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From Yorkshire Bylines, April 11th 2024
Written by John Grogan

The ministerial direction issued last week is a temporary stay, but a longer term decision on incinerator plants is needed

Last Friday at 5.30pm, just as offices were closing for the weekend, the government temporarily banned permits for new incinerator plants in England until 24 May.

The ban includes the plant that Environment Secretary Steve Barclay is fighting to stop being built in his constituency at Wisbech in North East Cambridgeshire. He has been forced to step aside from involvement in the issue and has left the decision to his junior minister who imposed the ban by writing to the Environment Agency (EA). The EA is responsible for issuing the environmental permits.

The truth, however, is that this decision should have been made a long time ago. For years, local campaigners across the country have been campaigning for a moratorium on new incineration arguing that there is an excess of capacity and that recycling is being adversely impacted.

Devolved governments’ successes

The Labour-led government in Wales declared a moratorium more than three years ago, in March 2021, and the policy has been a great success. Recycling rates have climbed to 66%, compared with only 42% across the border in England. Scotland quickly followed suit introducing a similar measure – in their case issuing revised planning guidance with a presumption against new incineration.

Recycling has the added advantage of creating far more jobs than incineration. So whatever the political considerations which may have been involved in the timing of the temporary ban, the UK Without Incineration Network (UKWIN), which advises many local campaign groups, is keen now to press for a long-term moratorium in England.

At last, with a general election looming and incineration being a key issue in many local constituencies, the campaign has the attention of ministers. There may well be divisions in the cabinet, given that the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero granted permission for the Wisbech project, but the tide does seems to be turning.

Proposed incinerator plants now on hold

In Yorkshire and the Humber alone, there are at least ten proposals currently being considered that would involve new incinerators. To proceed they need both planning permission and an environmental permit and the projects are at various stages of the process. Many would be stopped in their tracks if a moratorium is maintained. The proposed sites are:

  • 145,000 tonnes proposed for land off Houghton Main Colliery Roundabout, Park Spring Road, Little Houghton, Barnsley.
  • 320,000 tonnes proposed for Newfields Industrial Estate, near Hull Docks.
  • 48,000 tonnes proposed for Saltend Chemicals Park, Saltend Lane, Hull.
  • 700,000 tonnes proposed for North Beck Energy Centre, Queens Road, Immingham.
  • 780,000 tonnes proposed for South Humber Bank Energy Centre, South Humber Bank Power Station, South Marsh Road, Stallingborough, Grimsby.
  • 226,000 tonnes proposed for Alpha Grimsby Renewable Energy Centre, Vireol Plc, Energy Park Way, Grimsby.
  • 760,000 tonnes proposed for North Lincolnshire Green Energy Park, Flixborough Wharf, Flixborough Industrial Estate. This proposal is due to be considered for planning permission on 15 May.
  • 125,000 tonnes proposed for Knapton Green Energy Facility, Landfill Site Knapton Quarry, East Knapton, Malton.
  • 350,000 tonnes proposed for Southmoor Energy Centre, Kellingley Colliery, Weeland Road (near Knottingley).
  • 132,000 tonnes proposed for Kingspan Insulation Ltd, Enterprise Way, Sherburn In Elmet, Selby.

Government targets negate need for new incinerator plants

There is no economic or environmental need for any of these proposed incinerators. The government has set out waste reduction and recycling targets for the decades ahead. At present, the EA is not allowed to refuse permits just because they go against those targets. These targets include:

The government’s plan is to reduce the amount of waste going into landfill or incineration and increase that being recycled or reused. Under this plan, incinerator feedstock will fall to around 16.4 million tonnes by 2027, and then to around 11.7 million tonnes by 2042. With around 19 million tonnes of incineration capacity currently operational or under construction across England, this can be expected to exceed available feedstock by 2.6 million tonnes in 2027 and then 7.4 million tonnes by 2042.

Exacerbation of climate change

It should also be remembered that incineration exacerbates climate change, which is why the Climate Change Committee called for a moratorium back in June 2023. Incineration results in high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. For every tonne of waste burned, typically around one tonne of CO is released into the atmosphere, and around half of this is fossil CO₂. This means that incineration has a higher carbon intensity than the conventional use of fossil fuels, and significantly higher than what most people would consider ‘low carbon’. Further background on these figures can be found from the International Panel on Climate Change.

Of course, some local councils have long-term contracts with companies operating incinerators. A moratorium on new incineration capacity in England would not impact these adversely. If anything they would face less competition to secure the residual waste that, for the foreseeable future, will not be able to be reused, recycled or composted.

While it is true that new incinerators are more likely than old ones to have higher electrical efficiency, some of the oldest running plants such as Eastcroft, SELCHP and Sheffield are connected to district heating schemes which means that less of the energy generated is wasted. The new facility currently under construction Edmonton is intended to replace the existing plant, which is why UKWIN ‘s calculations only cover the additional capacity the new plant would bring, rather than the full capacity of the plant.

Temporary ban will hopefully be extended

So what happens next? Most likely the government will extend the temporary ban on new permits in the coming weeks. Hopefully, they will announce a consultation on the introduction of a long-term moratorium on new incineration capacity. This will give campaigners the opportunity to point out that the EA should, in addition to a ban on new projects, revoke existing permits for incinerators which have not yet been built, such as that proposed at Keighley.

In addition, plans for small incinerators (such as that suggested in Sowerby Bridge), which by virtue of their size are regulated by local councils and not the EA, should also be brought within the scope of the ban. When it comes to incineration, at last the times they are a changing.

John Grogan is a volunteer adviser to the UK Without Incineration Network.