The experience of UKWIN and our members is that up and down the country incineration is harming recycling (and composting and AD), and our evidence to EFRACOM explains the mechanisms that give rise to this unacceptable situation.
For example, incineration subsidies and put-or-pay contracts reduce the marginal cost of incineration compared to routes higher in the hierarchy, thus increasing the marginal costs of reduction, re-use and recycling and therefore discouraging investment higher in the waste hierarchy.
EFRACOM's report notes that UKWIN provided "data showing an apparent correlation between high rates of incineration and low rates of recycling", and that: “When we asked the Minister how the Government ensures that only genuinely residual waste is sent to incinerators, he told us that the key pressure is gate fees...However, we are concerned about the effectiveness of this singular mechanism following evidence we received about ‘put or pay contracts’ and negative impacts on recycling rates.”
Incinerators built today are designed to be with us for 25+ years, impeding the top tiers of the waste hierarchy for generations to come. What we need is a national and European effort to redesign products to increase their recyclability and extend their lifespans. The UK should learn the lessons from countries that drifted into significant incineration overcapacity and are now forced to import waste to keep their fires burning.
Even if one took the view that incineration was the best way to treat genuinely residual waste, not all waste is combustible and the UK already has more incineration capacity existing and under construction than genuinely residual waste to burn.
As William Neale, member of cabinet for European Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik with responsibility for waste put it: "We have to have a circular economy concept, so it’s highly important that we’re pumping back materials into the economy rather than burning or burying them".
Incineration destroys valuable materials and nutrients, removing them from the circular economy. In addition to being a ‘leakage’ from this circular economy, incineration is also a serious barrier to achieving a more circular economy because incinerators are so expensive to build.
Money invested in incineration cannot be invested in better collection, sorting and treatment infrastructure, and the presence of expensive infrastructure results in ‘lock-in’ into incineration that reduces the financial incentives to reduce, re-use, recycle, compost, and collect and send suitable material for anaerobic digestion.
Whilst pyrolysis and gasification are similar to conventional incineration in terms of their adverse impacts on the circular economy, they also bring new problems to the table. These experimental technologies have a track record of failure, with facilities experiencing significant downtime and lower than predicted power output. Such issues do not bode well for those relying on them for waste management, electricity or heat.
Even if gasification and pyrolysis facilities were to work as promised by the operators (and none have operated as promised to date), those promises are often only for plants that are so inefficient that they would fail to meet the un-ambitious R1 formula, classifying the facilities as disposal operations and placing them alongside landfill at the bottom of the EU's Waste Management Hierarchy.
Rather than trying to find new ways to sugar-coat nasty outdated technologies, those who claim to be interested in good resource management should be focussed on how to move us beyond the distraction of expensive 'end of pipe' solutions and towards something that is actually sustainable.