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Waste Watch: Carbon Emissions to Increase in the UK from Waste Disposal; Yet Another Reason We Need To Cease Making So Much Plastic

Summary:
By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans. An article in Monday’s Guardian caught my eye, Increase in burning of plastic ‘driving up emissions from waste disposal’: By 2030 the government’s push to increase incineration of waste will increase CO2 emissions by 10m tonnes a year, mostly from the burning of plastics, the groups said. They argue that the growth in energy-from-waste incineration means the UK will not be able to meet its commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The coalition, which includes Extinction Rebellion’s zero waste group, Friends of the Earth, the UK Without Incineration Network (UKWIN), Greenpeace and the MP John Cruddas, says the expansion of waste incineration

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By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

An article in Monday’s Guardian caught my eye, Increase in burning of plastic ‘driving up emissions from waste disposal’:

By 2030 the government’s push to increase incineration of waste will increase CO2 emissions by 10m tonnes a year, mostly from the burning of plastics, the groups said. They argue that the growth in energy-from-waste incineration means the UK will not be able to meet its commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The coalition, which includes Extinction Rebellion’s zero waste group, Friends of the Earth, the UK Without Incineration Network (UKWIN), Greenpeace and the MP John Cruddas, says the expansion of waste incineration is forcing up carbon emissions.

In an open letter to the prime minister they are calling for a law requiring the waste sector to decarbonise by 2035, similar to legislation passed in the Scandinavian countries and Finland.

The link between increased use of plastics and increased emissions is I think not as well understood as is the basic waste disposal problem for plastics. It’s not emphasized as much as it should be. Nor, for that matter,  is increased recycling a solution for to counteract the increase in emissions.

Note that Yves highlighted the inadequacy of NJ’s recently passed ban on plastic (and paper) packaging in a recent post, and yet one more reason that NY’s finally enacted plastic bag ban falls so short of what’s necessary. Both these vitue-signalling bans fall far short of necessary actions.

Recycling will undoubtedly drop further worldwide as a result of the pandemic, as governments are unlikely to reinstate recycling services and initiatives suspended during the COVID-19 crisis. That means incineration will correspondingly increase to manage the need for ongoing waste disposal, at least for the short-term, thus exacerbating the global emissions problem,

Incineration was already increasing prior to the pandemic. Over to the Guardian again:

Rembrandt Koppelaar, an environmental economist and co-author of the open letter, said: “The UK will not be able to deliver on its net zero commitments unless the government intervenes in the waste sector.

“Without a change in government policy, we can expect large-scale expansion of energy-from-waste incineration to lock us into an additional 10m tonnes of CO2 emissions per year by 2030, primarily from the burning of plastics.”

The amount of waste incinerated in the UK increased from 4.9m tonnes in 2014 to 10.8m tonnes in 2017-18 and is set to continue rising. Meanwhile, recycling rates have reached a plateau and the UK is expected to miss its 50% recycling target by the end of this year.

Evidence presented to MPs last year suggested that areas that had increased levels of incineration of waste had correspondingly lower levels of recycling.

There are 50 incinerators planned or in development in the near future.

Government figures show that in 2018-19 nearly half (43.8%) of waste collected by local authorities from households in England was burnt, or 11.2m tonnes. This increased from just over 12% a decade earlier, and meant incineration overtook recycling and composting as the largest single municipal waste management method.

Incineration rates in England varied from below 30% in the south-east to almost 60% in London. In Wales, rates of incineration were 25.1%.

This information  is particularly troubling, as the UK has a far more progressive waste disposal system than much of the United States (although the UK’s present policy falls short of that of many other progressive EU states, especially those in Scandinavia.) And that’s not even to mention the abysmal U.S. waste disposal system, compared to the WU’s circular economy policy.

Yetfor the UK, incineration, rather even than the sub-optimal policy of recycling, is the policy of the future. According to the Guardian

The government appears determined to press ahead with increases to waste incineration. In the December 2018 resources and waste strategy, published under Theresa May’s premiership, the government said: “Incineration currently plays a significant role in waste management in the UK, and the government expects this to continue.

Where is the US?

I seriously doubt whether any incoming Biden administration is devoting much attention to this problem, given Biden’s stance on other pro-fossil fuels policies such as fracking. Promoting plastics promises am increase in jawbs. The buck stops there. Yet those jaws won’t mean much if we continue down the pathway of significant climate change,  And an increase in plastics production would only worsen the waste disposal problem.

Alternatively, if it so happens that Trump somehow manages to be certified as the next incoming President, he will only  continue his current, pro-fossil fuel policies. Either way, the American — and world – public loses.

The letter’s signotaies have proposed some interim steps. These include, according the Guardian:

  • a waste and resource sector law that requires net zero carbon by 2035, inclusive of energy-from-waste incineration emissions, in line with targets set by the governments of Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden;
  • a recycling target of 70% by 2030 under the environment bill, as per the Committee on Climate Change recommendation for meeting the UK carbon budgets and a net zero carbon economy by 2050;
  • a circular economy capital investment programme to mobilise infrastructure investment that will support reuse, repair, remanufacturing, and recycling of scrap steel, glass, paper and card, plastics and biowaste.

Bottom Line

Reports and letters such as these are reasons why we must move immediately to a post-plastics future. Will we?

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