Waste Incineration and Recycling Rates

– in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 12th January 2021.

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Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington 4:30 pm, 12th January 2021

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.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton

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.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 4:42 pm, 12th January 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey. I thank Elliot Colburn for securing this debate. I do not think I have spoken in a debate with him before. It was interesting to hear about the local government politics of south-west London. I have to say, Lib Dem councillors in south-west London are no different from those in Leeds, so I have some sympathy for him. It is a shame no Lib Dem Members are here today to answer for themselves—I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree with that, although he may not agree with everything I say.

Sustainability is one of the biggest and most important challenges facing our country. On a finite planet, we cannot afford to run a throw-out society indefinitely. In the UK, we consistently miss household recycling targets. Figures showing that more than 70% of UK packaging waste was recycled or recovered in 2017 disguise the fact that recovery includes incineration. The real recycling rate is closer to 45%, compared with 54% in Wales, where Labour is in charge. In fact, Wales is a world leader when it comes to sustainability and recycling, with statutory recycling targets, national recycling campaigns and, most importantly, £1 billion to local authorities since 2000 to help them invest in recycling collection services. Wales essentially operates a circular economy, or very close to one, and has constitutionally enshrined rules that promote sustainable development, such as the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015.

Unfortunately, the picture is quite different in my home city of Leeds. I frequently receive emails from constituents disappointed by Leeds’s lack of kerb-side glass and Tetra Pac recycling. I will tell you, Ms McVey, what I tell them and I am sure the Minister will want to respond. This is not the product of a lack of political or environmental will on the part of Leeds City Council, where I was in charge of this area when I was on the council. It is the result of a lack of funding from central Government and a broken system for recycling waste where the market lords it over the environment. Unfortunately, the amount of money needed to change collection vehicles and routes, to provide bins and boxes and for other associated costs is not available, and recycling facilities are not provided by the private sector as the market price for certain renewables is too low.

Recycling has been one of the quiet casualties of the austerity programme and an ideology that refuses to fix our broken markets. Local authority cuts and a free market ideology are a huge part of why the national recycling rate has been at a virtual standstill over the last few years. The latest set of cuts to Leeds City Council with £4 million of covid cost pressures and another £60 million of just run-of-the-mill Government austerity means that closure proposals are being ramped up. Ellar Ghyll recycling centre in Otley in my constituency is being proposed for closure only due to covid cost pressures. I hope the Minister can help me in my campaign to save that centre.

Recycling rates, however, have been soaring during the pandemic. The Local Government Association reports that eight in 10 councils have seen an increase in the amount of recycling collected since the start of lockdown. Some councils’ household recycling increased by 100%. That is positive news, but the Government must recognise that that has increased costs for councils and ensure that all the extra cost pressures on waste and recycling services as a result of the pandemic are met; currently, they are not.

I turn specifically to food waste, which we know to be a catastrophic problem not just in the UK but worldwide. A third of food produced globally is wasted. In the UK, households waste 4.5 million tonnes of food every year. Supermarkets and other food-adjacent businesses are the main offenders, wasting 100,000 tonnes of readily available and edible food each year, which is equivalent to 250 million meals going uneaten. Surplus food should be used to feed people first before it is sent for animal feed, incinerated for energy or sent to anaerobic digesters. Many fantastic initiatives ensure just that.

I pay particular tribute to The Real Junk Food Project, which started in Leeds and with which I have been working for nearly 10 years. It has been a pioneering force in the fight against food waste, with a core mission of feeding those in food poverty—another issue that has spiked during covid. We must ensure that large stores stop throwing away or destroying unsold food. Supermarkets should donate food waste to charities or food banks willing to take food. Again, we can look to Labour in Wales, where household food waste has reduced by 12% and is now 9% lower than in the rest of the UK.

