Landfill or incineration: Does increased incineration mean less recycling?

Filed in Blog, Guest Posts by on December 31, 2009 12 Comments
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David North discusses whether incineration decreases recycling rates

David North discusses whether incineration decreases recycling rates

Our guest post this week is from David North. David is a freelance writer specialising in sustainable living.

His article on landfill and incineration is a thought provoking piece, which certainly challenges some of my own beliefs. Mr Green and I are very concerned that if an incinerator is built, the need for recycling will dramatically reduce. David’s research indicates otherwise.

I would love to know what you think; please leave a comment below!

Before David takes centre stage, just a quick plea for your help: please vote for us in the Green Web Awards “Best Green Living Advice” site – it will only take a couple of seconds – thanks so much! Voting ends tomorrow, so don’t put it off and please encourage your friends to vote for us too! Ok, that’s over, you’ve voted and now over to David …

Incineration – a burning issue

With EU legislation limiting the amount of waste going to landfill Westminster is showing strong support for the construction of more incinerators and, despite Scotland’s enthusiasm for a zero waste strategy, incineration is not ruled out so once again the issue of incineration is a burning issue.

The debate is fierce as one would expect from an issue that is becoming increasingly important to the extent that many would consider it critical. Apart from the more widely understood and common issues of health, safety and general pollution raised by waste and its disposal the subject has, only in recent years, climbed into the top ten if not the top five issues on the environmental agenda. Apart from the disposal of it having both immediate and long term effects on the local environment it produces greenhouse gases, whether it is decomposing in landfill or being burnt and thus contributes to climate change.

A question of waste

Furthermore, looking at the issue from the broadest perspective – from a zero waste perspective if you like – there is a phenomenal amount of materials and energy utilised in the production and distribution of the products that eventually become waste. On average every tonne of a given product requires 10 tonnes of raw materials to produce it. Six months down the line and only 10 per cent of that original tonne is in use, the rest having been discarded as waste.

So, what was once the quiet passion of environment officers and a miniscule number of environmentalists, the subject of waste is challenging the world to rethink the very nature of modern production, trade and consumption. It’s a big, big issue.

Rather than get bogged down in the battery of issues that arise around this complex subject – easily enough for fifty articles – this article is exploring the suggestion that the increased use of incineration in a waste management strategy will have a detrimental affect on recycling.

Does incineration mean less recycling?

The reasoning is that the public and Local Authorities won’t bother recycling as incineration or, to be more precise, co-incineration which produces energy for the grid will be seen as the ‘green’ alternative to landfill and also because incinerators, once built, will need to be constantly fed with waste to justify the expense of their construction so material that could otherwise be recycled will be burnt instead.

Both are logical and reasonable arguments but neither happen to be true – at least there is no evidence to suggest that they are. On the contrary, evidence from around the world clearly indicates that there is no correlation between levels of incineration and levels of recycling. Take Denmark for example, often touted as a model for green policy, recycling and composting over 40 per cent of all its waste compared to the UK’s 33 per cent. Bravo Denmark. However, Denmark incinerates most of the rest – 50 per cent. Britain, by the way, incinerates no more than 15 per cent of its waste.

We see a similar pattern with many nations whose levels of recycling are equal to, or greater than, the UK’s.  Japan recycles 42 per cent or its waste and incinerates 45 per cent, Switzerland recycles 30 per cent and incinerates 55 per cent, Sweden’s recycling rate is almost matched by its incineration rate accounting for over 90 per cent of the nation’s waste disposal between them. In fact, incineration is widely used in the Netherlands, Denmark, Luxembourg, Belgium and France all of whom have better recycling rates than the UK.

Landfill or incineration?

The first correlation of real interest from this data shows that where there is high landfill there is low incineration and vice versa. If we could achieve the maximum recycling rate that is currently feasible, about 70%, we would still be left with 30% waste. What then do we do with it? On the one hand we have the devil and his furnace whilst on the other we have the deep chasm of landfill.

Given the second correlation from this data perhaps the devil is the best option for now. Surprising as it may seem the data from across Europe shows that where incineration rates are high so too are rates of recycling compared to those countries that favour landfill.

