Resource Use

UK incinerators released 11m tonnes of CO2 in 2017, says UKWIN

Around five million tonnes of CO2 was emitted from the burning of fossil-based materials such plastics in the UK’s waste incinerators in 2017, according to a new report by the UK Without Incineration Network (UKWIN) – though the findings have been contested by the energy-from-waste (EfW) sector.

The new report, entitled ‘Evaluation of the climate change impacts of waste incineration in the United Kingdom’ and published on Monday (22 October), states that the UK’s 42 incinerators released a combined total of nearly 11 million tonnes of CO2 last year, including the five million tonnes of fossil-based CO2, which is estimated to have resulted in an ‘unpaid cost to society’ of around £325 million in non-traded carbon price.

The burning of plastics in these incinerators could contribute to £25 billion of harm to the UK in terms of CO2 emissions, according to the report, with emissions projected to total around 205 million tonnes of fossil CO2. The latest waste composition analyses show that around half of waste in the residual waste stream sent to EfW facilities is recyclable, thus seeing items that could be remanufactured being burned.UK incinerators released 11m tonnes of CO2 in 2017, says UKWIN

It is said that each tonne of plastic incinerated results in the release of around 1.43 tonnes of CO2. According to the report, a typical waste incinerator built in 2020 would release 2.8 million tonnes of fossil CO2 over its 30-year lifetime.

Even when electricity generation is taken into account, the report states that incinerators are responsible for releasing around 1.6 million tonnes more CO2 than sending the same waste to landfill. The report claims that when waste is landfilled, a large proportion of the carbon in waste is stored underground, whereas CO2 is released immediately through waste incineration.

In terms of energy generation, the report finds that the carbon intensity of energy produced through waste incineration is more than 23 times greater than that for low-carbon sources such as wind or solar power.

Commenting on the release of the report, Josh Dowen, UKWIN’s Associate Coordinator, said: "The study shows waste is a rubbish feedstock for generating energy. Burning large quantities of plastics gives rise to a small amount of electricity that comes with a high climate cost. To add insult to injury, those profiting from waste incineration are not paying for the huge cost to society of emitting all these greenhouse gases, and so a UK-wide waste incineration tax is long overdue.”

Dowen continued: "The climate change impacts of incineration are worse than landfill. Most of what is incinerated could and should be recycled or composted. It is time to stop thinking of waste as potential incinerator feedstock and time to recognise the urgent need to reduce, reuse and recycle".

UKWIN has been at the forefront of efforts to get the UK to reduce the amount of waste it sends for incineration and energy recovery, launching its ‘Bin the Burners’ campaign last November. The group also released a report in July of this year claiming that waste incineration was contributing to dangerous levels of particulate pollution in the UK, accusing waste incinerators of not accurately reporting their emissions of particulate matter and the government of not adequately regulating them.

‘Deeply flawed’

The publication of UKWIN’s report has drawn a rebuttal from the EfW sector, with Nicholas Pollard, Group CEO of Cory Riverside Energy, which runs the Belvedere EfW plant in East London, calling the findings “deeply flawed”.

In a response document, Cory argues that to compare EfW with wind, solar and conventional fossil fuels ‘overlooks the fundamental principle’ of how to deal with the UK’s residual waste, which is not dealt with by these forms of energy production – EfW plants do not have energy production as a sole purpose, performing the dual role of energy generation and waste disposal.

Cory’s document also takes issue with UKWIN’s focus on CO2 emissions and its assertion that EfW is more harmful than landfill in this way. The company cites studies carried out by the Green Investment Bank in 2014, as well as a Carbon Trust peer-reviewed report produced by Cory, stating that for each tonne of waste diverted from landfill to a high-efficiency EfW facility, around 200 kilogrammes of CO2 equivalent is saved.

UKWIN’s report, according to Cory, overestimates the landfill gas capture rate and ‘ignores’ other undesirable aspects of landfill such as methane emissions, which are stated to be more harmful over a shorter time period than CO2 emissions.

With regard to the issue of plastic waste being burned in incinerators, Cory states that it ‘does not want to process plastic’ in its Belvedere facility and supports producer responsibility to pull plastic out of the residual waste stream.

Pollard described UKWIN’s report as “both frustrating and highly concerning,” adding that it “risks diverting the attention of policy-makers away from the clear and present need to provide a means of processing the UK’s residual waste.

“The issue is not whether or not burning refuse to generate electricity is more carbon intensive than solar or wind power (it clearly is) but whether creating energy from waste is better than landfill operations, with their associated issues of leachate, unconstrained corrosive gas emissions to atmosphere, water course pollution and the like – none of which are mentioned in UKWIN’s report.

“We completely agree that waste must be minimised and recycled as much as possible. After that it must be disposed of as cleanly, usefully and efficiently as possible. For UKWIN to imply that landfill is carbon negative and therefore a preferable solution to EfW is incredibly irresponsible and in direct contradiction to the government’s own legally-established waste hierarchy.

“Handling the UK’s residual, non-recyclable waste in an environmentally-responsible manner cannot be taken lightly and requires a productive, unbiased conversation based on objective fact. Unfortunately, UKWIN’s report does not support this in any way.”

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