Waste Incineration and Recycling Rates

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:16 pm on 12th January 2021.

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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.