The incineration of waste with energy recovery is slightly preferable to waste being incinerated without any energy recovery or sent to landfill, but without carbon capture and storage technology I cannot in good conscience support it. I admit that the Government are investing in CCS, but we have no full-scale working models. Without trying to pre-empt what will be said by my neighbour, Robbie Moore, I am sure he will touch on the campaign started by his predecessor against the proposal for an incinerator there. He has my sympathy and support on that, and I think he knows that—we have discussed it previously on the train.

Waste incineration is usually referred to as energy from waste, but the energy generated by energy-from-waste plants represents just 1.9% of overall UK electricity production. While electricity and reusable waste heat are clearly valuable by-products of incineration, they cannot legitimately be claimed to be the main purpose of incineration, nor can there be an economic or sustainability justification for using it as a disposal method. However, there is still no large-scale Government funding programme to support the development of anaerobic digestion, which is the solution for much organic waste that local authorities collect. Will the Minister comment on what funding she plans to bring forward for anaerobic digestion? I note that she is not wearing her leaf suit today, which is unfortunate for a debate of this nature, but I know how close these issues are to her heart and that she will want to support more anaerobic digestion.

We should also consider the fact that the smelly, loud waste incinerators that regularly breach pollution guidelines are three times more likely to be built in poorer areas than in the UK’s wealthiest areas. Nearly half of the new incinerators on track to be built will be in the UK’s 25 most deprived neighbourhoods, and more than two thirds are planned for the northern half of the country. More than 40% of existing incinerators are sited in areas more diverse than the local authority average.

At COP24, which I attended two years ago in Poland, Sir David Attenborough warned delegates that

“we are facing a man-made disaster of global scale. Our greatest threat in thousands of years: climate change. If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

I am fairly sure that the action he had in mind did not consist of building new incinerators up and down the country. We need to come up with more innovative measures, alternative solutions to reducing consumption, boosting recycling and increasing the proportion of recycled material manufacturing. We need a green industrial revolution and a circular economy. That is the way forward, and I look forward to the Minister outlining how the Government will achieve that.

Photo of Jane Hunt Jane Hunt Conservative, Loughborough 4:50 pm, 12th January 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs McVey. Climate change is one of the biggest threats we face, and so it is right that the Government are taking significant action to combat it. As part of this, I welcome many aspects of their approach to waste and recycling, in particular the commitment to creating greater consistency in recycling collections. An example of where that would be useful is among students coming to any town in the country, who are used to one form of recycling and then discover there is a totally different one where their university is, and everybody has to be re-educated every year.

We have one very good example of an excellent charity in Loughborough that deals with recycling and reuse, called SOFA. It is absolutely superb at keeping a lot of furniture and household goods out of the recycling chain, and selling it on for reuse. However, one aspect of the Government’s approach to waste and recycling needs to be revised, and I certainly support the comments of my hon. Friend Elliot Colburn. I have made clear in previous debates and correspondence with Ministers my concern regarding the building of new incinerators because of their impact on the environment and the health of local communities around them. I have pressed for more research to be undertaken to better understand their impact on those with higher activity respiratory levels.

That is particularly relevant to my constituency, where an incinerator is being built in close proximity to elite athlete training grounds. As the Minister set out in her response to my recent written question, since 3 December 2019, all incinerator permits have contained lower limits of total particulate matter of 5 mg per cubic metre, and permits issued before that date will be changed to require compliance with the lower limit by 3 December 2023.

Although that is welcome—and it is very welcome—I ask that incinerators that have been issued permits but are currently under construction should also have to comply with the lower limit from the outset. I have also been contacted by a local group who are calling for specific PM 2.5 limits to be introduced, rather than just limits for total particulate matter. Further, following the Climate Change Committee’s recommendation that all 2020 incinerators should have carbon capture and storage, the local group would also like it to be a requirement at the point of construction in any planning conditions, including those currently under construction. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on those points.

We are also actively encouraging individuals and companies to recycle more and produce less waste. Over time, we will become less reliant on incinerators, and there will not be enough waste to keep existing incinerators open. In my constituency, there is already not enough commercial and industrial residual waste locally to keep the new incinerator going, so waste will inevitably be brought in from afar by road, leading to increased vehicle emissions around the M1 and the A512 and creating further pollution in our local area from waste produced elsewhere.

