Waste Incineration and Recycling Rates

Craig Williams Excerpts
Tuesday 12th January 2021

(1 month, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Jane Hunt Portrait Jane Hunt (Loughborough) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs McVey. Climate change is one of the biggest threats we face, and so it is right that the Government are taking significant action to combat it. As part of this, I welcome many aspects of their approach to waste and recycling, in particular the commitment to creating greater consistency in recycling collections. An example of where that would be useful is among students coming to any town in the country, who are used to one form of recycling and then discover there is a totally different one where their university is, and everybody has to be re-educated every year.

We have one very good example of an excellent charity in Loughborough that deals with recycling and reuse, called SOFA. It is absolutely superb at keeping a lot of furniture and household goods out of the recycling chain, and selling it on for reuse. However, one aspect of the Government’s approach to waste and recycling needs to be revised, and I certainly support the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn). I have made clear in previous debates and correspondence with Ministers my concern regarding the building of new incinerators because of their impact on the environment and the health of local communities around them. I have pressed for more research to be undertaken to better understand their impact on those with higher activity respiratory levels.

That is particularly relevant to my constituency, where an incinerator is being built in close proximity to elite athlete training grounds. As the Minister set out in her response to my recent written question, since 3 December 2019, all incinerator permits have contained lower limits of total particulate matter of 5 mg per cubic metre, and permits issued before that date will be changed to require compliance with the lower limit by 3 December 2023.

Although that is welcome—and it is very welcome—I ask that incinerators that have been issued permits but are currently under construction should also have to comply with the lower limit from the outset. I have also been contacted by a local group who are calling for specific PM 2.5 limits to be introduced, rather than just limits for total particulate matter. Further, following the Climate Change Committee’s recommendation that all 2020 incinerators should have carbon capture and storage, the local group would also like it to be a requirement at the point of construction in any planning conditions, including those currently under construction. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on those points.

We are also actively encouraging individuals and companies to recycle more and produce less waste. Over time, we will become less reliant on incinerators, and there will not be enough waste to keep existing incinerators open. In my constituency, there is already not enough commercial and industrial residual waste locally to keep the new incinerator going, so waste will inevitably be brought in from afar by road, leading to increased vehicle emissions around the M1 and the A512 and creating further pollution in our local area from waste produced elsewhere.

Finally, I would argue that the incinerators could impact on the Government’s commitment to net zero emissions by 2050 by not encouraging recycling and reuse, as my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington mentioned earlier. If we are to achieve this ambitious target, we must work to reduce emissions from all sources.

Craig Williams Portrait Craig Williams (Montgomeryshire) (Con)
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It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for securing this important debate, and for the way he opened it. I know that the Minister, who has—as we all have—spoken on this subject over the months and years, will agree about the circular economy and with much of what we have said to date, and I look forward to her response.

Research done by WRAP Cymru in Wales found that 75% of the ‘ingredients’ for incinerators in Wales could have been recycled. We are missing a trick as we look at the development of incinerators, and I will touch on that in respect of my constituency of Montgomeryshire. Equally, turning to my Celtic cousins in the north, the Zero Waste Scotland review found that the only energy source with a comparable carbon intensity to energy from waste was coal. We know full well what has happened to coal power stations in this country. If incinerators follow them, I hope the Minister will promptly look at the waste-to-energy plans going forward.

In my constituency, there is a development for an incinerator and I pay tribute to Councillor Amanda Jenner, who is part of our Conservative team. I note the comments about the Liberal Democrat administrations and councillors across the country, and I share some of the fears outlined today about some of their actions.

Councillor Jenner is leading a campaign to ensure that there is proper consideration of any major planning applications during this pandemic. I note the concern of the community and the councillors right now that a planning application for such a substantial incinerator is being put forward. It is a difficult time to organise community meetings and get the proper planning representations in.

My chief concerns around incineration are that, while there is a role for it, there is new technology emerging that will deal with things that are non-recyclable at the moment. The landfill of the past was awful, and I speak on behalf of a massive rural constituency when I say that landfill is not something we enjoy. However, now we have taken a lot of organic matter out of landfill, there is a role for looking at the non-recyclables and a way to store them either in warehouses or in some new landfill of the future where that resource could be mined when the technology is available to recycle it. I welcome the Minister’s thoughts on looking at the current non-recyclables and a way of storing them for the short period while we invest in technologies to increase our recycling.

I pay tribute—to lend a non-political angle—to much of the Welsh Government’s work on the recycling targets. As a Welsh Member of Parliament, of course we work across the parties on this. The recycling targets are ambitious and are being met. Our local authority of Powys in Montgomeryshire is doing a terrific job, both for education and the facilitation of recyclables. It is a great shame when the community sees a planning application for a large incinerator in a very rural area that will require huge HGV movements from across the border in England and from a large area of Wales. Montgomeryshire is 840 square miles with 50,000 people. That does not lend itself to a huge industrial incinerator with waste transported on our struggling trunk roads.

