With the equivalent of 67 double-decker buses of waste generated per hour in London alone, the UK’s second largest waste authority and London’s largest, North London Waste Authority (NLWA), today 16 November 2021, calls on the UK government to urgently implement measures to reduce unsustainable consumption.
NLWA’s call follows the publication yesterday by the National Infrastructure Commission of its Second National Infrastructure Assessment Baseline Report, which among its many recommendations states that waste must be reduced and recycling increased if the UK is to reach net zero by 2050. NLWA welcomes the report and its recommendations. It is the unsustainable consumption of products – causing colossal volumes of sometimes impossible-to-recycle waste – that needs urgent attention, says NLWA.
It is this consumption, which is exacerbating the Climate Emergency as well as causing nature to decline, as the report states, “at unprecedented rates”. It is only with systemic change implemented by Government and business that we can stop the trashing of precious resources and make the economy circular, says NLWA.
NLWA is urging the Government to make recycling compulsory, to ban many more unecological products such as single-use, unrecyclable plastics, and to massively reduce the dumping of waste in landfill among a raft of measures. NLWA wants to see the introduction of the deposit return scheme for plastic and glass bottles as soon as possible and extended producer responsibility legislation to include products as well as packaging. Inbuilt obsolescence must be prohibited at source and repair and reuse incentivised through tax break schemes or similar.
The National Infrastructure Commission’s report calls for significant improvement in recycling rates to 65% by 2030; for all plastic packaging to have at least 75% recycled content by 2030; for recyclable packaging and product design to be incentivised; hard-to-recycle plastics restricted; and for recycling collections to be consistent across the UK.
While the Commission’s report states that, “greenhouse gas emissions from waste have begun to rise since 2014 due to incineration for energy generation,” it’s also clear that the number one priority in decarbonising the waste sector is to reduce emissions from landfill. Shipping waste to rot in landfill or abroad causes far higher greenhouse gas emissions than if it is used as a resource to generate electricity and heat here in the UK. Modern energy-from-waste facilities also provide a reliable source of local, low-carbon heat and power for homes and replace the need for gas boilers, which are a major cause of carbon emissions. The future installation of carbon capture and storage in new modern facilities will also greatly minimise energy-from-waste related emissions.
The report also states that the “waste sector must support the move to a circular economy”, which NLWA greatly welcomes. Supporting waste prevention and a move to a circular economy is one of NLWA's guiding principles with 100% of recyclable plastic, aluminium, metal, and glass collected from north London homes now processed in the UK. NLWA also does not and will never commit to contractual obligations that discourage recycling. Importantly, local authorities like NLWA simply do not have the necessary powers to make the systemic changes required to make a circular economy. Government must force business to design out waste, ensure products are repairable, and easily dismantled at the end of life to ensure those materials can be easily reused.
Until there is huge systemic change at a macro-economic level, waste disposal authorities, like NLWA, must manage huge volumes of waste in the most sustainable, responsible, and pragmatic way possible. For the last 50 years, NLWA has transformed waste into low-carbon electricity for homes via an energy-from-waste EcoPark facility. However, this facility is reaching the end of its life. As a result, to ensure resilience, in line with the Commission’s advice, NLWA is building a modern, more-efficient facility, which will provide not only electricity for up to 127,000 homes but also heat for a district heat network in Enfield. In the UK government’s recently published Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener, heat networks are proposed as one of the range of options to provide heat for up to 20% of UK homes1. It will also save the equivalent of 215,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year – which is as beneficial as taking 111,000 cars off the road – compared to sending the waste to rot in landfill.
The facility will be among the most advanced in the world and use Selective Catalytic Reduction technology to convert the nitrogen oxide created by incinerating the waste to create energy, into water and nitrogen (which is a harmless gas that makes up 78% of the Earth’s atmosphere). NLWA is also ensuring that the facility will be able to install carbon capture and storage, as soon as the technology becomes viable, which will see the facility preventing carbon emissions in the future. As a public owned facility, NLWA will also be able to run the facility at lower capacity once Londoners reduce waste in future.
To ensure consistently high standards across the UK, NLWA proposes that the Government mandates that all planned and future energy-from-waste facilities are built with the same Selective Catalytic Reduction technology as NLWA’s new EcoPark. All must be future proofed to allow carbon capture and storage installation. And all should be built with complementary recycling and reuse infrastructure – NLWA is building a £100M Reuse and Recycling facility at the EcoPark so more materials are recycled. NLWA also proposes that the Environment Agency or similar oversee the UK’s energy-from-waste capacity, so that the UK does not face an oversupply in coming decades.
Cllr Clyde Loakes, NLWA’s Chair, said: “It was deeply depressing that consumption and waste was barely on the agenda at COP-26 so we greatly welcome the Commission recognising that the UK must urgently recycle more and produce less waste to reach net zero.
“Humanity is facing interlinked tipping points: the Climate Emergency, pervasive pollution in all its forms, and the ravaging of nature’s biodiversity, which has in great part been caused by unsustainable consumption.
“Government, business, and individuals finally must wake up to the link between our never-ending consumption of unecological yet convenient stuff and the existential crises all of us now face. What needs to be urgently understood is that there is much to be gained, if as a nation, we seize the potential of waste to help boost the UK economy whilst dealing with its detrimental aspects. We can do this if we begin to utilise waste as a domestic raw material whilst working to eliminate unecological waste and reducing virgin raw material extraction.”
1. See the UK’s Government’s Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Better, page 141, point 14: “Heat networks: they use hot water in pipes to deliver heating (and in some cases cold water for cooling) to many consumers from a centralised heat source. Heat networks could supply up to 20% of UK heat demand by 2050, up from 3% of UK heat supply today.”