Baroness Jones: Government's policy of waste incineration is a short-term solution to a long-term problem

Posted On: 
27th February 2018

Green Party peer Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb reflects on her recent Lords question: 'Ensuring materials collected for recycling by local authorities are not incinerated'.

The Marchwood ERF incineration plant in the Port of Southampton

One of the most pressing issues on our current political and environmental list is how to deal with the effects of China’s recent ban on imported recycled plastic. From 2012 - 2016, the UK exported over 2.7 million tonnes of plastic waste to China, mostly on cheap, empty shipping barges headed back to China after dropping off goods in Britain. The China ban has forced the UK government to consider alternative options for waste management in order to deal with such a huge influx of our own waste back into the UK’s waste management system.

With this recent import ban, the government is at a serious crossroads in regards to waste management. No longer can we rely on simply dumping our waste into the hands of another country. Real decisions must be made about which direction our country wants to go in with regards to recycling.
However, it is critically important that the government takes serious steps to avoid incineration, whether foreign or domestic. Incineration is a short term solution to a long term problem and is unacceptable for both economic and health reasons. Among many negative effects, incineration has been proven to depress recycling, waste finite resources, pollute our air with toxic ash and exacerbate climate change. It continues the climate change inducing model by extracting a finite amount of resources only to be wasted in an incinerator. This not only creates a demand for waste but discourages real waste management and recycling solutions. This is in addition to the large amounts of toxic air pollution that negatively impact human health and the environment.
It is critical that the UK develops its own sustainable recycling infrastructure in order to create an independent, cyclical flow of resources. Only then will we make serious strides toward the goal of zero waste. We must embrace crucial principles such as producer responsibility, eco-design, waste reduction, and recycling, in order to create a single framework with the aim of eliminating waste sent to landfill or incinerators.

The government’s response to my recent question unfortunately only continues their trend of big promises with little to no substance. They say they are “encouraging industry to access alternative markets to reduce waste and recycle more,” without revealing how they are encouraging industry or which alternative markets should be accessed. When it comes to waste management, specifics are critically important. Anyone can go on about how much they support the concept of recycling, but until there are real tangible strategies introduced, it is just fine words.

Additionally, they support the use of modern incinerators to produce energy where recycling is not viable. However, with the creation of an effective recycling infrastructure, there will be very little residual waste, so very little need to incinerate at all. The government has clearly demonstrated that they want to continue with the short term unsustainable solution of incineration, despite its being incredibly short sighted.

Future generations will judge us on the decisions we take in the months ahead and we have to ask ourselves, ‘Are we on the right side of history?’

The Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb is a Green Party peer