Industrial and Commercial Waste Incineration

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:15 pm on 28th January 2020.

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Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 5:15 pm, 28th January 2020

This debate is about incineration and energy from waste, and the way in which we can dispose of our waste in an inefficient and climate-friendly way. We have heard from a number of speakers in what has been an excellent debate, particularly on the role of very large incinerators in dealing with waste in future. We heard from my hon. Friend Stephen Doughty—whom I congratulate on securing the debate—who is particularly concerned about the effect of a very large old-style incinerator plant on his constituency, local residents and air quality. There is a question of whether the waste will be attracted to the plant, which is not a municipal plant but a commercial plant—I understand that a municipal plant is already in place in the city.

That is a good example of the crossroads we have come to in waste disposal and resource management in this country. Do we continue to go down that route of incinerators taking an increasing part of our waste, or do we move to different modes—much more environmentally friendly ones, I would argue—of dealing with our waste in future. That might resolve the problems raised not only by my hon. Friend but by my hon. Friends the Members for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) and for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and others, and a number of Members who raised similar issues about the role of incineration in our waste management arrangements.

Although I cannot say anything specific about the application for the incinerator near Cardiff—that is a matter for the Welsh Government—it is quite clear that, although it was the case that incineration was an improvement over previous waste disposal arrangements, it is decreasingly apparent that it is something we should pursue as a fundamental part of our future waste disposal activities. We can see what happened with landfill and other forms of waste disposal. There has been a rapid trajectory away from landfill, down by 64% since 1999 and now at about 20% of our waste disposal. There has been a rise in incineration, with 9% of waste dealt with by energy-from-waste or incineration plants in 2001 and 41% now. A substantial part of our waste is dealt with by those means.

In the middle of that, we have the imperative of the waste hierarchy. I think all parties agree that our aim in waste policy—the trajectory of our policy—should be to move up that hierarchy from disposal, through other forms of recovery, to recycling, preparation for reuse and, of course, prevention, which is the highest point of the hierarchy. Our aim should be to move consistently up the hierarchy so that waste is recycled into another resource or, ideally, does not enter the waste stream at all.

Old-style incineration is right at the bottom of the hierarchy, marginally above landfill. There has been considerable success over the years in removing waste from landfill. That is important for addressing climate change, as it leads to a substantial reduction in methane emissions, which are avoided by not using landfill in the first place. However, moving just to the next stage up in the hierarchy is a little like a landlord responding to someone complaining about getting wet in their house by putting a tarpaulin on the roof. It is a bit better, but it is not a solution to the problem. We need to be much more imaginative in moving up from those solutions.

There will always be some residual waste that needs to be dealt with by disposal means, but what we mean by “residual waste” is a big question. The plant that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth mentioned will take a large amount of so-called residual waste, but in many instances it will not be real residual waste; it will be stuff that people have not bothered to recycle. Only 8% of plastic film, for example, is recycled—most of it goes into residual waste—but most of it could be recycled and ought to be taken out of residual waste. Real residual waste is a fairly small proportion of the waste stream, which suggests that a policy of introducing very large incinerators to collect that waste would fix us in place on the waste hierarchy rather than move us up it.

A second point that I think is—