The main thrust of my contribution to this excellent debate and what I am looking to the Front Bench for is to see what the Minister’s priorities are, looking forward, for both waste-to-energy and incineration more broadly with the investment in anaerobic digesters. I do push back a bit, because for my constituents in Montgomeryshire, anaerobic digesters are being brought forward by private investors—the agricultural community, especially poultry farmers. Anaerobic digesters are receiving a lot of private funding. The Government do not necessarily need to put a lot of money that way, but they do need to look at the regulatory framework and non-fiscal support. I know the Treasury will welcome anything right now that does not require a cheque book.

Anaerobic digesters are taking a lot of the organic waste out, so then we can look at the non-recyclables. That is not necessarily needing to burn them, but looking in the future to see how we can store and mine them as a resource. I know there is a time limit, so I will wind up but I reinforce my point that while incineration has had a role to date, I look forward to a way that we can wind it out of our circular economy over the decades.

Robbie Moore Portrait Robbie Moore (Keighley) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for securing this important debate. I also refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and declare that my family runs a plastic waste recycling business.

I want to use my limited time today to talk specifically about waste incineration, touching on my concerns about how decisions regarding new incinerator applications and environmental permitting for waste incinerators are made, and the future direction of waste incineration itself.

I am sure we are all aware of the waste hierarchy. It gives top priority to preventing waste in the first place. When waste is created, it gives priority to preparing it for reuse, then for recycling, then recovery, and last of all disposal—landfill and waste incineration. I believe all Government policy should be based on this hierarchy.

There is a strong case to argue that if sufficient weight is given to utilising waste incineration as an option for dealing with waste, then a fiscal disincentive, an incineration tax, should be considered as an option, as we have with the landfill tax—I would also favour increasing landfill tax—because otherwise that can become a barrier to developing a greener circular economy, by preventing resources from being reused and depressing recycling rates, and, as a method, incineration gives rise to air pollution concerns.

I want to touch on air pollution. It is quite clear that the process of incineration from waste creates a number of emissions, and there is much concern regarding waste incineration and air quality and human health. This concern relates predominantly to particulate matter, which is predominantly composed of materials such as sulphate, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride and black carbon. The Minister will be aware that, back in 2018 and 2019, Public Health England funded a study to examine emissions of particulate matter from incinerators and their impact on human health. The study found that emissions from particulate matter from waste incinerators are low, and make only a small contribution to ambient background levels. However, while levels may be low, this study acknowledged that there is a contribution nevertheless. There will be many factors that influence the impact on air quality and human health that the incinerator can have, such as the stack height of an incinerator, whether the incinerator is located in the bottom of a valley, the resultant impact of temperature or cloud inversions, and its proximity to homes, schools and playing fields.

Rather frustratingly, and despite huge amounts of local opposition—including from an excellent and well-run campaign group in my constituency, the Aire Valley Against Incineration, along with many residents, myself, and my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), from my neighbouring constituency—the green light has just been issued for the Aire Valley incinerator to operate. This incinerator is to be built on the periphery of Keighley, in the bottom of a valley in close proximity to schools, playing fields and homes. The scheme was awarded planning consent and given the green light by our local authority, Bradford Council, back in 2016, and earlier this year was awarded an environmental permit by the Environment Agency. All this despite strong local opposition.

Residents are quite rightly concerned about air quality—not just from the incinerator itself, but from the increased traffic flows bringing waste to the site. In questioning the decision making for the environmental permit that has just been issued by the Environment Agency, unbelievably, I was told that the Environment Agency could consider only emissions from the incinerator itself, not the emissions from increased traffic flows, because that was a planning matter, which Bradford Council, in already giving the green light, had considered acceptable in the first place. This raises a much bigger issue: the process of how permits are awarded for incinerators. My concern is that a cohesive, full-picture review is not taken into account when looking at the impact on air quality from the whole incineration process itself, which includes the emissions from traffic flow.

For me, this debate is vital. As a Member who sat on the Environment Bill Committee, I am pretty excited about what the Government are doing going forward. However, I reaffirm my commitment that all Government policy should go back to that first waste hierarchy and look at adopting a review of whether an incineration tax is the right route to go down, as I believe it should be.

The message from Keighley is that we do not want this incinerator. It is unfortunate that it looks as if the green light has been given, but local voices should be heard much more loudly and clearly in any decision-making process for anything that is likely to have an impact on air quality or human health.