Defra has defended a minister’s comment that, in environmental terms, it is generally better to send plastics to landfill than recover the energy, prompting concern in the sector that the waste hierarchy was not being followed.
The comment by resource minister Therese Coffey came in a wide-ranging speech on packaging at Westminster on 23 January.
When a fellow MP spoke positively about energy recovered from household residual waste boosting the cement industry, Coffey said: “I caution against some of what he said. In environmental terms, it is generally better to bury plastic than to burn it. The opposite is true of food – it is better to burn it than bury it. We need to be careful about what incentives we push.”
In response, Jacob Hayler, executive director of the Environmental Services Association, said energy from waste (EfW) was generally preferred to landfill from an environmental perspective and had been the direction of policy for at least the past 17 years.
“Ministerial signals that undermine the case for EfW are particularly harmful in a context where we are closing our landfills at a rapid rate and need investment in new EfW facilities to replace them,” he told MRW.
“During 2015-30 it is anticipated that 80% of our landfill capacity will close. It is unlikely that refuse-derived fuel exports will be able to plug that gap; we therefore need new domestic EfW.”
Hopefully, this is just a mistake and is not a reflection of a new direction in Government policy
Simon Ellin, Recycling Association
Recycling Association (RA) chief executive Simon Ellin found Coffey’s comment “disappointing and surprising”.
“This goes against the tried and trusted waste hierarchy which shows that EfW is a better solution than landfill. However, we believe recycling is better than both, and that is reflected in the waste hierarchy too.
“It is also at odds with the Government’s own industrial strategy, which advocated ‘affordable energy and clean growth’ and also that it would seek to increase the efficiency of material use and ‘promote well-functioning markets for secondary materials’.”
Ellin called on Defra to investigate ways to ensure more plastics are recycled from UK collections.
“Hopefully, this is just a mistake made by the [minister] and is not a reflection of a new direction in Government policy.”
Defra told MRW that Coffey was making the point that, ideally, it was better to remove plastics from the waste stream and recycle them prior to either landfilling or incineration.
“In terms of energy recovery, carbon emissions need to be considered in light of the composition of the residual waste stream, the type of energy produced (heat and/or power) and the overall generating efficiency of the facility,” the department said.
It quoted WRAP research on mixed waste plastics indicating that, in terms of global warming potential, incineration of mixed waste plastics was the least favourable option.
However, the WRAP research found that, whereas landfilling of mixed plastics had less impact than incineration on global warming, it had a greater impact on eight other environmental factors.
Vanden Recycling managing director David Wilson: “It’s good to hear that Therese Coffey is debating plastic waste - but not so good that the resulting headlines are that it’s better to landfill it.
”From our perspective, we’d like to highlight that this debate has focused on the two worst outcomes. And we’d like to advocate to the minister that in the waste hierarchy, plastic recycling comes ahead of energy from waste and then landfill.
”British industry should focus more on recyclability, whether that be in a circular or linear model, to ensure that increasing quantities of packaging waste are diverted from these worst-case options.”