Finally, I would argue that the incinerators could impact on the Government’s commitment to net zero emissions by 2050 by not encouraging recycling and reuse, as my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington mentioned earlier. If we are to achieve this ambitious target, we must work to reduce emissions from all sources.

Photo of Craig Williams Craig Williams Conservative, Montgomeryshire 4:54 pm, 12th January 2021

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I commend my hon. Friend Elliot Colburn for securing this important debate, and for the way he opened it. I know that the Minister, who has—as we all have—spoken on this subject over the months and years, will agree about the circular economy and with much of what we have said to date, and I look forward to her response.

Research done by WRAP Cymru in Wales found that 75% of the ‘ingredients’ for incinerators in Wales could have been recycled. We are missing a trick as we look at the development of incinerators, and I will touch on that in respect of my constituency of Montgomeryshire. Equally, turning to my Celtic cousins in the north, the Zero Waste Scotland review found that the only energy source with a comparable carbon intensity to energy from waste was coal. We know full well what has happened to coal power stations in this country. If incinerators follow them, I hope the Minister will promptly look at the waste-to-energy plans going forward.

In my constituency, there is a development for an incinerator and I pay tribute to Councillor Amanda Jenner, who is part of our Conservative team. I note the comments about the Liberal Democrat administrations and councillors across the country, and I share some of the fears outlined today about some of their actions.

Councillor Jenner is leading a campaign to ensure that there is proper consideration of any major planning applications during this pandemic. I note the concern of the community and the councillors right now that a planning application for such a substantial incinerator is being put forward. It is a difficult time to organise community meetings and get the proper planning representations in.

My chief concerns around incineration are that, while there is a role for it, there is new technology emerging that will deal with things that are non-recyclable at the moment. The landfill of the past was awful, and I speak on behalf of a massive rural constituency when I say that landfill is not something we enjoy. However, now we have taken a lot of organic matter out of landfill, there is a role for looking at the non-recyclables and a way to store them either in warehouses or in some new landfill of the future where that resource could be mined when the technology is available to recycle it. I welcome the Minister’s thoughts on looking at the current non-recyclables and a way of storing them for the short period while we invest in technologies to increase our recycling.

I pay tribute—to lend a non-political angle—to much of the Welsh Government’s work on the recycling targets. As a Welsh Member of Parliament, of course we work across the parties on this. The recycling targets are ambitious and are being met. Our local authority of Powys in Montgomeryshire is doing a terrific job, both for education and the facilitation of recyclables. It is a great shame when the community sees a planning application for a large incinerator in a very rural area that will require huge HGV movements from across the border in England and from a large area of Wales. Montgomeryshire is 840 square miles with 50,000 people. That does not lend itself to a huge industrial incinerator with waste transported on our struggling trunk roads.

The main thrust of my contribution to this excellent debate and what I am looking to the Front Bench for is to see what the Minister’s priorities are, looking forward, for both waste-to-energy and incineration more broadly with the investment in anaerobic digesters. I do push back a bit, because for my constituents in Montgomeryshire, anaerobic digesters are being brought forward by private investors—the agricultural community, especially poultry farmers. Anaerobic digesters are receiving a lot of private funding. The Government do not necessarily need to put a lot of money that way, but they do need to look at the regulatory framework and non-fiscal support. I know the Treasury will welcome anything right now that does not require a cheque book.

Anaerobic digesters are taking a lot of the organic waste out, so then we can look at the non-recyclables. That is not necessarily needing to burn them, but looking in the future to see how we can store and mine them as a resource. I know there is a time limit, so I will wind up but I reinforce my point that while incineration has had a role to date, I look forward to a way that we can wind it out of our circular economy over the decades.

Photo of Robbie Moore Robbie Moore Conservative, Keighley 4:49 pm, 12th January 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I thank my hon. Friend Elliot Colburn for securing this important debate. I also refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and declare that my family runs a plastic waste recycling business.

