Waste Incineration and Recycling Rates

Daniel Zeichner Excerpts
Tuesday 12th January 2021

(1 month, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
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.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms McVey, and to speak for the Opposition this afternoon.

I should say at the outset that I am a mere stand-in for my departmental colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones), who is the shadow Minister for waste. Because of the travel restrictions, she has to be in Wales and, until we have the motion on Westminster Hall debates later today, there is a requirement for these debates to be held in person. I must say, it is quite extraordinary that we are all being put at risk, including the staff in this place, because—to use the jargon—it was not possible to “flex” the rules sufficiently. I hope it can be fed back how unhappy some of us are about being put in that situation.

More positively, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for calling the debate. I listened with great interest to his account of the difficulties around the Beddington incinerator, approved by the Lib Deb-run London Borough of Sutton and clearly causing a range of problems for him and his constituents.

However, the collective task of tackling waste, improving recycling rates and taking the steps needed to protect our environment and preserve our planet is one that we need to do together. I am afraid it is no secret that the Opposition side of the House have concerns about what we see as a lack of ambition on the Treasury Bench when it comes to these issues. The Minister will recognise this familiar refrain from our many hours spent on the Environment Bill; we tried to make constructive and effective suggestions for improvement but, as these things go, they were sadly voted down.

As we have heard, incinerators emit large quantities of CO2, with roughly 1 tonne released for each tonne of waste incinerated. About half of that is derived from fossil sources such as plastic, meaning that England’s incinerators rely on fossil fuels for feedstock, as most plastics are derived from crude oil or natural gas. I am told that incineration capacity in England is currently around 17.2 million tonnes—some 14.6 million of built capacity and 2.6 million under construction—and the waste industry is proposing a further 20 million tonnes of capacity for England.

As we have also heard, however, existing capacity already exceeds the quantity of genuinely residual combustible waste. Allowing even more incinerators would exacerbate that overcapacity, giving rise to avoidable pollution and expense while harming waste reduction and recycling efforts.

In short, we should now acknowledge that the time for incineration is over and that the age of incinerators should come to an end. Once, one might have said that incineration was an improvement on the previous practice of landfill, but I no longer feel that that is the case. I note that across England, incineration has increased in inverse proportion to the reduction in landfill in recent years.

I say to the Minister that an over-reliance on incineration as a means of tackling waste will, in the end, serve no one. That over-reliance will prevent us from moving up the waste hierarchy in dealing with waste generally and will stop us looking at waste as a resource that can be recycled and reused, its value unlocked rather than buried or contributing to toxic air.

I also know that a number of my hon. Friends around the country have raised concerns about incineration in their communities in recent months. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), who wanted to speak in this debate but could not be here today, has asked me to emphasise a point he has made about the urgent need for clarity from the Minister on waste movements around the UK, including between England and Wales. In previous debates, he has made clear his opposition to the incinerator planned by an English company for the east of his constituency, which is currently with the Welsh planning inspectors and which likely plans to burn commercial waste shipped across the border.

I will also mention my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), who has a particular interest in the impact of incineration on the health and wellbeing of her constituents in north London, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), who chairs the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, and who I remember expressing concerns in this very Chamber about the planning decisions that he feels do not consider the cumulative impact of multiple sites in close proximity. Similarly, my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) has an incineration facility at Hillthorn Park in her constituency. I know she is watching the debate this afternoon.

My hon. Friends’ passion crosses regional and national borders within the UK. As we grasp the challenge of reducing our reliance on incinerators, our response needs to be an all-nation response. Will the Minister outline what specific discussions she has had with Environment Ministers in the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive, and with the Cabinet Secretary in the Scottish Government on tackling the over-reliance on incineration?

Over the past two decades, the household waste recycling rate in England has increased significantly, from just 11.2% to almost 50%. I am pleased that for half of that time a Labour Government ambitiously pushed for a change of behaviour and real action on the green agenda. However, I must point out that England still falls short of the EU target of recycling a minimum of 50% of household waste by 2020. Our departure from the EU does not mean we should shift gear or slow down. We need to go further and faster.

