Energy from waste debate

Materials World magazine
27 Sep 2019

Plastic waste is a growing problem in the UK and some parties are divided about incineration to manage it. We look at the facts and speak to industry experts.

Burning plastic waste presents multiple problems in terms of carbon emissions and resource management. On the one hand, it seems more practical and beneficial in the long-term to retain as much matter as possible in the materials cycle. Raw materials take a lot of money and energy to produce, and once incinerated, that valuable resource is lost forever.

However, others argue that while certain materials like PET are easily and widely recycled in large quantities, it is generally lower grade, poor quality plastics that are incinerated, as these do not recycle well so are highly likely to end up in landfills.

At least we can be clear on emissions. Incinerating plastic waste is a heavy emitter of carbon dioxide and other undesirable substances. Although, proponents say modern technologies ensure gases are filtered before they are released, significantly lowering toxic levels, and that the amount of carbon is still dramatically less than that of exporting refuse to other countries.

So what is the reality of plastic waste management? We spoke to UK Without Incineration Network, National Coordinator, Shlomo Dowen, and Environmental Services Association, Executive Director, Jacob Hayler, to learn more about the options.

100 million tonnes of waste are incinerated each year across the EU

3 billion plastic bottles are incinerated each year in the UK

4 million tonnes - the reduction in CO2 emissions in England, Wales and Northern Ireland 2017-2018

8.3kg of plastic per capita is recycled across the UK

233,000 tonnes of CO2 a year are emitted from incinerated and landfilled plastic bottles

Clearing plastic litter cost authorities £778mln in 2018

£127 - the value of 1 tonne of PET to a local authority able to sell it off

£35mln per year could be saved in England from a deposit return scheme

55% of UK plastic waste is no longer exported to China and Hong Kong


93kg CO2 savings per capita, with a fall of 0.2% in 2018, due to lower reported recycling

Highest rate of recycling from dry materials

13/22 authorities are top performers in the UK

Northern Ireland

79kg CO2 savings per capita

4.2% rise in the carbon index rankings

Has highest rate of improvement in the UK


69kg CO2 savings per capita

29% of English authorities improved their performance during 2017-2018

6/10 worst performing UK councils are in London

The right thing to do is get mixed waste out of landfill

Environmental Services Association, Executive Director, Jacob Hayler.

Energy from waste (EfW) has a vital role to play as part of a sustainable circular economy, but too often this is not recognised by politicians or the public at large.

We, in the recycling and secondary resources industry, are fully aware of the importance of EfW as an alternative to landfill for the treatment of our non-recyclable wastes, but this fact unfortunately continues to be undermined by a small but vocal anti-incineration sector. This serves to construct negative images of our facilities and maximise the difficulties faced by operators trying to develop new EfW plants.

In this context, I think there are three fundamental questions that we as the industry need to ask ourselves about the role of energy from waste going forward.

The first fundamental question we need to address is, how do we change the perception of energy from waste among the public? These facilities are recognised as an integral part of the solution for sustainable growth in other parts of Northern Europe. We need to build the same recognition here, an important part of which will be continued busting of the myths perpetuated by campaigners.

The second question is, how do we build more facilities? Contrary to the Defra Minister of State’s ongoing proclamations that the UK does not need investment in energy from waste capacity, we in the industry know that the opposite is true.

The minister gets away with this by suggesting that we do not need more investment to meet our future targets. But these are the same targets which will continue to allow six million tonnes (Mt) of mixed waste to go to landfill in 2035 – potentially more if Defra’s heroic assumptions about zero-waste growth prove to be optimistic.

Also, the minister is relying on the assumption that the UK will, in the future, continue to export around 3Mt of waste as a fuel to the EU. This seems certain to be an overstatement when an anticipated 2020 Dutch tax on its waste imports will, in all likelihood, slash those numbers from January 2020 onwards.

The right thing to do is to get all of this mixed waste out of landfill and into domestic EfW plants, so as not to rely on overseas markets.

Therefore, considerable investment in new capacity in the forthcoming years is needed.

The third big question for energy from waste is, how do we decarbonise this sector both in the short-term and the long-term? In the short-term, this means making better use of heat, ensuring that our plants are well located next to industrial heat offtakers where possible, and plugging into heat networks where the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is able to get them to work.

