Radical action to increase recycling rates and offer universal food waste collections could avoid the need for 20 energy-from-waste (EfW) facilities, according to the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC).
It has issued the first of what will be five-yearly assessments of advice to the Government on infrastructure needs.
In a chapter on switching to low-carbon energy, it called for a move away from incineration towards more recycling, in particular for food and plastics.
It said its research had found public support for this, with 50% of people willing to pay up to £30 a year for more recyclable packaging and 79% willing to separate their food waste.
The NIC said progress had been hampered because the public finds the current system ”too complicated”.
Higher recycling, especially of plastics, could save £6.2bn from 2020-50, avoid the need to build 20 additional incinerators and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it said.
The NIC called for a recycling target of 65% of all waste by 2030 and 75% of plastic packaging. By 2025 there should be separate food waste collections, and restrictions on the use of hard to recycle plastics.
Goods should be clearly labelled as recyclable or not, the NIC added.
The assessment said incinerators had “facilitated the move away from landfill, and make sense when the alternative is energy from fossil fuels”.
But it concluded: “Lower cost, lower carbon options exist for some types of waste, in particular food waste and plastics.”
Food waste could be treated by anaerobic digestion (AD) to produce biogas and fertiliser “at a fraction of the capital cost of incinerators”, it said. Technologies such as pyrolysis or gasification may also become available commercially.
Using AD requires separate collection of food waste but, in 2014-15, only 26% of English households had these.
Universal food waste collection would avoid the need to build between one and three incinerators by 2050 and save up to £400m in capital costs and £1.1bn in operational costs.
By 2035, achieving a 65% recycling rate, together with separate food waste collections, would mean seven million tonnes less residual waste capacity would be needed, equivalent to 20 EfW facilities.
The NIC said targeting plastics was particularly important to reduce the emissions generated from burning the material. But the UK had only a 30% recycling rate due to household behaviour, product design and a lack of clarity on recycling.
The Government’s priority should be to reduce unnecessary packaging and other single-use plastics, with a clear timetable to phase out materials that are hard to recycle.
The Government should set individual recycling targets for all local authorities and provide financial support for transitional costs.
Reacting to the NIC’s assessment, Paul Vanston, chief executive of packing and environment body Incpen, said: “The recommendations for clear two-symbol labelling and consistent household collections of packaging recyclables go hand in hand. These are very welcome.
Comment: Libby Forrest, policy and paliamentary affairs officer, Environmental Services Association
“In terms of consistency of packaging collections, the prime consideration is a common and convenient service to householders for the collection of their recyclable packaging, supported by good packaging design to enable unambiguous labelling that consumers can easily and correctly act on.
“If the UK successfully reduces its residual waste through waste prevention, support for recycling and more food waste collection and treatment, then we will not need as much residual waste infrastructure as we would under a business as usual model.
”ESA believes the key to this will be reforming Extended Producer Responsibility to inject more funding into the system and better incentivise producers to do the right thing. However, it is important to stress that even with 65% recycling, there is a risk of residual waste treatment under-capacity and a continuing reliance on exports.
”What is essential then is for the Government to provide a detailed plan for achieving its resources and waste ambitions that will provide clarity on how much infrastructure capacity will be required to treat the post-recycling portion. In all recycling scenarios, a stable and supportive policy environment is necessary to attract investment into the right infrastructure, whatever and however much that might be.”