Tower Hamlets under fire for incinerating waste due for recycling

60% of waste incinerated could be recycled Pic: Zibik

Tower Hamlets Council is one of the worst authorities in the UK for sending waste collected for recycling to incinerators, according to figures disclosed under a Freedom of Information request.

The authority sends 28 per cent of its waste to incineration plants, compared with Rhondda-cynon-taff council in Wales, who sends 31 per cent of their waste, a documentary reported.

Campaigner Camilla Verr from Friends of the Earth, which has a volunteer group in Tower Hamlets and Hackney told ELL : “A fresh approach to the way we deal with the enormous mountains of waste generated every year is urgently required. Better recycling is also needed so that precious resources aren’t landfilled or incinerated.”

A Dispatches documentary on Channel 4 last week highlighted the confusion the public face when it comes to what waste is classified as recyclable, with over 50 different recycling symbols on everyday foods. More than 50 per cent of what we put in a residual waste could actually be recycled if it was placed in the correct bin.

Tatiana Lujan, plastics lawyer for Client Earth, the environmental law charity who commissioned the initial report on the increase of incineration, told ELL : “The variability of rules and infrastructure from council to council about what can be recycled makes it hard for people to know what should and shouldn’t be put in which bin.”

Tower Hamlets Council did not respond to comment on the findings.

 Dispatches sent out Freedom of Information Requests to every authority and received over 100 responses, later tweeting some of their findings: including Tower Hamlets, Lewisham 18.2 per cent and Edinburgh 29.33 per cent.

The investigation found 11 per cent of what we think is being recycled is actually being recycled and instead sent to incineration plants. London currently has highest rate of incineration at 61 per cent while only 30 per cent of waste is recycled. Overall, 60 per cent of what is incinerated could be recycled.

Lujan told ELL: “If plastic waste is not recycled… it either ends up in the environment, is incinerated or ends up in a landfill. Each of these fates has noxious effects on climate, biodiversity, people’s health and economic inequality as vulnerable communities are disproportionally affected.”

Councils trapped in million-pound contracts with PFI- Private Finance Initiative firms who are contracted to complete and manage public projects, is one reason for the increase of waste being incinerated. Incineration was introduced as a method to combat the land fill crisis creating greenhouse gases. The government funded the incinerators though taxes to divert waste from landfill.  However, the deals are expensive, and councils are struggling to withdraw from those deals. 

Local authorities have requested to end their contract, only to be threatened legal action by PFI.  In 2014, Norfolk council paid £33.7 million to get out of a PFI contract for an incinerator that was never built.

Incinerating waste is also a cheaper method of disposing the rubbish, as the method has no taxation. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We are very clear that incineration should be a last resort behind recycling and re-use, bust using waste to generate energy is preferable to dumping rubbish in landfill for future generations to deal with.”

Incinerating waste has been used as an alternative method to landfills- yet still producing pollutant gasses Pic: vitamina poleznova 

However, Verr argues the Government needs to introduce new methods. Verr said: “More focus is needed on waste reduction, with greater emphasis on better design and ensuring that more of the products and packaging we buy are can be reused or refilled.”

Varied recycling methods across councils is also a contributing factor to the increase of recycled waste going to incinerators; with some councils not able to facilitate recycling to the demand of their local areas.

Total carbon emissions from burning plastics have now taken over those previously produced from burning coal due to the increase of incinerators now in the UK. There are currently forty- eight incinerators in the UK and only four coal- fired power stations.

Lujan said: “If business as usual continues, electricity generation at incinerators will be closer in carbon intensity to coal and gas than to wind and solar in 15 years. This is because there will be more hard-to-recycle plastic waste sent to incinerators, which will increase the carbon impacts of incineration.”

The Government has said it will introduce new taxes aimed to reduce the amount of recycling plastics ending up as waste and being incinerated.

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