Waste Watch: Carbon Emissions to Increase in the UK from Waste Disposal; Yet Another Reason We Need To Cease Making So Much Plastic

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

An article in Monday’s Guardian caught my eye, Increase in burning of plastic ‘driving up emissions from waste disposal’:

By 2030 the government’s push to increase incineration of waste will increase CO2 emissions by 10m tonnes a year, mostly from the burning of plastics, the groups said. They argue that the growth in energy-from-waste incineration means the UK will not be able to meet its commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The coalition, which includes Extinction Rebellion’s zero waste group, Friends of the Earth, the UK Without Incineration Network (UKWIN), Greenpeace and the MP John Cruddas, says the expansion of waste incineration is forcing up carbon emissions.

In an open letter to the prime minister they are calling for a law requiring the waste sector to decarbonise by 2035, similar to legislation passed in the Scandinavian countries and Finland.

The link between increased use of plastics and increased emissions is I think not as well understood as is the basic waste disposal problem for plastics. It’s not emphasized as much as it should be. Nor, for that matter,  is increased recycling a solution for to counteract the increase in emissions.

Note that Yves highlighted the inadequacy of NJ’s recently passed ban on plastic (and paper) packaging in a recent post, and yet one more reason that NY’s finally enacted plastic bag ban falls so short of what’s necessary. Both these vitue-signalling bans fall far short of necessary actions.

Recycling will undoubtedly drop further worldwide as a result of the pandemic, as governments are unlikely to reinstate recycling services and initiatives suspended during the COVID-19 crisis. That means incineration will correspondingly increase to manage the need for ongoing waste disposal, at least for the short-term, thus exacerbating the global emissions problem,

Incineration was already increasing prior to the pandemic. Over to the Guardian again:

Rembrandt Koppelaar, an environmental economist and co-author of the open letter, said: “The UK will not be able to deliver 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 energy-from-waste incineration to lock us into an additional 10m tonnes of CO2 emissions per year by 2030, primarily from the burning of plastics.”

The amount of waste incinerated in the UK increased from 4.9m tonnes in 2014 to 10.8m tonnes in 2017-18 and is set to continue rising. Meanwhile, recycling rates have reached a plateau and the UK is expected to miss its 50% recycling target by the end of this year.

Evidence presented to MPs last year suggested that areas that had increased levels of incineration of waste had correspondingly lower levels of recycling.

There are 50 incinerators planned or in development in the near future.

Government figures show that in 2018-19 nearly half (43.8%) of waste collected by local authorities from households in England was burnt, or 11.2m tonnes. This increased from just over 12% a decade earlier, and meant incineration overtook recycling and composting as the largest single municipal waste management method.

Incineration rates in England varied from below 30% in the south-east to almost 60% in London. In Wales, rates of incineration were 25.1%.

This information  is particularly troubling, as the UK has a far more progressive waste disposal system than much of the United States (although the UK’s present policy falls short of that of many other progressive EU states, especially those in Scandinavia.) And that’s not even to mention the abysmal U.S. waste disposal system, compared to the WU’s circular economy policy.

Yetfor the UK, incineration, rather even than the sub-optimal policy of recycling, is the policy of the future. According to the Guardian

The government appears determined to press ahead with increases to waste incineration. In the December 2018 resources and waste strategy, published under Theresa May’s premiership, the government said: “Incineration currently plays a significant role in waste management in the UK, and the government expects this to continue.

Where is the US?

I seriously doubt whether any incoming Biden administration is devoting much attention to this problem, given Biden’s stance on other pro-fossil fuels policies such as fracking. Promoting plastics promises am increase in jawbs. The buck stops there. Yet those jaws won’t mean much if we continue down the pathway of significant climate change,  And an increase in plastics production would only worsen the waste disposal problem.

Alternatively, if it so happens that Trump somehow manages to be certified as the next incoming President, he will only  continue his current, pro-fossil fuel policies. Either way, the American — and world – public loses.

The letter’s signotaies have proposed some interim steps. These include, according the Guardian:

  • a waste and resource sector law that requires net zero carbon by 2035, inclusive of energy-from-waste incineration emissions, in line with targets set by the governments of Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden;
  • a recycling target of 70% by 2030 under the environment bill, as per the Committee on Climate Change recommendation for meeting the UK carbon budgets and a net zero carbon economy by 2050;
  • a circular economy capital investment programme to mobilise infrastructure investment that will support reuse, repair, remanufacturing, and recycling of scrap steel, glass, paper and card, plastics and biowaste.

Bottom Line

Reports and letters such as these are reasons why we must move immediately to a post-plastics future. Will we?

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    As far back as the 1990’s, even the incineration industry admitted that energy from waste was worse from a CO2 emission standpoint than having a reasonable percentage of recycling. I haven’t seen more up to date figures, but I strongly suspect that overall O2 emissions from the waste stream was increasing over time as the recycling industry shifted from high to low quality outputs, aided by exports to China which was willing to accept vast amounts of poorly sorted waste.

    A further complication is that increasing the plastics element within incinerated waste greatly increases the calorific content of mixed waste, and many incinerators weren’t designed for this – quite simply, they will burn too hot. This means either rejecting plastic (and it has nowhere to go except landfill), or mixing in further low calorie commercial or agriculture waste in order to get the optimal mix. As they are rarely required to report this, its possible that increasing plastics waste in the disposal stream will actually lead to additional materials being directed from recycling to incineration.

    Whichever way you look at it, it’s an appalling mess. Back in the 1990’s many countries were actually on more or less the right course to develop reasonably sustainable waste policies. But a mixture of neoliberalism (the privatisation and deregulation of waste collection and disposal) and the opening up of China for cheap low quality material set everything back decades.