In the longer term, we will need to work out energy from waste’s role as part of a zero-carbon economy, and there are three potential areas we can look at, the first being inputs. If the feedstock is decarbonised in the longer term, for example through a widespread adoption of bio-based plastics, then the EfW of the future would become essentially fully renewable bioenergy plants.

The second area we can look at is outputs. Pilot projects for fitting carbon capture and storage technology to EfW facilities are already happening in other parts of the world. Capturing the back-end CO2 would certainly create zero-carbon EfW plants.

The third area is process. Will the industry develop new technologies in the long-run for non-recyclable waste treatment, which prevent carbon from being released back into the atmosphere?

Too many lay people, including politicians, view energy from waste as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution, when it comes to sustainability. As maligned experts, we must all redouble our efforts to change this perception and demonstrate that the UK needs solutions for both the recyclable and the non-recyclable parts of the waste stream.

Resource destruction is not the answer

United Kingdom Without Incineration Network, National Coordinator, Shlomo Dowen.

Despite the greenwash, waste incineration is inherently unsustainable. The little bit of energy from burning discarded material is not worth the appalling environmental impact and high opportunity cost of incineration.

The United Kingdom Without Incineration Network (UKWIN) estimates that the 11Mt burned in the UK’s 42 incinerators in 2018 released more than 5Mt of fossil CO2. These direct CO2 emissions resulted in an unpaid cost to society of more than £350mln.

CO2 emissions are not the only adverse environmental impact of incineration. Most material used as incinerator feedstock could have been recycled, and non-recyclable products should be reduced, redesigned or replaced. As such, support for incineration perpetuates poor and unsustainable resource management practices that waste finite resources and exacerbate climate change.

In 2018, Defra Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Ian Boyd, told a Parliamentary Committee, ‘If there is one way of quickly extinguishing the value in a material, it is to stick it in an incinerator and burn it. It may give you energy […] but some of those materials, even if they are plastics, with a little ingenuity, can be given more positive value.

‘One thing that worries me is that we are taking these materials, we are putting them in incinerators, we are losing them forever and we are creating carbon dioxide out of them, which is not a great thing […] I think that incineration is not a good direction to go in.’

In addition to pollution from incinerator chimney stacks and the high carbon intensity of its emissions – more than twice the fossil CO2 per kWh of electricity from combined cycle gas turbines – there are embedded emissions from the production of products that are incinerated and then need to be replaced.

The Environmental Audit Committee concluded in February 2019 that, ’While incineration of unsold stock recovers some energy from the products, it multiplies the climate impact of the product by generating further emissions and air pollutants that can harm human health […] Climate changing emissions will have been generated when the products were created and more CO2 will be produced when they are burnt’.

Waste composition analysis carried out by local authorities across England indicates that over half of what is currently going to incineration is readily recyclable or compostable. According to the operator of London’s Riverside incinerator, of the material that was identified, excluding the 15% miscellaneous fraction, 33% of their incinerator feedstock was paper and card, 31% putrescibles, or food waste, 10% plastic film, 9% dense plastics, and 4% textiles. Replicated throughout the UK, this means millions of tonnes of recyclable material is being lost to the circular economy every year.

UK incineration capacity has risen from three million tonnes per annum (tpa) in 2002 to 13 million tpa in 2018, with an additional four million tpa under construction and even more in the pipeline.

English councils went from incinerating around 9% of local authority collected waste in 2002 to 42% in 2017-2018. If we are to meet the 65% recycling target for 2035, this incineration rate would need to be significantly reduced.

While the incineration industry likes to promote the notion that there is an incineration capacity gap, this fails to take account of commitments to reduce, re-use and recycle in line with the waste hierarchy. Indeed, we already have more incineration capacity built and under construction than we would have waste available to burn, once we make better use of our resources.

Incineration overcapacity wastes money that should be invested in recycling, composting and remanufacture. With incinerators costing more than £200mln to build, the opportunity cost is significant. High rates of incineration are inconsistent with more ambitious recycling targets. In most cases, long-term waste contracts provide perverse financial incentives to burn recyclable and compostable material.

If we are serious about resource efficiency and the sustainable use of materials, we need to get serious about moving away from incineration.