Out of sight, out of mind

When it comes to waste, it seems that this quote could apply to the vast majority of developed countries… That is before China decided in January 2018 to no longer buy foreign waste to recycle (which in practice for much of it meant to burn it in the open air). 

When this decision was made by the Chinese authorities, a global wave of panic spread out as countries like the U.K. suddenly found themselves with waste facilities overwhelmed with millions of tonnes of waste. They had to find a “new China” to get rid of the problem ASAP. 

With the clock ticking, these countries shifted their attention to South East Asia and started dumping their waste in Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia, which did not have the resources nor the facilities to cope with such an amount of waste. Inevitably millions of tonnes of plastic and rubbish ended up in landfills and illegal sites in these countries. 

For example, in Malaysia in October 2018, only 10 months after the Chinese ban, Greenpeace found mountains of British waste in illegal dumps, from Tesco crisp packets, to collection bags from three London Councils. 

So, what’s happened since 2018 and how has the U.K. Government dealt with such a major waste crisis? 

Well, it seems that in the last couple of years, the Government has taken a blunt approach, incineration. 

As the U.K.’s overly stretched recycling industry fails to keep up with the waste and plastic crisis, since 2018 waste incineration in the U.K. has drastically increased. 
It seems little else has been done with our waste for the last 2 years other than burning it. As much as I understand that it can be a quick fix, in the long run incineration alone is certainly not the answer. 

E-magazine Unearthed states that the U.K. has planned to build 50 more incinerators and EfW (Energy from Waste plants) to add to the 90 already in use. Is making waste disappear the policy that the U.K. Government is taking to tackle the waste and plastic crisis? It is of course the easiest way they have found to get rid of the waste, but should we treat everything as waste rather than a potential resource if recycled? And I also wonder, how environmentally friendly are incinerators?  

The answer to this last question is at best, controversial.  

There are studies, like this one by Zero Waste Europe that shows that even state-of-the-art incinerators emit dangerous pollutants. The study focused on one modern incinerator in the Netherlands. It projected that emission rates weren’t being adequately monitored and were potentially significantly higher than records stated.

Doubts regarding emission data collection continue to be voiced as there are fears that measurements are being taken under ideal conditions.

Many of you might be thinking that Energy from Waste facilities sound like a great solution, as they create energy from waste incineration. This deals with the waste and plastic crisis; converts waste into energy that can be used as fuel and avoids toxic chemicals leaking into groundwater and the release of methane into the environment from landfills. So why shouldn’t we continue to invest in more EfWs for the future?

Firstly, shifting to EfWs can discourage local councils from recycling and encourage them to incinerate waste.This is a massive issue as we need to keep recycling as much as we can. When a recycled material, rather than a raw material, is used to make a new product, natural resources and energy are conserved. This is because recycled materials have already been refined and processed once; manufacturing the second time is much cleaner and less energy-intensive than the first. For example, manufacturing with recycled aluminium cans uses 95 percent less energy than creating the same amount of aluminium with bauxite, an aluminium-rich ore that is used for aluminium production.

In addition, there are other European countries that have gone down the incineration route. We can analyse their data and see if this is a sustainable option to deal with our waste here in the U.K.

Germany has built and used incineration for the past 20 years. They’ve burnt their waste to such an extent that in order to keep the incineration plants in business and producing the energy that they needed, they have had to import waste from other European countries. Now they are shifting their focus and are investing in high-end recycling and circular economic policies. This means, that in 2020, we are investing in incinerators, that have a life of 20-30 years, as Germany did in the early noughties…

If you ask me, this doesn’t make any sense… It doesn’t seem that EfWs are the best long-term solution for residual waste, so why not start investing now in high-end recycling and circular economic policies too, as other leading countries are?

We as individuals are the ones making the most sacrifices… By recycling, saying no to single use plastic, reusing packaging and supporting local small businesses that want to make a difference, we are trying to make small changes that will hopefully have a big impact.

Let’s consider the private sector for instance. It wasn’t until small businesses started creating local circular economies by enabling the return and refilling of their products’ packaging, that big players like Unilever started investing in a reuse-refill system (what they call eco-refills).

Thankfully, there are plenty of start-ups that are pushing for change. Companies like Loop deliver products to your door at the same time empties are picked up, washed, refilled and readied for delivery to another customer.

A circular economy seems the ultimate way to tackle our waste and climate crisis in the long term. Let’s hope for a positive change towards a better and cleaner world!

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