Whatever the causes that lie behind these correlations it certainly shows that there isn’t any conflict of interests, at least not at the moment, between incineration and recycling as primary means of waste management.

In fact, in order to comply with landfill regulations progressive green nation Sweden has increased it’s incineration by 12 per cent which now accounts for 23 per cent of it’s total waste processing. Austria has also increased its incineration by 23 percent and 50 percent respectively. All other issues aside, with only 15% of its waste being burned, Britain can probably afford to increase its incineration.

How much do you recycle?

Exploring more closely the psychology of recycling a study by WRAP found that only 8 per cent of the populace fall into the ‘green crusader’ bracket – recycling up to 70 per cent of their waste whilst a whopping 40 per cent are in the ‘What’s the Point’ group and a scary 23 per cent, almost a quarter of UK citizens, fall into the ‘Not my Problem’ group.  With 63 per cent of UK citizens being indifferent or actively resistant to recycling it is unlikely that new incinerators will have any particular affect on their attitudes either way.

Clearly what is needed is a huge injection of resources and support for public recycling campaigns and education. 90 per cent of Germans are keen recyclers and do their bit with dedication and without the need for pushy legislation. They have a positive recycling culture. It is such a culture as this that needs to be developed in the UK. That is the work of imaginative and inspiring PR, marketing and public education, not the avoidance of incineration.

If it is the case that funding for the development of incineration is being directed away from public education then of course we could safely say that the development of a waste strategy involving increased incineration is a hindrance to increased recycling. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Andrew Craig of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC) told me that in LARAC’s experience, ‘Both national and local government are wholly committed to furthering recycling and are not giving any serious consideration to incineration as an alternative to it.’

As for the argument that incinerators will divert recyclable material in order to keep the incinerators going, thereby justifying their initial investment, again there is no evidence to support this. Even if the UK were to declare a zero waste policy it would take several decades to get anywhere near it and in the meantime waste that it is not yet possible to recycle, or is not being diverted for recycling by the public, needs to be disposed of. Landfill or incineration? Choose your evil.

Graph from European Environment Agency

Graph from European Environment Agency

About the Author ()

I am a long time supporter of the Green and Sustainable lifestyle. After being caught in the Boscastle floods in 2004, our family begun a journey to respect and promote the importance of Earth's fragile ecosystem, that focussed on reducing waste. Inspired by the beauty and resourcefulness of this wonderful planet, I have published numerous magazine articles on green issues and the author of four books.

Comments (12)

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  1. Rob Whittle, NAIL2 says:

    David’s article does cover old ground, much of which is LARAC and DEFRA “spin” over the past pillars of waste management, namely Incineration v Landfill v Recycling. David’s article covers the spin Ben Bradshaw was rolling out when he was Defra Minister, prior to Hilary Benn. Apologies David for sounding terse.

    There are black holes and ambiguities in following such landfill/incineration not competing with recycling discussions; for the following reasons

    1) Recycling and Incineration are always going to collide (more and more in the future) where incineration accounts for treating more than 30% of total waste. ie 70% viable recycling/composting can never be achieved by mathematical logic at the recycling/residual thresholds. So these 45-50% inflexible incineration models of Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Holland, Veolia’s Integra in Hampshire are never going to recycling edges from the 50%-70% mark, and has to compete for this 20% of waste. The only way out is for incinerators to burn surplus commercial sector waste, or import outside waste from other counties/countries..which breaks the proximity principle in sees this already in Eco Ballies from Naples satifying the underused incinerator capacities in Luxemburg/ Germany..

    In Sheffield Veolia has had to approach Macdonald’s for extra evidence exists and is growing. Sita Kirklees and Veoila Marchwood similar.. manipulating the residual/planning rules to remain viable/ avoid crunching recycling potentials.So David is wrong is not highlighting/researching this evidence.

    2) We haven’t discussed the capital /PFI diversion of UK treasury or EIB funds into residual incinerator Projects £2bn in the UK; rather than investing in more and better recycling facilities. This competition for funding is obvious and critical when evaluating how much the government via WRAP has spent on Anaerobic Digestion..a £10 petty cash fund for 300 WCA’s 50 WDAs to scrap over.

