Problems with waste disposal.

Arguments between allies can sometimes be fiercer than those with the enemy. Especially in conditions of defeat, in which consolation prizes – and dealing with an opponent our own size – can loom very large. Having gone over the top myself on a number of occasions – not least during the 2019 Green New Deal composite meeting at Labour Party conference (which lasted 12 hours and became more heated as the scale of the differences shrank) – I don’t want to claim immunity from this, nor that everything I ever said, nor everyone I ever said it alongside, was completely right – but would like to argue that a style of debate framed in Manichean moralism is not the best way to get light, and is guaranteed to generate more heat than is useful.

In the current argument over the Edmonton incinerator, there is a tendency for both sides to talk past each other, and neither side to acknowledge difficulties raised by the other. That is a good way to make sure that the fewest possible lessons get learned, while alliances that are needed to go forward on a broad front become fractured. Rhetorical excess, a Waltham Forest Councillor claiming that the campaign thinks that waste can be turned into “unicorn farts” and campaigners arguing that Councillors on the North London Waste Authority are guilty of “social murder” – makes rifts personal and painful and hard to overcome on other matters.

When I visited a far flung rural part of South Africa in 2005, one of the many things that struck me about it was the complete absence of waste disposal services at a Municipal level. On one level, anything that could be reused was. Organic waste was fed to the pigs. Toy cars were made from wire, tin cans and bottle tops. Old crisp packets were wrapped around twigs and sewn together to make beautiful table mats that glowed like stained glass. But, a growing amount of the overpackaging from a newly opened supermarket that could not be found an alternative use ended up just discarded. When I asked the head teacher of the local primary school what they did with excess rubbish he said, “We throw it into the Bush.” Household by household, at the ends of people’s backyard plots there would characteristically be a hole in the ground which contained the burnt out remnants of the household rubbish. So, charred tin cans jumbled among melted plastic and a lot of ash; partially covered with soil.

In the UK, and other “advanced”, “developed”, wealthy imperial predator countries, waste disposal is a collectivised version of that. The waste that we can’t, or fail to, reuse or recycle, we bury or burn.

Or, we dump it on countries in the Global South. Out of sight, out of mind. This is cheaper than developing a proper recycling structure in the home country.

  • In 2020, the USA exported 620,000 metric tonnes of plastic waste to developing countries.
  • The EU exported 2.37 million metric tonnes of plastic waste as part of a total waste exports of 38.4 million metric tonnes. This is a 70% increase since the turn of the century.
  • The UK exported 525,000 tones of plastic waste last year (12.7% of its total plastic waste), with about 40% of it ending up in Turkey.
  • All this counts towards “recycling” targets in the exporting countries, even though, in practice, once the shipping containers arrive and the importer has been paid, with recycling facilities even less developed than in wealthier countries, they are often get rid of it as cheaply as possible, dumping it or burning it. No one is checking. Win, win for the traders, lose, lose for the rest of us.
“Plastic bottles and garbage on the bank of a river” by Horia Varlan is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Push back from the stronger parts of the developing world, principally China, is leading to pressure on the exporting countries to get their house in order, but in immediate terms is leading to a fall in plastic recycling rates in the USA and an increase in incineration.

Between 1992 and 2021, China took 106 million tonnes of plastic waste, more than half of the world’s total; mostly from the USA, UK, Germany and Japan. Starting slowly in 2010, then accelerating in 2017, when 24 different types of recycled waste were banned as imports, China has now banned all solid waste imports.

Reduce

I think everyone can agree that the sheer quantity of waste has to be restricted at source. The UK generates 23 million tonnes of household waste every year (394 kg per person – more than four and a half times our average body weight). Commercial and industrial waste is greater. 43.9 million tonnes in 2018. Household, Commercial and Industrial combined, however, amounts to just 31% of the total of 222.2 million tonnes generated in 2018; with Construction Demolition and Excavation accounting for 62% of the rest of it.

Reuse

A bottle deposit scheme has been delayed and delayed by the government. Reusable nappies and milk deliveries using glass bottles tend to be the preserve of people who have the time or money to use them. Local authority initiatives can and do dent totals, but national legislation can make a more significant difference.

