16 November 2020 by Joshua Doherty

Extinction Rebellion urges PM to ‘decarbonise’ waste sector

Extinction Rebellion has sent an open letter to the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, urging him to decarbonise the waste sector and halt the expansion of energy from waste (EfWplants in the UK 

In the letter and a detailed annex, the environmental movement listed a number of ways the sector could be reformed to boost recycling, including replacing long-term waste management contracts with an annual auction system and increasing investment in reuse. Further measures are detailed below.

Extinction Rebellion said any further expansion in the capacity of EfW would hinder the growth of recycling.

EfW capacity

The movement claims EfW capacity in the UK is poised to expand by 20 million tonnes by 2030, more than doubling current capacity and locking the country into an additional 10 million tonnes of fossil-derived CO2 emissions per year, primarily from burning plastics”. 

Artist’s impression of the proposed new EfW plant at Edmonton, London; the project has attracted criticism from Extinction Rebellion

The letter — co-signed by a number of MPs, pressure groups and professors  says this expansion “impairs the transition to a circular economy and hinders green job growth”.  

It calls for “concerted government action to decarbonise the waste sector”, and says the UK is uniquely positioned to “jump-start a world-leading transformation of the waste and resource sector as part of its post-Covid recovery”.  

Legal instruments 

The letter lists a number of “legal instruments” which the government can implement which “propel the country swiftly up the waste hierarchy” .

This includes:  

  • A waste and resource sector law that requires net zero carbon by 2035, inclusive of EfW emissions 
  • A recycling target of 70% by 2030 under the Environment Bill 
  • A law on waste market reform to attract investment in recycling infrastructure and to level the playing field, with provisions for a market regulator and annual auctions for the processing of residual waste and recyclates  

Other recommendations include a circular economy capital investment programme and “an update to the 2014 National Planning Policy for Waste to require waste planning authorities to demonstrate that no readily recyclable dry or organic materials are sent to landfill or EfW”. 

Extinction Rebellion has been involved in a number of protests, including this one at the Javelin Park EfW in 2019

The letter states that even a “moderate, entirely workable shift” will allow the UK to slash UK CO2 emissions by 15%, create more than 200,000 new jobs and inject £35 billion into the economy by 2030 via recycling, repair, reuse, rental, and remanufacturing 

WRAP

The detailed annex accompanying the letter aims to show how to transition to a circular economy without more EfW plants 

This explains that a “continued reliance on EfW incineration impedes this transformation, as EfW incineration is incompatible with the three principles on which the circular economy is founded: designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems”.  

It adds that “more than half of the residual waste that is currently incinerated is actually recyclable or digestible”. It backs this up by quoting WRAP figures which suggest that in England, for instance, “an estimated 53% of the residual waste is readily recyclable, 27% is potentially recyclable, 12% is potentially substitutable for recyclable materials, and only 8% is difficult to recycle or substitute”.  

Hierarchy 

The annex added that a “modest step up the waste hierarchy” would add £35 billion to the wider UK economy.  

This can be done, it says, by making “moderate improvements in recycling, repairing, renting out, and remanufacturing materials”, which it added would generate far greater economic returns” and direct benefits in the waste and resource sector, and indirect ones in other sectors

The letter stated that reuse shops can help boost recycling and the wider economy

This would also help increase recycling rates from 45% to 65%, which would add £5.3 billion to the economy, the protest group claimed.  

It added that it believes that areas with the lowest rates of incineration tend to have the highest rates of recycling and vice versa. It pointed to recycling figures from 2018/19, which show that “the UK’s South West had the lowest rate of incineration (28.4%) and the highest rate of recycling (49.8%), whereas London had the highest rate of incineration (59.3%) and the lowest rate of recycling (30.2%)”.  

The annex concludes by saying the government can “modernise and revitalise the market” by taking steps to:  

  • Establish a waste and resource market regulator whose principal duty is to protect the interests of consumers, while also supporting decarbonisation 
  • Place the costs of waste generation and rewards of source separation on residents 
  • Replace long-term waste management contracts with an annual auction system 
  • Apply minimum and maximum gate fees per tonne to “equalise risks and stabilise the market” 

It also says the government should “level the playing field by holding EfW incineration to the same standards as all other energy sources”. 

A graphic detailing the benefits the group thinks will happen if its proposed reforms are introduced

‘Inconsistent’  

Commenting on the letter to the Prime Minister, environmental economist and co-author of the letter, Rembrandt Koppelaar, said: “The UK will not be able todeliver on its net-zero commitments unless the government intervenes in the waste sector. Without a change in government policy, we can expect large-scale expansion of EfW incineration to lock us into an additional 10 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year by 2030.”

“The UK will not be able to deliver on its net-zero commitments unless the government intervenes in the waste sector”

Rembrant Koppelaar, environmental economist

Leeds University researcher Dr Anne Velenturf, speaking on behalf of the Resource Recovery from Waste programme, addedBuilding EfW plants now, when we need to decarbonise, is inconsistent with the Paris Agreement and the UKs legally binding net-zero commitments. Extracting resources and manufacturing products costs a lot of energy and we should not let such invested energy go to waste in incineration plants. Ministers must consider whether planned construction of incinerators is compliant with climate obligations, otherwise the government effectively inhibits the decarbonisation of the UK economy. 

Reports 

This is the third document that has put pressure on the EfW sector in recent months. The first was a Zero Waste Scotland report published in early October, that stated how small changes in municipal waste composition could push energy from waste above landfill in generating climate change emissions (see letsrecycle.com story).

The second study, published by the Greater London Authority (GLA), outlined how fifteen deaths of London residents per year might be attributable to emissions of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter from the capital’s five (EfW) facilities (see letsrecycle.com story).

Both reports were met with criticism from parts of the waste management sector that the benefits of EfW were not outlined and there was also disagreement over the accuracy of some calculations and assumptions.  

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