Waste Incineration & Energy-from-Waste: a new capitalist greenwash

Most of us are aware of the need for recycling waste but there is in fact a necessity to move to  Zero Waste as increasing public concerns arise about plastic pollution, food waste or toxic waste, writes Clara Paillard. . In a capitalist consumption society, we continually produce more and more goods, many of them useless or rapidly becoming obsolete by design and lack of quality. Incineration creates many problems.

It has long been known that waste landfill contribute greatly to greenhouse gas emissions, and recycling has been promoted as a solution to the problem. Recycling rates have indeed increased in the UK and across Europe. However, austerity politics and its push for privatisation have seen many local authorities contracting out their waste services to private companies like Veolia or Biffa, who rely on waste to make profit. As a result recycling rates are falling off.

Despite some commitments to some waste reduction targets made as soon as Jeremy Corbyn became leader, and the subsequent introduction of radical policies on energy public ownership or and fracking, the 2017 Labour Party Manifesto was very thin on the issue of waste (“We will set guiding targets for plastic bottle deposit schemes, working with food manufacturers and retailers to reduce waste”). The 2018 National Policy Forum “Greener Britain” Consultation focused on clean air, clean energy and natural environment but said nothing about waste as such.

In a search for more profit and under the cover of ‘sustainability’, a number of companies have invested in the “Energy-from-Waste” (EfW) business, aka waste incineration to produce energy, whether in the form of electricity or fuel. Between 2009 and 2017, the UK more than doubled its waste incineration capacity from 6.3 million tonnes to 13.5 million tonnes while residual waste fell by 13%. London sent more than half of its waste to incinerators.

Energy-from-Waste plants are a combination of a waste incinerator and an energy plant. Growing numbers of incinerators are sprawling in the UK and across the world.

The EfW power plant relies on what they call residual waste or “Refused-Derived-Fuel” (RDF), an amalgamation of waste materials, often from domestic council collection. The RDF is burnt to produce electricity (or sometimes fuel for vehicles). The industry claims that chimney filters erase any form of danger in term of air pollution. In addition, toxic waste disposal and increase heavy vehicle traffic affects the communities living nearby. It detracts from the urgency of reducing waste in general or recycling plastics food separately for biogas like highlighted in this article on the SERA website.Indeed, the fact that councils enter into contracts to supply incineration companies with minimum amounts of waste acts as a positive disincentive to encourage recycling.

Most trade unions have policies to support recycling in workplaces or in favour of developing ‘’Climate Jobs’ in the waste sector. But generally, waste incineration hasn’t been much debated in the trade union movement. The exception is a motion passed at the Trade Union Congress in 2012 supporting the precautionary principle on both fracking and waste incineration (motion 10 on Greenwash). Unions representing waste workers have highlighted both that the waste industry is the most dangerous one to work in and that the amount of waste sent to incineration has now surpassed that going to landfill.

The waste sector is a powerful industry that has grown from previously unregulated or even corrupt businesses so it is difficult to know what exactly goes on. A number of larger corporations have grown to dominate the market and are working with other powerful polluting industries. A startling example is the EfW incinerator in Runcorn, near Liverpool. Commissioned by the larger chemical company in Europe, Ineos which is owned by Top of the 2018 UK Rich List Jim Ratcliffe, the incinerator is operated by Viridor and has secure long-term contracts with the like of Greater Manchester City Council. While Viridor is making profit by charging local authorities for waste disposal, Ineos gets a cheap source of electricity to feed its giant chemical plant on the same site which consume as much energy as the entire city of Liverpool. Ineos has also started to emerge as one of the leader of the UK fracking industry.

This is a small world at work. As well as the need to “Reduce, reuse, recycle”, we shall not burn our waste for the profit of the few. We should support the many and those communities that struggle against the building of new incinerators. A number of those grassroots campaign have succeeded in blocking new proposals but a National Strategy on Waste is required and the Labour Party must develop it. UK Win (UK Without Incineration) compiles a good database of information on extent of the waste incineration industry in the UK and the grassroots resistance to its projects.

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