Burning plastic threatens net zero targets, says study

Plastic must be removed from waste sent to incinerators to reduce the carbon impact of waste incineration, according to a new report from Eunomia Research and Consulting.

burning plasticCommissioned by ClientEarth, the research has also found that waste incineration as a form of electricity generation produces far more carbon emissions than lower carbon sources of electricity that are coming onto the national grid.

The report, entitled ‘Greenhouse Gas and Air Quality Impacts of Incineration and Landfill’, states that this disparity is only expected to grow as the UK’s electricity mix continues to decarbonise.

The concern for the level of plastic sent to incinerators comes as the amount of food waste in residual waste is expected to fall, as separate food waste collections are introduced across England over the next few years. This will leave a higher proportion of plastic, expected to reach 17.1 per cent in 2035, in the residual waste stream.

A large proportion of that will be plastic film, which is not readily collected or recycled.

The report recommends that the plastic waste present in the residual waste stream must be removed, either through mechanical pre-treatment or through better source separation of plastic waste in recycling streams, in order to reduce the carbon impact of incineration facilities.

It also highlights a concern that failure to do so could make it increasingly challenging for the waste sector to achieve the government's 2050 net-zero targets.

The paper also considers the future of incineration, with Eunomia advising that incineration will be incompatible with the government’s 2050 net zero targets unless widespread implementation of carbon capture storage is achieved.

Earlier this year, Veolia announced trials of the latest carbon capture technology in UK Energy-from-Waste (EfW) facilities, although this latest report raises concerns that this technology is not yet commercially viable and will considerably increase the cost of waste management.

The report outlined the fact that when more waste is sent to incineration facilities, more air pollution is produced. It then concluded by recommending the need for greater emphasis on recycling, reuse and waste prevention to reduce the amount of waste sent for incineration.

Ann Ballinger, Principal Consultant at Eunomia, commented: “As recycling improves, the carbon intensity of incinerators is set to increase over time as the proportion of plastics in the residual waste feedstock increases.

“To achieve the UK’s goal of becoming a net-zero carbon emitter by 2050, all sectors of the economy must take action to reduce their carbon emissions.

“For waste incineration, this means focusing on plastics recycling to remove fossil carbon from the feedstock heading to incineration facilities, if such facilities are to achieve a net-zero waste management system.”