Burning more than we recycle

Over two years ago, I predicted that we would now be reaching the point where we burnt more household waste than we recycled and the 2018/19 figures from DEFRA, due to be published this December, will confirm that I was right. I have been warning that this would happen since my time as a London Assembly member, when it became clear that several London boroughs were tied into incineration contracts that inevitably led to them recycling far less than neighbouring boroughs.

My research has shown a well-established pattern across England that incineration stops recycling from growing rapidly and in some cases has led to its decline. This has nothing to do with people’s willingness to recycle in central London, Birmingham or Portsmouth and everything to do with the failures of local authorities to lay on easy to use facilities such as household food waste collection.

There is a logic to generating energy from the waste that we cannot recycle, or reuse, but the big switch of the last decade has been from dumping our waste in the ground, to burning it. So instead of the pollution leaking out into underground water supplies from leaky landfill sites, we are now risking air pollution from old or badly run incinerators.

I personally try my best to refuse and reuse, but when I do recycle, I want the reassurance that my efforts to do so will not be betrayed by someone shoving it all into a furnace, or sending it to some dubious landfill site in a developing country. The Chinese ban on our sub-standard recycling exports has brought home the careless way we think about what we throw away. We need a closed loop where next to nothing goes to waste.

Plastic is the real fuel of this drive for incineration. Little plastic is recycled, but because it is made from oil, it is ideal for raising the temperature of furnaces. The big beneficiaries of single use plastic are the oil companies and those running incinerators. The losers are the rest of us, with the rise in greenhouse gas emissions and runaway climate change.


·         In 2016/17, England had three regions that incinerated more than they recycled;

·         Recycling rates in England have almost flat-lined at just over 11m tonnes;

·         Incineration has grown from 5.5m tonnes in 2012/13 to over 10m in 2016/17