Waste Incineration and Recycling Rates

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:05 pm on 12th January 2021.

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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.