London Assembly condemns city’s waste management practices

The 15 February report concludes that the city must limit the amount and type of waste that is allowed to go to incinerators. It also calls for the expansion of anaerobic digestion as a way to handle food waste more cleanly.

Mayor Sadiq Khan has pledged that no recyclable or biodegradable waste will be sent to landfills by 2026, he has also set a target of a 65% recycling rate for the capital. But even if this target is met, the report concludes that incineration is likely to be the primary form of residual waste management for the foreseeable future.

London Assembly Member and Chair of the Assembly’s Environment Committee, Leonie Cooper , said in a press release: “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.” She added that once materials are burnt, they cannot be used in the circular economy, saying that “[i]ncineration can no longer be relied upon to manage our waste effectively.”

“Energy from Waste 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.”

More actively managing the feedstock for the incinerators is the main method of mitigating the environmental and health-related effects of EfW, the latter being especially significant in the context of London’s air quality crisis.  The removal of plastic and the diversion of waste if it can be used elsewhere will maximise the benefits of incineration, says the report.

London’s anaerobic digesters are ‘under-utilised’, says the report, blaming boroughs who lack separate food waste collection and EfW operators who do not separate waste (they feel that it is the responsibility of waste producers and local governments to sort waste) for the misuse of resources that would otherwise enter the circular economy.

Dan Cooke, director of regulatory affairs at the EfW operator Viridor commented: “It should also be recognised that about 64 per cent of inputs into EfW is deemed as renewable; it is biogenic material. The remainder of that is the fossil fuel material, which is the carbon that we have to work hard to move away from.”

According to the report’s numbers, 53% of the city’s waste is sent to energy from waste (burning waste for energy and heat, known as EfW) plants, compared to the 30% being recycled and 13% going to landfills (the remaining 4% is ‘other’).

Plans to cut EfW might be blunted by the lack of alternative ways to handle waste and avenues to export waste dwindle: the UK’s exit from the EU and China’s move to limit waste imports is making waste management in Landon an urgent issue. Currently, London sends 6 million tonnes of waste to other parts of the UK and 1.5 million tonnes overseas.

Trade bodies for the biogas industry were encouraged by the Assembly’s call for increased use of anaerobic digestion, but the Renewable Energy Association (REA) disagreed with denouncing EfW as ‘a method of last resort’. Mark Sommerfeld, Policy Analyst at the REA said in a statement that the city should focus on a number of solutions to waste management: “no one solution is able to utilise the entire waste stream.

“Energy from Waste 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.”

Charlotte Morton, CEO of the Anaerobic Digestion & Bioresources Association (ADBA), said: “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. 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.”

She added that the report adds to the case for a national mandate for separate food waste collections in England.

“The government has set itself a target of diverting all food waste from landfill by 2030, but it will find this target impossible to meet without separate food waste collections.”

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