Waste Incineration and Recycling Rates

Elliot Colburn Excerpts
Tuesday 12th January 2021

(1 month, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall

Read Full debate Read Hansard Text
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn (Carshalton and Wallington) (Con)
- Hansard - -

I beg to move,

That this House has considered waste incineration and recycling rates.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey, and to see many familiar faces in today’s debate. This is the third time we have debated incineration in this Chamber since the election and it was a pleasure to attend the two previous debates. It is also great to see the Minister in her place. She has been on the receiving end of my many frustrations when it comes to this topic, both here and in the main Chamber, and in the many conversations that we have had offline. I am grateful to her for being here to respond yet again to a debate on this topic.

The Minister and, indeed, the House will know full well my frustrations with the incinerator in Beddington in my Carshalton and Wallington constituency. Next to the additional £500 million for my local hospital and to build a new local hospital, this is one of the topics that I speak about most in this House. I will not revisit many of the arguments that the Minister and many of my colleagues who are here today will have heard in past debates. However, I want to address some developments with my local incinerator that I have not yet had the chance to raise in the House, before going on to discuss the impact of incineration on recycling rates.

The Minister will know the concerns I have raised with her in the past about emissions breaches in incinerators; the need for independently run air quality monitoring stations near those sites, rather than leaving them to be self-reporting by the operator; the need to focus on the circular economy, reducing the amount of waste we produce in the first place; and the all-important knock-on effect of operating incinerators, such as traffic movements in the surrounding area.

Carshalton and Wallington residents were promised quite a lot when the Liberal Democrats approved the building of an incinerator in Beddington. They were promised the Beddington farmlands, which are now several years overdue. They were promised things such as new wildlife habitats to rebuild rare species, only for the water levels surrounding ground-nesting birds for protection to be allowed to drop and for predators to attack and destroy their nests last year. They were promised robust reporting on carbon, only for there to be, by my calculation, 184 incidences where they exceeded the 150 mg carbon monoxide limits and 733 invalid carbon monoxide reports in 2020 alone. They were promised a stronger local road network to cope with the traffic, only for residents on Beddington Lane to constantly face problems with their traffic and air pollution, and much more besides. It is no surprise that residents feel let down and even angry that the concerns they continue to raise continue to be brushed aside and not acted upon.

There have been new developments at Beddington that have caused alarm. Today, I want to focus on the new south London waste plan. The plan is supposed to bring together the lead members from four councils in south London—Sutton, Kingston, Croydon and Merton—and ultimately decide a strategy on how to deal with their waste. In short, the strategy is to make Sutton and particularly Beddington Lane the dumping ground of south London. Under the plan, Sutton will ambitiously take more than 700,000 tonnes of waste from the four boroughs—more than half of all the waste produced by the four boroughs. Croydon is taking about 19% and Merton is taking about 26%, but the real winner here is Lib Dem-run Kingston Council, which is taking a measly 2.6% of all waste produced across four London boroughs. To add insult to injury, Beddington is increasing its maximum capacity by around 45,000 tonnes, taking it to 347,422 tonnes of waste per year.

Together with the waste plan, the increase in Beddington’s maximum capacity and the approval of a new Suez site in Beddington Lane means around 1 million tonnes of waste a year are projected to be sent there. To put that into perspective as it is quite a large number, that is around 500 heavy goods vehicle movements a day just for waste, let alone all the other industrial sites that require heavy goods vehicles in Beddington. Even the applicants during the planning committee for the Suez plan inferred that this could equate to a vehicle movement every three minutes.

The uplift in the maximum capacity at Beddington was approved by the Environment Agency on 9 December. I urge it to reconsider granting that uplift. It is baffling to me that the South London Waste Partnership, which oversaw the plan, went on to meet more than a week after the decision was taken, on 17 December, and suddenly decided that it was not entirely happy with the increase in Beddington’s capacity. I am slightly confused as to why it did not know that the decision had been taken over a week beforehand, and what the point of the partnership is if the lead councillors from the four boroughs have no control or influence over decisions of this nature. To many residents, this appears nothing more than a convenient distraction to allow the Lib Dems to pursue their implied ambition to make Sutton the dumping ground of south London and give their mates in Kingston a hand, at the expense of roads and air pollution in Sutton.

I had hoped that we might get answers to these questions last night, when the Conservative group on Sutton Council brought a motion to full council stating its opposition to the increase and asking that Sutton gets a fair share. However, during what I can only call a childish debate, the Lib Dems reverted to their usual diktat on the incinerator: “Nothing to see here. Not me, guv. We’re ambitious about our waste plans here, mate.” They then proceeded to vote for an amendment that removed the very line that called for Sutton to get a fair share.

