, meaning a significant proportion of what is currently incinerated could have been recycled or composted (Source). If incinerators limited their feedstock to genuinely residual waste then it would free up about half of their capacity, undermining the rationale for building new incinerators in the UK.
Many councils are signed up to long-term waste contracts that involve incineration. These contracts usually ensure that the council takes on the primary risk of the incinerator not getting enough waste to burn, meaning councils are in effect penalised for not sending enough waste for incineration. Incinerators cost around £200m+ to build and that money cannot then be spent on recycling (Source, Source).
Contractual mechanisms such as ‘minimum tonnage guarantees’, ‘put-or-pay’ clauses and ‘banding mechanisms’ undermine the economic incentive to reduce, re-use and recycle even where funds are available (Source, Source, Source).
There is a correlation between high rates of incineration and low rates of recycling (Source, Source, Source). Many councils have told the Government that their low recycling rates are due to their incineration-based waste contracts that undermine their incentive or ability to invest in improvements to their recycling service (Source, Source).
The Government has a target for England to achieve 65% recycling for municipal solid waste by 2035 and no more than 10% landfill (Source). As some residual waste is not combustible, the Government’s 65% recycling target implies that the rate of incineration should be no higher than a maximum of around 30%. However, in 2017/18 42% of England’s local authority collected waste was incinerated (Source, Source).
At Local Authority level, individual recycling rates ranged from 14 per cent to 69 per cent…lower rates could result from an authority focusing on avoiding landfill by investing in incineration and targeting its waste management policies on that treatment solution, rather than poor recycling awareness or initiatives.— Statistical Release: Local Authority Collected Waste Management Statistics for England – Final Annual Results 2011/12 (8 November 2012)
Incineration exacerbates climate change
Incineration results in high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. For every tonne of waste burned, typically around one tonne of CO2 is released into the atmosphere, and around half of this is fossil CO2 (Source). This means that incineration has a higher carbon intensity than the conventional use of fossil fuels, and significantly higher than what most people would consider ‘low carbon’.
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 (Source).
Even when methane generation from the landfill of biogenic material is taken into account, over its lifetime a typical waste incinerator built in 2020 is estimated to release the equivalent of around 1.6 million tonnes of CO2 more than sending the same waste to landfill (Source). 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 (Source).
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’ that has a significant adverse climate change impact (Source).
…plastic contains substantial embedded carbon in the material itself, which is released as CO2 when plastics are incinerated…a continuation of the current shift towards burning plastics would result in substantial additional emissions in 2050…Clearly, the incineration of fossil-based plastics cannot continue in a low-carbon economy— The Circular Economy – a Powerful Force for Climate Mitigation (June 2018). Published by: Material Economics
Incineration is a barrier to the Circular Economy
The ‘linear economy’ relies on extraction and processing, followed by consumption and disposal (via incineration or landfill). Extraction and disposal deplete finite resources and cause environmental and social harm. With a circular economy the value of resources is preserved, material and nutrients that are needed to create new products are maintained, and the most is made of existing resources. (Source)
Incineration has no place in the circular economy towards which we should be working. Incineration wastes finite resource, squanders nutrients vital for the health of our soil, and is recognised as a ‘leakage’ to be minimised (Source, Source, Source). Products currently being incinerated should be treated at a higher tier of the Waste Hierarchy, and where that is not possible they need to be ‘designed out’.
“One of the central pillars of a circular economy is feeding materials back into the economy and avoiding waste being sent to landfill or incinerated, thereby capturing the value of the materials as far as possible and reducing losses”— Circular economy in Europe – Developing the knowledge base. European Environment Agency, January 2016.
The UK already faces incineration overcapacity
The UK currently has more incineration capacity existing and under construction than genuinely residual waste to burn, and there are many more incinerator projects in the pipeline.
Incineration overcapacity harms the markets for recycling and reduces the marginal benefits of waste minimisation and re-use schemes, causing significant environmental harm. Locking our valuable materials into incineration creates a serious long-term risk to UK resource security and is a huge waste of money.
Even those who believe that incineration is a good way to treat genuinely residual waste should oppose the construction of new incinerators because they exacerbate long-term overcapacity.
More than half of the material that is currently incinerated is readily recyclable (Source). As more of this material is recycled, and as non-recyclable products are increasingly phased out, more and more capacity at existing incinerators will become available which makes proposed capacity increasingly redundant.
Furthermore, the move away from single-use plastics is increasing the spare treatment capacity of existing incinerators, and many existing incinerator permits have been varied to increase the quantity of feedstock they are permitted to burn (Source).
There is widespread acknowledgement across Europe that those countries which pursued incineration with the most vigour are now facing incineration overcapacity which is harming recycling (Source, Source). It is vital that we learn from their mistakes, not repeat them.
“…there is now more waste incineration capacity built and under construction than it is forecast there will be genuinely residual combustible waste to burn…incineration overcapacity can be a barrier to achieving the recycling society…”— Early Day Motion #581 of Parliamentary Session 2017-19: ‘Moratorium on New Waste Incineration Capacity’.
Incineration harms air quality
In addition to greenhouse gas emissions that exacerbate climate change, incinerators emit many toxins and pollutants that harm local air, soil and water quality. Emissions include dioxins, NOx and ultrafine particulate matter that can be harmful to both human health and the natural environment. There is not enough monitoring, not enough enforcement, and not enough transparency.
“There is no safe level for particulate matter (PM10, PM2.5), while NO2 is associated with adverse health effects at concentrations at and below the legal limits.”— Air Quality: A Briefing for Directors of Public Health. Defra, Public Health England and the Local Government Association, March 2017.
- UKWIN’s ‘Bin the burners’ booklet (including advice on how councils can improve recycling rates)
- Zero Waste Europe’s Zero Waste case studies
- Paul Connett’s Ten Arguments Against Incineration (from the book ‘Zero Waste Solutions’)
- Ecocycle’s report on the best disposal option for residual waste