Net-zero targets will be missed if the UK continues to burn plastics, new report states

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

The study, commissioned by environmental lawyers ClientEarth, 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 document was featured on a Channel 4 Dispatches programme called ‘The Truth About Your Rubbish’ (8 March), presented by our very own Lucy Siegle (founder and chair of the Real Circularity Coalition). In the programme, Siegle revealed which areas of the country incinerate the most, and questioned whether the massive rise in the practice is holding back our recycling rates.

According to Eunomia, the more waste is sent to incineration facilities, the more air pollution is produced. This underlines the need for greater emphasis on recycling, reuse and waste prevention to reduce the amount of waste sent for incineration.

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% in 2035, in the residual waste stream.

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

Ann Ballinger, Principal Consultant at Eunomia, said: “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 neat-zero waste management system.”

ClientEarth lawyer Tatiana Luján added: “As the world drowns in plastics and countries like China close their doors to foreign waste, incineration will increasingly be pushed as an ‘easy’ alternative. But waste does not just disappear in a puff of smoke.

“The more waste and plastics are sent to be burnt, the more our environment and health will suffer in parallel.”

The news comes of the report comes as Defra released new recycling figures that showed that England’s household waste recycling rate for the 2019/20 financial year increased by 0.4% to 45.5% – a figure that has remained static for many years.

Separately, waste management firm Biffa announced that it had recently signed a deal with packaging company Alpla to ensure that more recycled plastic from the UK is used in the manufacturing of UK homecare products.