Let that sink in for a bit. The Lib Dems essentially voted against Sutton having a fair deal on waste management. That is disgraceful. The Beddington farmlands have been delayed, wildlife habitats have been attacked, air quality monitoring is negligent, roads are unable to cope, and now we have a projected almost 1 million tonnes of rubbish making its way to Sutton, much of it to be burned. Under any measurement, this is a bad deal for Beddington, for Hackbridge and for Carshalton and Wallington as whole.

I will move on to the wider impact of incineration on recycling rates. We have not had the chance to discuss that issue in previous debates. The proponents of incinerators often point to recycling as a metric of their success and how they are better than landfill. Although the latter is certainly true, as landfill is the worst of all options, the same cannot be said for recycling rates. As landfill sites have begun to close and be phased out, incineration has picked up much of that demand, with incineration rates rising nearly four times, from 12% to 44%, over the past decade. However, recycling rates have barely moved at all in the past decade, from 37% to 43%—just a 6 percentage point increase.

That is not coincidental or unrelated. According to very worrying research by the House of Commons Library, the data from the 123 waste authorities show a general negative relationship between incineration and recycling. In other words, higher incineration means lower recycling and vice versa. I have seen that at first hand in Beddington, where I watched as recyclable material was put into the incinerator to be burned. Even I did not know how bad the situation was until I read research from Zero Waste Europe, which revealed that more than 90% of materials that end up in incineration plants and landfills could be recycled or composted—more than 90%.

Quite apart from the obvious negatives, burning those valuable materials in order to generate electricity can discourage efforts to preserve resources and can create perverse incentives to generate more waste to ensure that the energy from these waste plants remains economical, rather than focusing on prevention and recycling. I have again seen that at first hand in Carshalton and Wallington, with residents asking what the point is in separating their rubbish into four, five or six different bins if they get held in the back of the same lorry and end up getting burned.

I have also attempted to have the calorific value of waste explained to me, and how the waste needs to be burned in order to generate the so-called energy from waste. It is some kind of perverse metaphor for a diet. I will leave aside the problems of energy from waste, which I am aware the Minister knows full well from the discussions we have had about New Mill Quarter in Hackbridge, where the homes are supposed to be heated by this incinerator, yet suffer high bills and regular outages. I appreciate that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has done a consultation on that, and I will continue my discussions with it.

Even when energy is turned into waste, recycling is still the better option, as it can save up to five times the amount of energy produced by energy from waste, which is not a renewable resource, creates toxic pollution and potentially emits more carbon dioxide than some hydrocarbon-powered plants. In other words, incinerators need waste to have an effective business model, whether recyclable or not. That is not recycling.

That prompts the question: what is the solution? I want to draw attention to some of the really good work being done by the Government. I am sure the Minister will have more to say on these topics in her reply. The Government have, in the resources and waste strategy, set out their ambition to move away from incineration in favour of maximising recycling, with the possibility of an incineration tax. The Environment Bill brings in powers to introduce charges on single-use plastics and ban things like plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds. The deposit return scheme, which has seen recycling rates rocket in over 40 countries, is due to come to the UK. There is a ban on exports of polluting waste to developing countries, a single-use plastic packaging tax, plastic bag charges, carbon capture and storage funding and the all-important commitment in the resources and waste strategy to move to a more circular economy.

I congratulate the Government on their work, but urge them to move at pace towards a circular economy. We must look further up the waste hierarchy to achieve this, so I have a few asks. The next steps up our waste hierarchy are recycling and reusing waste. We have heard startling figures about how much recyclable material ends up in incineration and this must be stopped. Things such as an all-in deposit return scheme to open up the concept to as many recyclable materials as possible as well as creating new responsibilities when sorting waste to prevent as much recyclable waste from ending up in incinerators as possible will certainly be good steps. Removing recyclable and compostable waste from incineration will greatly reduce the need for incinerators and help the Government achieve their target of moving away from this form of waste management.

However, we all know that the best approach is to reduce the amount of waste we produce in the first place. It is even better than recycling, because it involves less energy, less extraction of raw materials, and so on. That is why there needs to be a much greater emphasis on reducing production, such as placing responsibilities on producers, incentivising minimal packaging methods, for example, making it easier—indeed the norm—to choose the more environmentally-friendly option, whether that be domestic products such as food packaging, all the way through to heavy industry. The new hospital that is being built in my area has the requirement to be carbon neutral and I look forward to seeing the inventive ways it goes about that and manages to achieve that goal.