    3) Is incineration the only residual waste direction available other than Landfill? Big No! Incineration materially destroys waste with minimal energy conversion. It destroys the embedded energy to boot. MBT/AD, Autoclaving, Gasification, Pyrolsis, Plasma Gasification…all of which are now possible recovering recyclate [embedded energy value] or converting waste to energy gas/CHP…rather than less efficient skyfill (incineration/EfW).

    So Landfill or Incineration..a false choice.

    Lets have more Recycling, more Anaerobic Digestion of collected Food Waste , Mechanical separation/recovery with Plasma Gasification/Gasplasma for non recovered waste/RDF. A different model and investment choices in effect. Read Peter Jones PPT./media clips than discusses this new scaleable, decentralised non incineration, non landfill direction.

  2. shlomo says:

    Just a quick message to support what Rob has been saying.

    The Welsh Assembly Government’s study into how much of our discarded material could be recycled or composted (written by Eunomia – see ) concluded that 93.3% of our discarded material could be recycled or composted.

    This means that material that could and should be recycled / composted is already being incinerated – in Denmark and in the UK.

    Some countries ban certain materials (e.g. textiles) from going to either landfill or incineration. Some countries tax incineration to discourage incineration because they recognise that incineration competes with recycling / composting.

    As Rob suggests, food waste should go for anaerobic digestion – yet incinerators rely on burning food waste.

    Always nore to say – but I promised to keep it short!

  3. John Costigane says:

    Hi Mrs Green,

    It is good to see Rob, a regular contributor, and Shlomo, leading the anti-incinerator campaign in the UK, argue against the landfill to incineration ‘dream’ of vested interests. They simply want to swap horse while maintaining their unsustainable activities. The truth is that we need to drop these practices and Zero Waste is the consumer’s challenge to the current situation. There have been many improvements over the last 18+ months of our trend and more will follow as we find, for instance, companies who take back all used packaging for reprocessing, thus bearing the cost of disposal.

    David’s correlation is fallacious in that the UK’s situation has no real comparison to European activity. Here, landfill has lasted far longer as the main activity and we are just catching up with better recycling as the first step. Food waste for Anaerobic Digestion is in its infancy here but will eventually have a major impact on the enormous amounts landfilled/incinerated at present.

    The PFI 25 year lock-in suits the developers with guaranteed income while the burden falls on householders and councils, irrespective of recycling performance. No wonder the public opposes EfW Incineration locally when you also consider the health effects on communities downwind.

  4. Pat says:

    I live in a mid-sized town in Michigan, US. We put in an incinerator many years ago when it was apparent that landfill space was running out. It is located very near to a state prison which it powers. The excess power is put into the grid for the rest of Michigan. But, even though we have this incinerator I feel that our recycling has increased (at least in the last few years). I think people are finally waking up to environmental issues and really trying to do their part. We now are responsible for calling when recycling bins at the centers are filled. You can also get roadside recycling pickup from local waste haulers, though this option is quite expensive. I make at least 2 trips a week to our recycle center to drop off our household stuff and my churches also (I got them to start recycling about 6 years ago). Many, many people are now increasing the items they recycle which is why the recycle centers get filled so quickly. They also can recycle all 9 types of plastic, which is wonderful. This has had a negative impact on the incinerator though. Less trash to burn has forced them to import trash from neighboring cities and Canada. Canada imports tons of waste into Michigan daily which is awful. The Canadians really need to learn from the rest of the world about recycling and that we should not have to be their dump. There is also ongoing Council talks about closing down the incinerator, which would be a huge mistake, because of the costs associated with it. So far it just stays open. I’m all for incinerator usage but also recycling too. They can live somewhat peaceably together and we have proved it in our small neck of the woods.

  5. Rob Whittle, NAIL2 says:

    Hi Pat,

    Your comment on Canadian cross border waste importation pretty much proves my point on how unsustainable incinerators are long term with regards to its incompatability with recycling, but also the beakage of proximity principle once its own local residual source has deminished due to increased waste minimisation [Kgs/househouse], diversion via recycling/ composting/digesting/reuse..leaving either white elephants or rampant elephants reliant on scoffing imported residual waste from other areas/ countries. Neither sustainable with goals to deminish waste, maximise recycling/composting long term.