I want to use my limited time today to talk specifically about waste incineration, touching on my concerns about how decisions regarding new incinerator applications and environmental permitting for waste incinerators are made, and the future direction of waste incineration itself.

I am sure we are all aware of the waste hierarchy. It gives top priority to preventing waste in the first place. When waste is created, it gives priority to preparing it for reuse, then for recycling, then recovery, and last of all disposal—landfill and waste incineration. I believe all Government policy should be based on this hierarchy.

There is a strong case to argue that if sufficient weight is given to utilising waste incineration as an option for dealing with waste, then a fiscal disincentive, an incineration tax, should be considered as an option, as we have with the landfill tax—I would also favour increasing landfill tax—because otherwise that can become a barrier to developing a greener circular economy, by preventing resources from being reused and depressing recycling rates, and, as a method, incineration gives rise to air pollution concerns.

I want to touch on air pollution. It is quite clear that the process of incineration from waste creates a number of emissions, and there is much concern regarding waste incineration and air quality and human health. This concern relates predominantly to particulate matter, which is predominantly composed of materials such as sulphate, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride and black carbon. The Minister will be aware that, back in 2018 and 2019, Public Health England funded a study to examine emissions of particulate matter from incinerators and their impact on human health. The study found that emissions from particulate matter from waste incinerators are low, and make only a small contribution to ambient background levels. However, while levels may be low, this study acknowledged that there is a contribution nevertheless. There will be many factors that influence the impact on air quality and human health that the incinerator can have, such as the stack height of an incinerator, whether the incinerator is located in the bottom of a valley, the resultant impact of temperature or cloud inversions, and its proximity to homes, schools and playing fields.

Rather frustratingly, and despite huge amounts of local opposition—including from an excellent and well-run campaign group in my constituency, the Aire Valley Against Incineration, along with many residents, myself, and my hon. Friend Philip Davies, from my neighbouring constituency—the green light has just been issued for the Aire Valley incinerator to operate. This incinerator is to be built on the periphery of Keighley, in the bottom of a valley in close proximity to schools, playing fields and homes. The scheme was awarded planning consent and given the green light by our local authority, Bradford Council, back in 2016, and earlier this year was awarded an environmental permit by the Environment Agency. All this despite strong local opposition.

Residents are quite rightly concerned about air quality—not just from the incinerator itself, but from the increased traffic flows bringing waste to the site. In questioning the decision making for the environmental permit that has just been issued by the Environment Agency, unbelievably, I was told that the Environment Agency could consider only emissions from the incinerator itself, not the emissions from increased traffic flows, because that was a planning matter, which Bradford Council, in already giving the green light, had considered acceptable in the first place. This raises a much bigger issue: the process of how permits are awarded for incinerators. My concern is that a cohesive, full-picture review is not taken into account when looking at the impact on air quality from the whole incineration process itself, which includes the emissions from traffic flow.

For me, this debate is vital. As a Member who sat on the Environment Bill Committee, I am pretty excited about what the Government are doing going forward. However, I reaffirm my commitment that all Government policy should go back to that first waste hierarchy and look at adopting a review of whether an incineration tax is the right route to go down, as I believe it should be.

The message from Keighley is that we do not want this incinerator. It is unfortunate that it looks as if the green light has been given, but local voices should be heard much more loudly and clearly in any decision-making process for anything that is likely to have an impact on air quality or human health.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 5:05 pm, 12th January 2021

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms McVey, and to speak for the Opposition this afternoon.

I should say at the outset that I am a mere stand-in for my departmental colleague, my hon. Friend Ruth Jones, who is the shadow Minister for waste. Because of the travel restrictions, she has to be in Wales and, until we have the motion on Westminster Hall debates later today, there is a requirement for these debates to be held in person. I must say, it is quite extraordinary that we are all being put at risk, including the staff in this place, because—to use the jargon—it was not possible to “flex” the rules sufficiently. I hope it can be fed back how unhappy some of us are about being put in that situation.