However, it is clear that Carshalton and Wallington has been failed on this incinerator by a council that is not willing to act. Incineration may be marginally better than landfill, but it is not the way to boost recycling or create a more circular economy in the long term. We need to look further up that waste hierarchy and do much more to recycle, reuse and ultimately reduce the amount of waste we produce to help make the need for incinerators, such as the one that has caused my constituents so many problems, obsolete.

Esther McVey Portrait Esther McVey (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I hope to call the Front-Bench speakers at about 5.10 pm, which means that people have about six or seven minutes for their speeches.

Break in Debate

Rebecca Pow Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Rebecca Pow)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is an absolute pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs McVey.

I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in this debate, on what remains a very fiery topic. We have all been here before, and I think it shows how much interest and knowledge there is on this subject. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) in particular for securing the debate. I understand that he has particular concerns for his constituents relating to the energy recovery facility at Beddington, as well as the draft south London waste plan. He pulled no punches on the subject of his Liberal Democrat council; I think he has got that firmly on the record.

Indeed, we had another attack on a Liberal Democrat council from the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), although he seems to have disappeared. He also raised some concerns about his council’s plans. The local authority for Sutton, in which my hon. Friend’s constituency is situated, is achieving a recycling rate of about 49% and is about the fifth highest of the London boroughs. It is therefore making strides in this particular direction, although he raises important issues about whether incineration is the agreed method for achieving much of that.

As I have said in previous debates, the Government’s intention remains very firmly on “reduce, reuse, recycle”, moving the country towards a circular economy. Every hon. Friend and Member has mentioned this, even the shadow Minister and I agree on this, and it was very eloquently put in particular by my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams). Actions that we are taking will minimise the amount of waste that reaches the lower levels of the waste hierarchy. That is very important, as we heard about from my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore), who uses his experience in the industry to draw our attention to that issue. This is the Government’s intention, and everything in the Environment Bill is moving us in that direction.

Evidence of our determination and commitment to limiting the waste that needs to be treated at energy-from-waste facilities, or in landfill for that matter, can be seen quite clearly through the landmark Environment Bill, which we introduced to Parliament in January 2020. Among other things, it contains broad powers to establish deposit return schemes, such as for drinks containers, and extended producer responsibility, and to stipulate a consistent set of materials, including food waste, that must be collected from households and businesses to help to make recycling services more consistent.

The Government are committed to improving the quality and increasing the quantity of materials collected for recycling so that we meet our target of 65% of municipal waste being recycled by 2035. However, to meet that target, recycling will have to be easier for householders. My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) raised the issue of students being confused when they go from one area to another, and she is absolutely right. That is why we are making consistent collections law under the Environment Bill.

In those collections, the core set of materials that will need to be collected will be plastic, metal, glass, paper, card, food and garden waste. The hon. Member for Leeds North West raised food waste. It is a shame he is no longer in his place, because I wanted to highlight that food waste is going to be collected; that is absolutely essential. Just over £16 million is in the process of being awarded, or has already been awarded, to ensure that food waste is collected and redistributed by more than 300 organisations. That has been really important during the coronavirus pandemic, and I wanted to highlight that.

Anaerobic digestion is the preferred treatment for food waste. We are seeking views on that in our consultations, and we will be publishing them shortly. My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley also raised that. We have to take a balanced approach as we consider all these things. Anaerobic digestion can also produce digestate, and one has to consider what the effect of that will be on the environment, so all these options have to be considered in the round.

The Environment Bill will help us drive towards a minimum 70% recycling rate of packaging waste by 2030, and we will be consulting shortly on those measures, together with further action on waste prevention. That will help us reduce the amount of England’s waste that goes to incineration and landfill.

I hear the concerns that my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington raised previously about the fact that having a waste incinerator in the local area can affect recycling rates. Existing permit conditions, together with new measures that we introduced in October 2020, will restrict energy-from-waste plants from accepting material that is suitable for recycling. It is not the intention that it goes to incineration. Reuse, recycle and longer life have to come long before anything gets to incineration. We need to get higher recycling rates across the board, and local authorities will have to take that into account.

Despite our high ambitions, there will always be waste that cannot be recycled or reused, potentially because it is contaminated or because there is no end market. There are choices to make about how we manage that unavoidable residual waste, and in making them we need to consider the environmental impact.