    I’m no fan of techno fixes, but when it comes to the waste stream I really see no other alternative than some potential technologies for turning plastic and other organic wastes into relatively high quality products such as graphene. The chance to really reduce waste or have ‘real’ recycling was lost back 20 years ago, and there is simply too much infrastructure in place that can’t be reversed without a vast expenditure.

  2. John

    The world got along without any great. quantity of plastic until the 1960s. No one missed what was not there. While convenient, it never goes away. If you want to know the downside of immortality, a glance at the history of plastic is a good starting point.

    I would be quite happy if its production was rapidly phased out and its use quickly becoming taboo.

  3. jef

    It is not plastic that is the problem, it is consumption. Only about 18% of landfill is plastic. You could swap out all plastic for some sort of alternative, whatever that might be, and we would still throw out 90% of what we produce and more than half of that gets thrown away within 2 or 3 days of purchase.

    So what can we do? LESS!

    Que the ignorance; “So the only solution is living in cave wearing scrapped firs”?

    No we can live amazing, fulfilling lives but most can not imagine it.

  4. Lex

    Twice a year I take a load of bedding to the dry cleaners. In the past the clean bedding had always come back to me folded over a large hanger and covered with a plastic bag. You know the ones, classic dry cleaning packaging.

    Last year the dry cleaning chain was purchased by a new owner and he likes returning bedding in those zippered plastic cubes. I was trying to get the plastic out of our lives and protested. First, that they had taken our king-sized bedding, folded it up small and tightly packed it into a plastic cube, where it would stay until it was time to change out the bedding for the season. It would be clean but also heavily creased and wrinkled and the smell of whatever trapped in the fabric for six months. Couldn’t I just chose to have the duvet and duvet cover hung up where it could air out in our closet? No, she said, we have a new owner and he likes the cubes. So, second, that they weren’t going to give the customers a choice.

    I went looking for another dry cleaner, one where I had options. First question I asked was do you return bedding in zippered plastic cubes? No, she said, we never use plastic cubes. Everything is hung up… and she looked confused, like who does that? I handed her my bedding and pointed out the few small spots of blood from a cut on my husband’s hand, asking them to pay special attention to that area. The bedding came back hung up but the blood was still there although somewhat faded. The item was sent back to the plant with a new ticket. When it was returned the second time, the blood was still visible and they had all but eroded through the fabric trying to remove it before giving up.

    Well, people make mistakes and there aren’t a wide variety of dry cleaners in town. Two weeks ago I took in the summer bedding. No special instructions, it was just a little grubby from the dog and our weeks of ash falling from the wildfires. When I went to pick up those two items, they handed them to me packed in those damned plastic cubes. I got upset. I thought we’d come to an understanding.

    I’m sensing a future where plastic is going to pushed on us even harder, and part of their strategy is that when possible, to not give the customers a choice. Better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

  5. drumlin woodchuckles

    Aside from the CO2 from incinerating plastic, there will be many other truly toxic molecules . . . dioxins and other such. And since vinyl contains chlorine, and chlorine does not become carbon dioxide when it burns, there will be a whole bunch of chlorine-bearing combustion products coming out of the incinerator as well.

    Laws and rules against many plastics in many uses would help. In the meantime, personal use of less plastic would help a little bit. ” Less plastic” requires more effort, so people would have to be motivated by a murderous hatred against the Merchants of Plastic to sustain a personal ” use less plastic” discipline for years and years.

  6. Jason

    11 million tons of CO2 a year isn’t that much given that baseline is 350 million. Moreover if you obtain electricity from the incineration it can cut into carbon emissions from fossil fuel power generation, albeit inefficiently. It also solves the plastic-polluting-the-ocean problem. As a short-term measure it isn’t so bad.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      But incinerating plastics will also release dioxins, organochlorine gas compounds, cyanide from urethane and polyurethanes, etc.

      Do these gases turn this short-term measure into worse than so bad?

  7. Rod

    Nancy R said–Just say NO!
    Consumers–all of us–need to just say no. Just get your own ball rolling.
    Show me your Circular Economy Plan, and we can examine your Manufacturing Plan–no Promises

    Because this is a the ‘civilized’ opposition to doing anything about Plastic but manufacture MORE–


    It’s obvious that the two sponsors of this bill, Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) and Alan Lowenthal, Democratic congressman from California, do not understand the business of plastics or the challenges of recyclers getting their hands on recyclable materials. They can think of nothing better than to legislate against plastics. The reality is certainly more complex than refusing to permit new plastic production for up to three years under the economically misguided idea that if we don’t make more plastic the problem is solved. bold mine

    and speaking of the gippers–sound familiar??: (from the same article)

    But, after all, Udall and Lowenthal are from the government, and they’re here to help.

    IMO—every day JLS, give it to us every day, until we can sing the hymn by heart.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      This approach would require a billion people following it rigidly and militantly to be effective. That would require the carefully fostered emergence of a GreenLife BetterCulture in unrelenting opposition to the Mainstream DeathCulture. It would require a leaner tougher meaner no-prisoners no-compromise
      hippie-type movement to get it started. It would have to work on being co-optation-proof against the co-option efforts of the Mainstream DeathCulture. This movement would have to make room in its heart for unrelenting and unforgiving hatred for the supporters of Mainstream DeathCulture and the Mainstream DeathCulture they support and embody.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        I have thought of a couple of possibly better phrases in case anyone wants to use them.

        The Fossil Mainstream DeathCulture versus the Bio-GreenLife BetterCulture.

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