    All I can say is one word with regards to the US’s waste management experience with incinerators.

    HARRISBURG. a real waste nightmare millstone for Dophin County, Detroit..Add Second nightmare word..COVANTA..Shlomo would vouch for the second.

    Worth a video/news google search.

  6. Mal Williams says:

    65-70% of our waste is organic material – ie it can be composted or Anaerobically Digested.
    A further 20% is immediately recyclable if it can be collected in a clean fashion for reprocessors to re-use to turn into new products.
    The remaining 10% probably shouldn’t really exist – therefore needs designing out of existence.

    Everywhere in the world soils are being depleted by intensive, chemically based farming practices. The world’s soils need organic material, not just for carbon but also for structure. So we definitely shouldn’t burm (destroy) organic material that can enhance the health of our soils and increase its carbon content, sequestering carbon from the atmosphere into the bargain.

    Recyclables definitely should be re-used or recycled to reduce resource exttraction on a finite planet.


    Incinerator companies and their shareholders are the only beneficiaries of this destructive process. The Phillipines is the first country to ban incineration outright – the rest of the world should follow their very sensible, science-based example.

    Mal Williams
    Zero Waste International Alliance
    Zero Waste International Trust
    Zero Waste UK Trust

    Cylch-Wales Community Recycling Network
    Cleanstream Group CIC

  7. Ben says:

    What concerns me about waste to energy is that these are energy producing plants, this is their only useful export that has any value, and the waste they burn is a cheap abundant source of fuel. There must be economic pressure to collect and burn enough waste to make the plant economical. Making waste desirable in any way is not a good thing. Some of the materials that yield lots of energy such as plastics and paper could be recycled, so I do worry that councils will be happy to burn them before recycling them. However, even if I assume that the recyclables are kept out of the incinerators, quite a bit could be said about the presence of so much non-recyclable waste in our typical rubbish and its origins. Do we have to produce these items, and do we have to produce so many of them?

    Waste to energy plants don’t seem to push these questions or encourage us to look at waste from its origins, they just offer somewhere else to dispose of it. This is a problem because most of the economic and environmental costs from waste are from production of the item rather than disposal. It’s waste because all the raw materials and energy that went in to producing it are wasted when the item no longer has a good use. This is the waste we need to stop, the turning of large amounts of raw materials and energy in to items that have short useful lives, or worse items that simply aren’t useful at all (shrink wrapped coconuts and vegetables on plastic trays immediately come to mind!).

    I do believe countries which incinerate large volumes of their waste have benefited from much reduced landfill, and local environment improvements (they have less landfills in their countries), but I don’t think incineration is even close to best environmental practice. It does nothing to discourage waste production, in fact it potentially makes it easier for us to make more as it greatly increases disposal capacity. It also does nothing to close the loop and return materials to useful states where we can make new items from them. No matter where we get rid of our waste, if it’s not recycling, at the rate we’re producing waste it means we have to keep extracting unsustainable and ever increasing amounts of raw materials from the world around us.

    Waste to energy is just another way to dispose of waste. It does not reduce or challenge our unsustainable production of waste, and it doesn’t negate the major sources of the environmental damage caused by waste, or negate that when we make waste we have lost valuable raw materials. Exchanging large volumes of various resources for small amounts of energy is a poor economic and environmental deal. I suspect that it hides the waste problem while allowing the unsustainable consumption of short lived goods and disposable packaging to continue, or even worse increase.

  8. Rob Whittle, NAIL2 says:

    Most folk agree incinerators (EfW,CHP, Waste to Energy, Waste of Energy-incinerators/combustors) facilities aren’t the answer, whether dealing with 10%,20%,30%, 40% or 50%. Period!

    The debate is whether the alternative solutions are purely social (Zero Waste in its purest form..Mal eludes to) or a combined layered solution of social norms combined with better mechanical/ AD/ Plasma technology for a lesser amount of residual..30%,20%,10%?