More positively, I pay tribute to Elliot Colburn for calling the debate. I listened with great interest to his account of the difficulties around the Beddington incinerator, approved by the Lib Deb-run London Borough of Sutton and clearly causing a range of problems for him and his constituents.

However, the collective task of tackling waste, improving recycling rates and taking the steps needed to protect our environment and preserve our planet is one that we need to do together. I am afraid it is no secret that the Opposition side of the House have concerns about what we see as a lack of ambition on the Treasury Bench when it comes to these issues. The Minister will recognise this familiar refrain from our many hours spent on the Environment Bill; we tried to make constructive and effective suggestions for improvement but, as these things go, they were sadly voted down.

As we have heard, incinerators emit large quantities of CO2, with roughly 1 tonne released for each tonne of waste incinerated. About half of that is derived from fossil sources such as plastic, meaning that England’s incinerators rely on fossil fuels for feedstock, as most plastics are derived from crude oil or natural gas. I am told that incineration capacity in England is currently around 17.2 million tonnes—some 14.6 million of built capacity and 2.6 million under construction—and the waste industry is proposing a further 20 million tonnes of capacity for England.

As we have also heard, however, existing capacity already exceeds the quantity of genuinely residual combustible waste. Allowing even more incinerators would exacerbate that overcapacity, giving rise to avoidable pollution and expense while harming waste reduction and recycling efforts.

In short, we should now acknowledge that the time for incineration is over and that the age of incinerators should come to an end. Once, one might have said that incineration was an improvement on the previous practice of landfill, but I no longer feel that that is the case. I note that across England, incineration has increased in inverse proportion to the reduction in landfill in recent years.

I say to the Minister that an over-reliance on incineration as a means of tackling waste will, in the end, serve no one. That over-reliance will prevent us from moving up the waste hierarchy in dealing with waste generally and will stop us looking at waste as a resource that can be recycled and reused, its value unlocked rather than buried or contributing to toxic air.

I also know that a number of my hon. Friends around the country have raised concerns about incineration in their communities in recent months. My hon. Friend Stephen Doughty, who wanted to speak in this debate but could not be here today, has asked me to emphasise a point he has made about the urgent need for clarity from the Minister on waste movements around the UK, including between England and Wales. In previous debates, he has made clear his opposition to the incinerator planned by an English company for the east of his constituency, which is currently with the Welsh planning inspectors and which likely plans to burn commercial waste shipped across the border.

I will also mention my hon. Friend Kate Osamor, who has a particular interest in the impact of incineration on the health and wellbeing of her constituents in north London, and my hon. Friend Darren Jones, who chairs the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, and who I remember expressing concerns in this very Chamber about the planning decisions that he feels do not consider the cumulative impact of multiple sites in close proximity. Similarly, my hon. Friend Mrs Hodgson has an incineration facility at Hillthorn Park in her constituency. I know she is watching the debate this afternoon.

My hon. Friends’ passion crosses regional and national borders within the UK. As we grasp the challenge of reducing our reliance on incinerators, our response needs to be an all-nation response. Will the Minister outline what specific discussions she has had with Environment Ministers in the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive, and with the Cabinet Secretary in the Scottish Government on tackling the over-reliance on incineration?

Over the past two decades, the household waste recycling rate in England has increased significantly, from just 11.2% to almost 50%. I am pleased that for half of that time a Labour Government ambitiously pushed for a change of behaviour and real action on the green agenda. However, I must point out that England still falls short of the EU target of recycling a minimum of 50% of household waste by 2020. Our departure from the EU does not mean we should shift gear or slow down. We need to go further and faster.

As of 2018, Wales is the only nation in the UK to reach the target, and in 2017 it recorded a recycling rate of 64%. I pay tribute to the Welsh Labour Government, particularly the First Minister and the Environment Minister, Lesley Griffiths MS. I also endorse the excellent speech by my hon. Friend Alex Sobel, who not only pointed out those successes in Wales, but made important comments about food waste.