Recycle

In the UK overall, recycling is slowly increasing, at around 45% of the total; better in Wales and Northern Ireland than England and Scotland. The quantity of residual waste has, however, been at a plateau since 2013 (inching down from 551 Kg per household to 537Kg in 2019- after almost halving from 1046 Kg per household in 2000/2001).

In North London, recycling rates are stuck at around 30%. Islington has a target to get up to 36% by 2025. London overall is aiming at 65% by 2030. This is partly through improving capacity to deal with contaminated loads.

Residual waste from North London is currently incinerated at Edmonton, and has been since 1969. It is the plan to replace the old, clapped out, incinerator with a new one that has led to a ferocious debate about whether this is the right way forward.

The campaign against a new incinerator makes a number of forceful points that

  1. Rates of recycling can and must be increased and we need to construct a circular economy.
  2. Building an energy from waste facility cements in a demand for an ongoing supply of residual waste and reduces the incentive to increase recycling.
  3. A Mixed Waste Recovery Plant could get recycled waste levels up qualitatively; and a Review might enable this to be developed instead.
  4. Incineration produces GHGs and particulate pollution, at 1 tonne of CO2 for every tonne of waste burnt.
  5. No one would even contemplate siting such a facility in, say Belgravia.

Councillors supporting the proposal argue that –

  1. Rates of recycling can, must and will be increased, and this is part of the waste management plan, but, even with the London target being met by 2030, which is by no means guaranteed, there would still be 35% of total waste unrecycled and having to be disposed of, either in landfill or incinerated. At present 70% of waste is residual. Even state of the art Mixed Waste Recovery Plants still leave about 26% of residual waste, which still has to be disposed of.
  2. The currently unrecoverable waste has to be dealt with now; and no one is campaigning for the current incinerator to be shut in the absence of an alternative. The rate at which the current incinerator is breaking down makes its replacement a matter of some urgency. A decision to scrap the existing plans and go back to the first stage of a lengthy planning process would both increase costs and delay a viable replacement; and either keep a clapped out and technologically outmoded facility burning waste for longer than it needs to, or consign hundreds of thousands of tonnes of residual waste to landfill while the discussion goes on, in the absence of anything else concrete to do with it.
  3. Each tonne burnt saves 20Kg of CO2 per tonne of waste compared with use of landfill. This is just 2% of the total, but its clear that landfilling is worse (and everyone agrees on that).
  4. The IPCC figure for what they consider to be “climate relevant” CO2 emissions from incineration is actually significantly lower than the campaign’s figure of 1 tonne for 1 tonne. “Assuming that carbon dioxide emissions from MSW incineration average 1 Mg per Mg of waste, then of these CO2 emissions 0.33 (0.50) Mg are of fossil and 0.67 (0.50) Mg are of biogenic origin. In subsequent calculations, the proportion of climate-relevant CO2 is figured out as an average value of 0.415 Mg of CO2 per Mg of waste.” Nevertheless, this is still a lot of emissions. Around 294,000 tonnes a year.
  5. This will be dealt with in the medium term by Carbon Capture and Storage. CCUS capacity has tripled in the last decade, mostly in heavy industry, but is still massively below target, at 40 megatons globally, not the 100 megatons projected in 2010. However, at present, there are 24 CCUS facilities working or being constructed, and another 35 being planned globally, each with an average capacity of 2.6 million tonnes a year: so CCUS looks technically feasible, though the cost – construction capacity and timescale for affordability – is another matter.

Both these sets of arguments have force. For Waste Authorities beginning to plan a way forward, Mixed Waste Recovery looks a very positive option, though it does still have a residual waste element and most such plants incinerate it. I have not heard of any other options. The pollution and carbon emissions produced by this make it a matter of urgency to shrink this through reduction at source, maximum reuse and maximum recycling.

In the immediate situation, the decision to build the new facility has been made. The extent to which the campaign’s prediction that this will stall attempts to increase recycling or reduction of waste at source is fulfilled depends on the extent to which this is built into the next set of waste management plans and campaigns to change behaviour en masse can be made to stick.