    Folk like myself, Peter Jones and others see the latter “layered” socio-technological approach as more achievable and practical than what Mal prescribes wholesale. We are still at 35% recycling/composting in England/Wales..aimingto navigate to 70%+. ……………………………………………………..90% is a pipe dream..acedemic to date. To others like Runcorn where CHP from RDF technology variant, Plasma Gasification is the only BAT show in town, not the whole of Manchester & Liverpool becoming puritanican separators into several complex bins overnight; 3 bin AWC is much better to modern MRFs. Even some ZW consultants support this more pragmatic approach. Spare a thought for HAAGI!

    We have tried pessing for Zero Waste centres in Norfolk (ie like California -Del Norte) but there seems little UK commercial or local authority appetite to back such facilities, above standard recycling centres/ going through the listening motions. Same Design & Research centres for appetite. It isn’t happening folks in practice wholesale strategies/cash..although the concept is still pursuing.

    So better layered “socio-techno” solutions rather than pure social/community ZW pipe dreams, as the incinerator alternative.

  9. Layla says:

    Much has been said on the topic!

    I don’t see how David North can ‘specialize in sustainable living’ and promote incinerators?
    Incinerators aren’t sustainable, period.
    All the energy and destruction of nature that goes into producing rubbish and burning rubbish while producing a much smaller amount of energy than needed to produce and transport..!!
    Better to just not make any!

    I’m with Mal Williams here, fifty or seventy years ago so much rubbish didn’t *exist*!! Why should we be making and burning or landfilling it now?
    Humankind has been ‘zero waste’ (as in 90% zero waste+) for millenia!!

    And if Peak Oil happens (has happened?) and we start running out of resources..? Won’t ‘economizing’ make even more sense? (As opposed to spending billions on ‘burn technology’ or plasma)

    40% recycling isn’t ‘WOW’ for me (it just looks that way in comparison to the current very bad UK and Slovenian and other rates)
    If it can’t be safely recycled, it shouldn’t be in a shop. period.
    It’s an insult to human creativity and adaptability to change to say it’s ‘impossible’! lol!

    How many people are actively working with vendors, merchants, scientists, inventors, students, professors at universities, etc? And of course general public, politicians, charities, NGOs, everyone..?
    Where is the money/funding for this?
    Only after these venues have all been explored, actively informed and ‘lobbyed’ and called into action could we see what could be really done and what is ‘a pipe dream’!

    I agree with being pragmatic and that sometimes ‘less is more’, also to listen to the industry and what they need for better recycling… (Some things can be easily avoided)

    A few hundred years ago everyone ‘knew’ people can’t fly!! And people laughed when it was suggested something so crazy like it’s important for doctors to wash hands before operations or before handling pregnant mothers!

  10. David Oliver says:

    I do agree with Layla in that David North doesn’t come from a sustainable direction; although well written, the research does seem aged and from “official” and industry references.

    Layla I do fear, and to an extent Mal, portray a too rosey picture of human nature, and its homogeneous gift for uniform creativity, discipline and automitom like comittment to the 6Rs of Zero Waste. One hundred years ago the human race hadn’t tested to destruction the full material range and chemical possibility of the Periodic Table. One can’t dream the clock back. Look at a mobile/ ipod..take a few metals functional mobile. 60+ different plastic polymer types on the market, all with roles.

    I agree 70-75% recycling and composting is do-able, above this very tricky. This is where the market cuts out. 80-85% about the very limit for any EU nation; then fast deminishing returns. Again much potential difficult material is out there, historic, composite, already produced in the pipe, waiting in situ. One shouldn’t beleive one’s own mantra over reality,

    I’m with Mal in spirit and soul of Utopia; but the head says Rob Whittle is spot on in his analysis, and with the need for some smallscale technological goalkeeper. Some plasma gasification direction.

    A very useful discussion and informed debate.

  11. Layla says:

    David Oliver, great debate, I agree!

    Is there anyone working with businesses and designers to recommend eg better and more easily recyclable packaging materials and materials for products?

    eg You have a designer or inventor (or company/vendor), interested in making and selling a product, who can they turn to to get more (reliable!) info on how to make it in a more sustainable way?
    (Usually designers just want to make it ‘pretty’ and to fulfil its function/s! )

  12. MIDASAW says:

    Its a no brianer. We must incinerate, particualy Clinical waste from hospitals etc. Modern incinerater technologies run rings around autoclaving from a enviormental perspective

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