Swindon proposes sending all waste plastics to incineration

Plastics in Swindon could be redirected away from kerbside recycling schemes and into incineration, the council has suggested.

In December, Swindon Borough Council will vote on whether to end kerbside plastic collections, citing the high cost of recycling as well as concerns about where the material ultimately ends up. Councillor Maureen Penny, cabinet member for highways and the environment, said: “At present there is no market in the UK for the low-grade plastics that we collect at the kerbside and, while we know our plastics are dealt with properly up to a point, there is always a risk it may ultimately not be recycled or disposed of in the right manner further down the chain.”

A person putting a plastic pot into a recycling bin

The council has created a dedicated website, ‘Sustainable Swindon’, to set out the current state of affairs for waste and recycling services in the borough, where the recycling rate has fallen by 10 per cent since 2011/12. Government funding cuts have affected the amount of money Swindon is able to spend on waste and recycling – the council will have to save £30 million by 2020 to make sure its budget is balanced.

Cuts driven by government austerity measures are piling on the pressure for all local authorities across England; between 2015 and 2020, the Revenue Support Grant to English councils will have been cut by 75 per cent. As Carole Taylor, Chair of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC), stated in April: “The achievement of local authorities in the past ten years to raise recycling rates to current levels have come at great expense to them. Millions of pounds of public money are used each year to build and run these services, but after years of austerity the current funding model is no longer fit for purpose.”

Read more: How to fund local authority waste and recycling services in the next decade

Swindon Borough Council has also pointed to a recent National Audit Office report that implied some waste plastic exported abroad for recycling may in fact end up in landfill. In the UK’s current producer responsibility system, companies are required to prove that the packaging they produce is being recycled. They do so by purchasing Packaging Recovery Notes (PRNs) for waste sent for recycling in the UK, and Packaging Export Recovery Notes (PERNs) for waste sent abroad. However, PERNs are issued when the waste has been exported and do not provide proof of how the waste is treated when it reaches its destination.

In addition, since China’s ban on the import of 24 grades of solid waste was implemented in January, a growing number of other countries – such as Thailand – are beginning to introduce restrictions or bans of their own, meaning the export of UK waste to these markets is becoming increasingly less viable. A recent survey by the Local Government Association (LGA) revealed that around 20 per cent of councils feel the Chinese ban is having a significant impact on their recycling capabilities. Meanwhile, 14 councils said their recycling costs had risen by an average of £500,000 a year.

However, Simon Ellin, Chief Executive of the Recycling Association, said part of the reason Swindon is struggling with recycling is because it is not collecting it effectively: "We don't have enough capacity in the UK and we do have to export a lot of our materials but if you collect it properly – and Swindon haven't – than you have unlimited markets.

"If you don't do it properly and you jumble it all together than you're not going to find a market. Swindon haven't done it properly." He added that the proposals from Swindon were “extraordinary” and “absolutely the wrong way to go”.

Burning recyclable waste – a short-term solution?

Smoke coming from a factory chimneySwindon is proposing that residents put all their plastic into residual bins – the waste from which is then converted into refuse-derived fuel (RDF) at Swindon’s solid recovered fuel plant in Cheney Manor. On the Sustainable Swindon website, the council states: ‘The main benefit of returning plastics to the [residual waste] is that we will know exactly where our plastic goes and what happens to it, so there is no risk of it ending up in overseas landfill or worse’.

The council explains that it does not ‘consider this a long-term solution and when plastic recycling becomes more environmentally-friendly and cost effective, [it] will consider reintroducing a plastic collection service’.

Sending waste to incineration may be easier, and cheaper, than recycling in the current climate, but energy-from-waste (EfW) has its own problems – not least the CO2 emissions produced by UK EfW facilities, which campaigners say reached 11 million tonnes in 2017. Five million tonnes of this, according to UKWIN (the UK Without Incineration Network), came from the burning of fossil-based materials such as plastic. While incineration is preferable to landfill, recycling tops both, saving more in CO2 emissions and creating a more circular approach to waste, where material goes back into the economy to be used again.

Moreover, it has been argued that the more councils that choose to focus on incineration over recycling, the less investment will go into addressing the problems in the UK’s recycling system that Swindon has identified. In February, Professor Ian Boyd, Chief Scientific Advisor for Defra, emphasised the importance of moving away from EfW, saying: “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.”

He added that further investment in incineration could encourage the production of residual waste, ultimately reinforcing the burning of waste and de-incentivising recycling.

Other proposed measures to make waste and recycling services more cost effective in Swindon include non-collection of black residual waste bins that contain excess recycling, and charging residents for additional recycling boxes in order ‘to help cover some of the cost to the taxpayer, allowing budget to be better spent elsewhere’ (currently the council supplies two extra boxes to households free of charge).

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