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Industrial and Commercial Waste Incineration

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:48 pm on 28th January 2020.

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Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee 4:48 pm, 28th January 2020

It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate Stephen Doughty. He and I have not historically agreed on much, but we certainly agree on this. I will not pretend that I am bringing expert views to the debate, but my impassioned plea to the Minister is this: please can we get our policy on industrial-scale incineration right?

I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, who met me last week to discuss this issue. I appreciate the constructive manner in which she engaged with it. We have an ambitious plan to reach net zero by 2050, and everyone in the Chamber—I hope—is committed to clean energy generation and waste reduction.

Just last week, in the room next door, we had a giant Womble carrying a placard and insisting that we recycle, re-use, rethink, and that is absolutely the direction of travel in which we must move. All over the country, however, from Cardiff South to Romsey and Southampton North, there are proposals for yet more incinerators that are, in many cases, dressed up as energy producing waste plants. As we heard from the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth, in many instances that energy cannot be put into the national grid. The connections are remote and, in some cases, the energy is like a Trojan horse—it is presented as clean, green way to heat the local town, but is actually far from being that.

We have to account for the true cost of those facilities, the impact on air quality, the emissions from heavy diesel vehicles driven many hundreds of miles to bring waste from far afield, and the current policy, which allows CO2 from biogenic sources to be ignored in the context of climate change. At best, only 50% of the energy generated from the facilities can be considered renewable, and we should be extremely concerned about the other half. That 50% of energy comes from burning fossil carbon—plastics—and emits as much pollution and CO2 as coal-fired energy. Would we really consider building new coal-fired power stations?

Of course, there is a baseline: to keep running, the giant incinerators have to have enough fuel source. While industry urges us to believe that there is more than enough industrial and commercial waste to exceed the demand generated by the monster incinerators, we are seeing a sea change in public opinion. People—especially young people—are coming to understand that we cannot continue to consume and dispose at the same rate as we have been.

Even the big supermarkets are coming on board. Last week, Tesco—and this week, Sainsbury’s—announced a reduction in packaging, particularly plastic packaging. Corporates are not paying lip service to their need to minimise waste. They are actually getting involved and ensuring that they do it. Businesses small and large across my constituency recognise that this is not just good for the environment, but good for their costs.

I am conscious that we have only a little time, but I will turn to the reason for my attendance. In my constituency, the American conglomerate Wheelabrator plans a giant energy-from-waste facility. It will be twice the size of Winchester cathedral, but with none of that glorious building’s architectural merit, and with chimneys that would reach 80 metres high. The facility would be built between the beautiful Test Valley villages of Barton Stacey and Longparish.

One of Wheelabrator’s arguments in favour of the facility is that by using Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs methodology for calculating carbon impact, the applicant can claim that the project will be a net gain on CO2 equivalents, compared with landfilling the same waste. However, DEFRA, among others, recognises that the results from that model are sensitive to the type of waste incinerated. In other words, a small change in the ratio of biogenic and non-biogenic carbon sources can reverse the impact from a net positive to a net negative. The analysis carried out on commercial and industrial waste to justify those results dates back to 2003. That is incredibly out of date, but is the only source from the UK that can be relied on.

So much has changed, and continues to change, since 2003. Far greater efforts than ever are being made ensure that we remove green waste and food waste from the waste streams and, although there is still a long way to go, we are getting better at removing recyclates, and we will continue to improve.

Aside from the specifics of the massive plant that is planned at Harewood, we need to pause and rethink our strategy on incineration. Time does not allow me to examine in detail the issue of air quality and the balance—I use that term loosely—that the applicant must strike between the visual impact of tall chimneys and the need to make them high enough to disperse the emissions over a less concentrated area. In Test Valley, we are blessed with exceptionally good air quality, which means that the chimneys might not need to be as high. That of course means that more pollutants can be released without breaching Environment Agency limits. What sort of horrific equation is that? Applicants are able to get away with emitting more because the air quality is currently good. Surely our aim should be to work with the Environment Agency to reduce those limits and seek an overall improvement, not the lowest common denominator.

We need to improve regulations to make them tighter, rather than having applicants rely on the emissions set out within existing regulations, which I raised in the Queen’s Speech debate a couple of weeks ago. Although I recognise the specific needs of local authorities, this debate is about commercial and industrial waste, not municipal waste, so we have to consider commercial operations and whether it is fair, as the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth has said, to have a landfill tax and not an incineration tax. Incineration is simply not an environmentally sustainable way to tackle waste management. It may be better than landfill in the waste hierarchy—only just—but to allow incineration to proliferate simply does not address the climate emergency that we all agree exists.