London Assembly: Energy-from-Waste a ‘last resort’ option

A report which claims that London should seek to limit the amount of materials it sends to Energy-from-Waste (EfW) has been met by a mixed response from members of the sustainability community.

The London Assembly report highlights that the amount of waste sent for incineration has more than doubled in the past decade, reaching nearly two million tonnes in 2017.

But incineration of household waste is described by the Assembly as one of the “least desirable forms” of waste management. The report notes that burning waste takes materials out of the circular economy, releases carbon into the atmosphere, and may have negative health effects.

London Assembly Environment Committee Chair Leonie Cooper said: “We have got to get a grip on the amount of waste being sent to incineration. Burning recyclable and organic materials is wasteful and potentially harmful and as London is expected to grow, we urgently need to reduce the amount being sent for incineration and to separate out useful materials.”

Cooper stressed, however, that EfW still has a role to play in the capital’s waste management agenda, especially following Sadiq Khan’s pledge to create a zero-waste-to-landfill city.

She added: “EfW does have its benefits in generating heat and power, but, along with exporting waste elsewhere and sending waste to landfill, this should really be an option of last resort.”

Capital concerns

London’s household recycling rates are among of the worst in the country, and with a rising population, scarce landfill space and more flats being built, it is feared that the problem is only set to worsen.

The capital faces a waste management capacity gap and EfW facilities have historically been seen as an important part of the solution.

But the benefits of this method are challenged in the London Assembly report. In defence of its case for slowing down incineration in the capital, the Assembly highlights the cost of burning waste alongside the export restrictions on waste from China and possible impact of Brexit.

Recyclable resources such as plastic are unnecessarily going to incineration, the Assembly claims. EfW plants do not sort recyclable waste as part of the process, as this is seen as the responsibility of residents, businesses and local authorities.

The Assembly notes that not all London boroughs offer separate food waste collections, meaning that food waste is being burnt rather than going to environmentally friendly processes such as anaerobic digestion (AD). It is thought that around 890,000 tonnes of food is thrown away in London homes each year, 540,000 tonnes of which is edible.

Mixed response

Initial reaction from leading voices within the renewable and waste management communities has been varied. The Environmental Services Association (ESA) has expressed disappointment that the report “overlooked” the benefits of EfW, while failing to provide any alternative solutions.

“EFW has an important role to play as we transition to a circular economy,” ESA’s executive director Jacob Hayler said. “The increase of the amount of London’s waste sent to EfW in the last decade is a success story; this is the waste left over after recycling which would otherwise be sent to landfill.

“Instead it has been put to a further use to generate low-carbon electricity and heat for homes and businesses in the capital, thereby upholding the principles of the circular economy.”

A similar response was issued by the Renewable Energy Association (RE), which welcomed the report’s bid to tackle waste and improve recycling rates in the city, but cautioned against the strong tone taken against EfW facilities.

“While the London Assembly’s ambition to increase recycling rates in the capital is to be welcomed, and the suggestions on biogas and the circular economy commendable, their report somewhat misses the mark on EfW,” said Mark Sommerfeld, policy analyst at the REA.

He added: “EfW has a crucial role to play at the end of the waste hierarchy, ensuring that the amount of waste going to landfill is minimised and that we are able to recover energy in the form of power and heat, as well as using advanced conversion processes to produce transport fuels and green chemicals for the capital.”

The REA was joined by the Anaerobic Digestion & Bioresources Association (ADBA) in backing calls for the introduction of separate food waste collections, which both organisations said would allow food waste to be recycled through AD.

“Today’s report rightly recognises that burning waste not only contributes to London’s urgent air pollution crisis but also fails to extract maximum value from what we throw away,” ADBA’s chief executive Charlotte Morton said.

“Local authorities sending waste to incineration currently have no incentive to encourage householders to separate their recycling, while introducing separate food waste collections would allow food waste to be properly recycled through AD, producing not only renewable heat and power and low-carbon transport fuel but also nutrient-rich biofertiliser, vital to restoring the UK’s depleted soils.”

The report is the second of the London Assembly Environment Committee’s investigation into waste management, with a full report of recommendations to be sent to the London Mayor ahead of the final version of the Environmental Strategy, expected later this year.

George Ogleby

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