As of 2018, Wales is the only nation in the UK to reach the target, and in 2017 it recorded a recycling rate of 64%. I pay tribute to the Welsh Labour Government, particularly the First Minister and the Environment Minister, Lesley Griffiths MS. I also endorse the excellent speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), who not only pointed out those successes in Wales, but made important comments about food waste.

The Minister knows that England is responsible for the overwhelming majority of waste in UK households. It is vital that England and therefore this Government show leadership and act. If we need further evidence of the need for swift action, we need look no further than DEFRA’s own resources and waste strategy monitoring report from August last year. It tells us:

“The large amount of avoidable residual waste and avoidable residual plastic waste generated by household sources each year suggests there remains substantial opportunity for increased recycling.”

The message from that assessment is that a substantial quantity of material appears to be going into the residual waste stream, where it could at least have been recycled or dealt with higher up the waste hierarchy. So there it is. We have to take this seriously now.

The issue is not just about waste here at home, but about the fact that English waste, for want of a better description, has an international impact, too. In a written parliamentary question, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West asked the Secretary of State

“what discussions he has had with his Sri Lankan counterpart on the 21 containers of waste returned to the UK from that country in September 2020.”

The answer she received from the Minister, who is here today, was revealing. She said:

“The Environment Agency…as the competent authority for waste shipments for England, is proactively engaging with the authorities in Sri Lanka on these containers and is leading the response on this matter. The 21 containers arrived back in England on Wednesday 28 October. The containers, which were shipped to Sri Lanka in 2017, were found by Sri Lankan authorities to contain illegal materials described as mattresses and carpets which had been exported for recycling. With the shipment now back on English soil, EA enforcement officers will seek to confirm the types of waste shipped, who exported it and the producer of the waste. Those responsible could face a custodial sentence of up to two years, an unlimited fine, and the recovery of money and assets gained through the course of their criminal activity.”

That answer is telling, because we cannot rely on incineration, nor should we think we can simply ship our worries and our waste overseas. The ship that left Britain in 2017 with our waste came back to bite us in September 2020. We simply need to resolve these issues.

This subject is topical. Did the Minister and the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington have the opportunity to read a piece in The Guardian over their porridge? If not, I want to let them know that the UK has been accused of failing to honour its promise to

“curb shipments of plastic waste to developing countries, after it emerged Britain’s new post-Brexit regulations are less stringent than those imposed by the EU.”

The article notes:

“From 1 January, shipments of unsorted plastic waste from the EU to non-OECD countries were banned. But Britain will continue to allow plastic waste to be exported to developing countries”,

despite a Conservative party manifesto commitment to banning the practice. That is important, because we are one of the biggest producers of plastic waste in the world, and we export about two thirds of it. The shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), has put it well:

“The government has made big promises to match environmental standards from Europe and to ban plastic waste exports. There can be no dither or delay. The British people expect to see these exports banned, more recycling of materials at home and faster action on the climate crisis. It is up to ministers to deliver on their promises and fast, but this does not look good.”

In conclusion, I urge the Minister to think about the social cost of the issues we are discussing, as well as the environmental costs. It is important to remember the role of local authorities here too. They are on the frontline of waste collection and recycling. I urge the Minister to make the strongest representations to Treasury Ministers to ensure that councils have the resources they need. The Minister will recall that until the end of last year we were covered by the EU waste directive, among other pieces of waste-related legislation. Can she update the House on what she is doing to ensure no lowering of the standards in that directive now that the transition has come to an end? Can she also confirm that the UK will maintain the EU definition of waste?

Labour is committed to increasing recycling rates and improving the processes around doing so. We recognise the importance of taking people with us and argue that if we do not have buy-in from the public, we are unlikely to achieve the sort of change and progress that our planet desperately needs. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington for calling this debate and optimistically encourage him to support our amendments to the Environment Bill when they are debated on Report, because that is how we will seize the opportunity to put incineration behind us and move forward to a new world of ambitious and effective recycling, one that recognises and unlocks the value in what was once seen as waste.

Esther McVey Portrait Esther McVey (in the Chair)
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Before I call the Minister, I remind her that Elliot will need a few minutes to wind up.