Resource Use

Chief Defra scientist warns more incineration could harm innovation

The Chief Scientific Advisor to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) warned against further investment in energy-from-waste (EfW) capacity in the UK while speaking at a hearing of Parliament’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee on Wednesday (31 January).

Professor Ian Boyd, who co-authored the recent report ‘From Waste to Resource Productivity’, which emphasised the importance of moving away from incineration and landfill and towards more sustainable resource use, told the committee: “If there is one way of extinguishing the value in materials fast, it’s to stick it in an incinerator and burn it.

“Now, it may give energy out at the end of the day, but actually some of those materials, even if they are plastics, with a little bit of ingenuity, can be given more positive value.”

Chief Defra scientist warns incineration investment may harm innovation

Prof Boyd went on to answer questions about the right financial incentives for EfW. He explained how investment in incinerators can actually harm future innovation, adding: “I think that incineration, and this is a personal view, I think incineration is not a good direction to go in. I think that if you are investing many tens of millions, hundreds of millions, in urban waste incineration plants – and those plants are going to have a 30- to 40-year lifespan – you have to have the waste streams to keep them supplied.

“Now, that is the market pull on waste, so it encourages the production of waste, it encourages the production of residual waste, it encourages people to think that we can throw what could be potentially valuable materials, if we were to think about them innovatively, into a furnace and burn them.”

Professor Boyd cited Sweden as an example of a country that has invested heavily in waste incineration, expressing concerns that this had only encouraged the production of residual waste.

He went on to put forward measures such as an incineration tax and a moratorium on new incinerators as worthy of consideration for promoting recycling, alongside investing in innovative recycling processes and ‘designing out’ waste as part of a holistic approach to resource management.

The comments echo those made by the European Commission at the start of 2017 on how incineration could harm the circular economy, a stance that led the European Parliament’s Environment (ENVI) Committee to vote to phase out subsidies for EfW.

Chief Defra scientist warns incineration investment may harm innovation
Professor Boyd warned the EFRA Committee over the potential impacts on recycling expanding EfW capacity could have.

Professor Boyd’s comments are significant for government policy because they may be used alongside the ‘From Waste to Resource Productivity’ report as evidence for the upcoming Resources and Waste Strategy, due to be released in the second half of 2018.

Commenting on Professor Boyd’s appearance before the EFRA Committee, Shlomo Dowen, National Coordinator of the United Kingdom Without Incineration Network (UKWIN), welcomed the scepticism about incineration, saying: "It is vital that the government's Resources and Waste Strategy reflects the scientific reality that incineration worsens air quality, exacerbates climate change, and has nothing to offer a world that is moving towards more prudent resource use. The mis-step that resulted in incineration overcapacity in the UK urgently needs to be corrected.

“The case for banning the construction of new incineration capacity has never been stronger, and we hope that policy-makers are paying attention to the scientific evidence that supports a rapid transition away from waste incineration and towards resource productivity”.

Incineration debate

The intervention by Professor Boyd is but the latest episode in the heated debate over the UK’s future EfW capacity that ignited in the middle of 2017. At the start of August last year, the environmental consultancy Eunomia Research & Consulting published its Residual Waste Infrastructure Review (RWIR) which showed that the UK will have an overcapacity in residual waste infrastructure by 2020/21.

The company’s analysis showed that the continued commitment to invest in incinerators as a form of residual waste infrastructure would hamper the amount of waste recycled. It forecasted that the UK’s maximum achievable recycling rate would fall from 68 per cent by 2030 to 63 per cent, if the projected capacity of incinerators committed to being built comes to fruition.

The review noted that, since 2009/10, continued investment meant that the UK’s residual waste treatment capacity had more than doubled from 6.3 to 13.5 million tonnes, with more facilities currently being planned, including a £135m facility in Keighley, West Yorkshire.

However, the findings of the report were roundly criticised by large waste management companies and the Environmental Services Association (ESA), with ESA Chief Executive Jacob Hayler warning that the government was at risk of ‘sleepwalking into a crisis’ if it ignored calls to expand EfW capacity, predicting that the UK could reach a capacity shortfall of five million tonnes by 2030 if this was not addressed. Furthermore, industry reports from Biffa and SUEZ issued a warning that a capacity shortfall would lead to a ‘disaster scenario’ if future investment wasn’t guaranteed.

The ESA attempted to weigh up the differing sides of the debate in a review of previous reports and an independent analysis of the UK waste market with Tolvik Consulting released in November 2017, and reiterated its assertion that the UK will end up with a capacity shortfall of around five to six million tonnes.

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