The Minister knows that England is responsible for the overwhelming majority of waste in UK households. It is vital that England and therefore this Government show leadership and act. If we need further evidence of the need for swift action, we need look no further than DEFRA’s own resources and waste strategy monitoring report from August last year. It tells us:

“The large amount of avoidable residual waste and avoidable residual plastic waste generated by household sources each year suggests there remains substantial opportunity for increased recycling.”

The message from that assessment is that a substantial quantity of material appears to be going into the residual waste stream, where it could at least have been recycled or dealt with higher up the waste hierarchy. So there it is. We have to take this seriously now.

The issue is not just about waste here at home, but about the fact that English waste, for want of a better description, has an international impact, too. In a written parliamentary question, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West asked the Secretary of State

“what discussions he has had with his Sri Lankan counterpart on the 21 containers of waste returned to the UK from that country in September 2020.”

The answer she received from the Minister, who is here today, was revealing. She said:

The Environment Agency…as the competent authority for waste shipments for England, is proactively engaging with the authorities in Sri Lanka on these containers and is leading the response on this matter. The 21 containers arrived back in England on Wednesday 28 October. The containers, which were shipped to Sri Lanka in 2017, were found by Sri Lankan authorities to contain illegal materials described as mattresses and carpets which had been exported for recycling. With the shipment now back on English soil, EA enforcement officers will seek to confirm the types of waste shipped, who exported it and the producer of the waste. Those responsible could face a custodial sentence of up to two years, an unlimited fine, and the recovery of money and assets gained through the course of their criminal activity.”

That answer is telling, because we cannot rely on incineration, nor should we think we can simply ship our worries and our waste overseas. The ship that left Britain in 2017 with our waste came back to bite us in September 2020. We simply need to resolve these issues.

This subject is topical. Did the Minister and the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington have the opportunity to read a piece in The Guardian over their porridge? If not, I want to let them know that the UK has been accused of failing to honour its promise to

“curb shipments of plastic waste to developing countries, after it emerged Britain’s new post-Brexit regulations are less stringent than those imposed by the EU.”

The article notes:

“From 1 January, shipments of unsorted plastic waste from the EU to non-OECD countries were banned. But Britain will continue to allow plastic waste to be exported to developing countries”,

despite a Conservative party manifesto commitment to banning the practice. That is important, because we are one of the biggest producers of plastic waste in the world, and we export about two thirds of it. The shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend Luke Pollard, has put it well:

“The government has made big promises to match environmental standards from Europe and to ban plastic waste exports. There can be no dither or delay. The British people expect to see these exports banned, more recycling of materials at home and faster action on the climate crisis. It is up to ministers to deliver on their promises and fast, but this does not look good.”

In conclusion, I urge the Minister to think about the social cost of the issues we are discussing, as well as the environmental costs. It is important to remember the role of local authorities here too. They are on the frontline of waste collection and recycling. I urge the Minister to make the strongest representations to Treasury Ministers to ensure that councils have the resources they need. The Minister will recall that until the end of last year we were covered by the EU waste directive, among other pieces of waste-related legislation. Can she update the House on what she is doing to ensure no lowering of the standards in that directive now that the transition has come to an end? Can she also confirm that the UK will maintain the EU definition of waste?

Labour is committed to increasing recycling rates and improving the processes around doing so. We recognise the importance of taking people with us and argue that if we do not have buy-in from the public, we are unlikely to achieve the sort of change and progress that our planet desperately needs. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington for calling this debate and optimistically encourage him to support our amendments to the Environment Bill when they are debated on Report, because that is how we will seize the opportunity to put incineration behind us and move forward to a new world of ambitious and effective recycling, one that recognises and unlocks the value in what was once seen as waste.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton

Before I call the Minister, I remind her that Elliot will need a few minutes to wind up.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 5:16 pm, 12th January 2021

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 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 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 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 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 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.

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington 5:28 pm, 12th January 2021

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)).