The legacy of our reliance on landfill is responsible for about 75% of carbon emissions from the waste sector, so it is not a simple matter of switching back to landfilling non-recyclable waste. That is why we have been very clear in our resources and waste strategy, which I am glad the shadow Minister has brought to our attention, that we wish to reduce the level of municipal waste sent to landfill to 10% or less by 2035, and it is why we are actively exploring policy options to work towards eliminating all biodegradable waste to landfill by 2030.

Incinerating waste also carries a carbon impact, but the evidence available to us shows that for most mixed-waste streams commonly sent to energy from waste plants, the carbon impact is lower than if it was sent to landfill. One of the main issues is the fossil plastic content in the residual waste stream. Measures that we are putting in place will limit the amount of plastic and other recyclables that end up in energy from waste, and that will help to reduce greenhouse gas impacts. We will continue to consider what else we can do to ensure we remain on our pathway to meet net zero.

Of course, the Government also want to drive greater efficiency from waste plants, including through BEIS initiatives, to encourage the use of the heat that the plants produce, as well as the electricity generated. In addition, other thermal technologies, which we are following closely, can potentially achieve greater efficiency, reduce the environmental impact and deliver outputs beyond electricity generation.

It should also be noted that carbon capture technology could be applied to energy-from-waste facilities, with the potential to reduce emissions from that sector further. Where applicable, pre-combustion capture technologies may be able to produce low-carbon fuels from our waste, which can be used to decarbonise further sectors of the economy.

The Prime Minister’s 10-point plan to transform the green economy includes new measures to become a world leader in carbon capture usage and storage, with an ambition to capture 10 million tonnes of CO2 a year by 2030. That is equivalent to all the emissions from, for example, the industrial Humber today. We have announced an extra £200 million of new funding to create two carbon capture clusters by the mid-2020s, with another two set to be created by 2030.

Air quality has been touched on by a number of my hon. Friends. The Government are fully committed to reducing air pollution. The World Health Organisation has praised the UK clean air strategy as

“an example for the rest of the world to follow”.

I have quoted that many times. We are delivering a £3.8 billion plan to clean up transport and tackle nitrogen dioxide pollution. Rightly, air quality was raised by a number of Members, but we are getting to grips with tackling it, particularly through the measures in the Environment Bill, so I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough will agree with me that we are driving in that direction.

The Environment Agency assesses the emissions from new energy-from-waste plants as part of its permitting process, and consults Public Health England on every application that it receives. The Environment Agency will not issue an environmental permit if the proposed plant will have a significant impact on human health and, indeed, the environment. Once they are operational, the plants are closely regulated.

I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington recently called for more air quality monitoring stations to be put in place across his constituency, especially near the Beddington waste incinerator, so that residents can have access to air quality data, but the Environment Agency has said that ambient air monitoring around operating incinerators is not a reliable method of establishing the impact, as it does not identify the source of the emissions. We consider it better to use air dispersion modelling to predict the impact, based on the highest allowed emissions. We have audited the modelling and we are satisfied that it is suitable for assessing the impact from the installation. Hon. Members should note that Public Health England has stated that

“modern, well run and regulated municipal waste incinerators are not a significant risk to public health.”

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington on raising the issue with us yet again. I hope that I have reassured him that the actions we are already taking will lead to higher levels of recycling and shift us towards the circular economy, away from take, make, use and throw, which everyone has lived with for so long. It is essential that we move. Harnessing the energy within residual waste has its place as part of a holistic waste management system delivering value from resource.

I just want to touch on the tax issue. Should wider policies not deliver the Government’s waste ambitions in the long term, the introduction of a tax on incineration of waste will be considered, taking into account how a tax would work alongside landfill tax and the possible impacts on local authorities. Similarly, the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cambridge, knows that we have committed to banning sending polluting plastic waste to non-OECD countries. We shall consult all the relevant people about that shortly. I shall wind up there, leaving my hon. Friend to conclude.

Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn
- Hansard - -

I thank the Minister for wrapping up the debate, and am indeed reassured about what the Government are doing. My concern comes from the fact that my local authority is failing the residents of Beddington, in particular, so badly. I thank all the hon. Members who have attended and taken part in the debate, many of whom have attended many such debates before. We raised many salient points, and I do not have time to go through them all, but I want to press again the point about the need to look further up the waste hierarchy in dealing with waste in the United Kingdom, and to get compostable and recyclable waste out of incinerators and therefore reduce the need for them. Through behaviour, and through policy incentives, we can move to a place where incinerators are needed less and less. Let us hope that in future they will not be needed at all. I join my hon. Friend the Minister in welcoming the recycling rates in Sutton. Residents are working hard to do the right thing. It is just a shame that the council does not back them to do it. I thank everyone for attending the debate.

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).