How a third of our recycling is sent straight to the incinerator: Councils are ‘highly incentivised’

Millions of tons of rubbish that is painstakingly sorted and put out for recycling by British households is being sent straight to the incinerators instead.

More than a third of household recycling is burned rather than reused – a finding that will infuriate residents obliged to navigate complicated sorting rules.

In Southend-on-Sea in Essex, 45 per cent of the recycling is sent to an incinerator, while Warwickshire burns 38 per cent and West Lothian 27 per cent.

About 11 per cent of all rubbish put out for recycling ultimately ends up being burned (Pictured Belvedere energy-from-waste incinerator under construction)

About 11 per cent of all rubbish put out for recycling ultimately ends up being burned (Pictured Belvedere energy-from-waste incinerator under construction)

About 11 per cent of all rubbish put out for recycling ultimately ends up being burned (Pictured Belvedere energy-from-waste incinerator under construction)

In Southend-on-Sea in Essex, 45 per cent of the recycling is sent to an incinerator, while Warwickshire burns 38 per cent and West Lothian 27 per cent

In Southend-on-Sea in Essex, 45 per cent of the recycling is sent to an incinerator, while Warwickshire burns 38 per cent and West Lothian 27 per cent

In Southend-on-Sea in Essex, 45 per cent of the recycling is sent to an incinerator, while Warwickshire burns 38 per cent and West Lothian 27 per cent

Professor Sir Ian Boyd, former chief scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, told Channel 4’s Dispatches programme that councils were ‘highly incentivised’ to burn waste because of huge investments in power plants fuelled by household rubbish.

‘We end up a lot of the time creating a market for it, and therefore trying to generate more waste in order to generate the input for the power plants that we’ve made such large investments in,’ Prof Boyd said.

‘The very last thing we should be doing when we throw something away is put it in an incinerator.’

He urged measures to ‘disincentivise’ burning, including an incineration tax.

The programme claims that 11.6 million tons of rubbish were incinerated in 2019 compared with 10.9 million tons recycled.

Britain has 48 waste-fuelled power plants and they emit more carbon dioxide than coal – 12.6 million tons of CO2 a year, compared with 11.7 million tons from burning coal. This figure is set to rise further once an additional 18 rubbish plants are built.

About 11 per cent of all rubbish put out for recycling ultimately ends up being burned.

The revelations are embarrassing for the UK, which is hosting this year’s UN Climate Change Conference and has committed to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 per cent by 2030. Campaigners say 60 per cent of material sent to incinerators could be recycled. London has the highest rate of incineration at 61 per cent – and the lowest rate of recycling – while the South West has the second-lowest rate of incineration at 34 per cent and the highest rate of recycling at 49.3 per cent.

Environmental engineer Georgia Elliott-Smith said: ‘Waste incinerators don’t pay any tax on the fuel that they receive, which is the waste, and they pay no tax on the emissions that they create, so they have this double economic benefit which makes it really nice and cheap and profitable.’

The Government told Dispatches it plans to introduce taxes aimed at cutting the amount of unrecyclable plastic ending up as waste. ‘We are very clear that incineration should be a last resort behind recycling and reuse,’ it said. ‘But using waste to generate energy is preferable to dumping rubbish in landfill for future generations to deal with.’

lDispatches: The Dirty Truth About Your Rubbish, is on Channel 4 at 8pm tomorrow. 

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