June 2nd, 2017
by Peter Jones
When people want to argue that this whole recycling lark has gone a bit too far, they often regurgitate a peculiar factoid: that, on a careful analysis of the pros and cons, incinerating waste paper and card to generate energy has greater environmental benefits than recycling it.
However, it’s time that this claim was put to bed. It’s an unrealistic approach to the issue, and if it ever was true in the UK, it isn’t now and won’t be in future.
Labouring under a misapprehension?
I’ve come across it a couple of times recently. It surfaced in the Daily Express in August 2016, as they joined a confused flurry of outrage about the rise in household recycling rejects. They published a comment piece that asked ‘Is recycling waste nothing more than a waste of time’, amongst whose extraordinary claims was the following:
“Waste disposal policy has failed because it is based on ideology. Back in the late 1990s, egged on by EU directives, the Blair Government decided, in the absence of any proper research on the matter, on a hierarchy of waste.
Recycling, it ruled, was always preferable to burning waste, which in turn was always preferable to landfill. Targets were set and councils given incentives to recycle as much as they could….
But not all recycling is of benefit to the environment. When the Blair Government did finally do some proper research on the impact of various different forms of waste disposal it came up with a surprise finding: that when it comes to paper and cardboard we would be better using it as a fuel – incinerating it in plants and using the heat to generate electricity. This is because the recycling process consumes a huge amount of energy.”
This is mostly cobblers. The waste hierarchy, a rule of thumb which dates back to the 1970s, did influence Labour’s two volume Waste Strategy 2000 – but only became law in 2011, under the coalition government (and backed by an evidence summary that concluded recycling paper was better than incinerating). However, the strategy was far from being a radical recycler’s dream, proposing only a 33% recycling rate by 2015 – with most other waste to be incinerated. There was research to support it, which showed recycling paper outperformed incineration on CO2 emissions; but amidst concerns about the “limits to reprocessing capacity and end markets” for recycled paper, it concluded that the best option was to compost it. Reading this stuff really reminds you how far UK waste management has progressed!
Paper over the cracks
I complained to IPSO about the article, and the Express responded to my point about paper recycling by dredging up a 2006 study for Defra, which I explained was rather out of date. The study didn’t directly test whether recycling or incineration had the best outcomes for paper: rather, it compared a scenario in which recycling reached around 40%, with a focus on recycling paper, card, garden and food waste, with one where recycling peaked at 33% and incineration was favoured as the means of reaching landfill diversion targets. And its conclusion was that the high recycling scenario led to lower emissions through to at least 2020; not until 2030 did EfW pull ahead – by which time the Waste Strategy 2000 would be a dim and distant memory!
The Express stuck to its guns, so the issue went to IPSO’s complaints committee. They too were unpersuaded by my arguments, saying the newspaper had been entitled to rely on the 2006 study, and that:
“the article had not given a significantly misleading impression of the efficiency of paper incineration which required correction under the Code.”
There’s no substantive appeal route, so that was that.
In fact, when comparing the environmental impacts of EfW and recycling, it’s really important not to use old figures. Unfortunately, this stricture isn’t always observed – even by high-profile think tanks.
Policy Exchange recently released a report on the future of waste management post-Brexit. It cautioned that the EU’s use of weight-based recycling targets “may be leading to perverse outcomes” and suggested that the waste hierarchy needed a “refresh”. It quoted a table from a 2011 Defra report as evidence that “there are some materials (e.g. paper) where energy recovery is preferable to recycling.”
There is some merit to the report’s call for a greater focus on the wider environmental outcomes – including greenhouse gas emissions – of different waste management options; but this is something the waste hierarchy already allows for. It permits deviations from the rule of thumb where this is justified by lifecycle thinking.
Furthermore, the figures it used to show something was amiss with paper recycling were out of date. A little extra research would found the source of Defra had used: Zero Waste Scotland’s carbon metric. The carbon factors used in its first version did indeed show that paper recycling saving 315kg of CO2 equivalents (CO2e) per tonne, while incinerating paper saved 541kg CO2e. However, the updated carbon factors introduced in 2013 saw paper recycling improve to a saving of 778kg CO2e per tonne, overtaking the figure for incineration (which stayed the same). Like the Express, Policy Exchange relied on old numbers to back their eye-catching claim.
“Is recycling paper better than incinerating it” seems like it should be a simple question with a straightforward answer – not something that can change from year to year. So what’s going on?
In practical terms, it’s actually a silly question. If I have a tonne of mixed paper and card, the choice is obvious. A reprocessor will currently pay £45-60 to receive it; an incinerator will charge £75-£105 to burn it. In reality, paper and card are burned only as part of a mixed residual waste stream, so generating energy from paper inevitably means incinerating a range of other material. I suppose we’re being asked to consider whether it is worth encouraging people to recycle more paper and card. But how could you promote recycling while telling people not to bother about the materials that contribute most to UK dry recycling? At best that would create rather a mixed message!
Even on the old carbon metric factors, as a means of reducing CO2 emissions, incinerating paper would be extremely expensive. Each tonne burned would save 226kg of CO2e. The gap between the lowest mixed paper price and the lowest incinerator gate fee quoted in LetsRecycle is £120/tonne; so saving a tonne of CO2 will cost £531. There are plenty of cheaper options!
But if we set aside the issue of value for money and think about the information necessary to answer the ‘simple’ question of whether EfW outperforms recycling, its hidden complexities become clear. To work out how much environmental damage each option saves, you first need an assumption about what would otherwise happen to the paper. Landfill is generally the “baseline assumption” – but how bad the average landfill is depends on factors such as:
- how efficiently they capture landfill gas;
- how that gas is used; and
- how well other environmental hazards such as leachate are managed.
These variables can be influenced by variations in landfill management practice and technology.
If paper is incinerated, we need to know how the average incinerator performs:
- How far will waste travel?
- How efficiently will the incinerator convert fuel to energy?
- What proportion of incinerators generate electricity only, compared with those that also make beneficial use of their lower-grade heat?
- How well are emissions scrubbed from the flue gases?
- What source of electricity or heat generation does the incinerator replace?
Since the UK has very few combined heat and power incinerators, the biggest change in incinerator performance in recent years has been the rapid decarbonisation of electricity. When incinerators were largely displacing coal power stations, they saved a lot of CO2; but as the grid mix changes, with gas and renewables taking over, incineration becomes less attractive. There’s an in depth discussion of these issues here.
If paper is recycled, we want to know things like:
- How far does it travel?
- How much energy is used in recycling – and what is its source?
- What other resources are used in recycling, and what pollution is produced?
- What will the recycled paper be used for, and what resources would have been consumed to produce the virgin paper that the recycled product replaces?
All of these factors can vary over time, and between countries. Domestic and international end markets for closed loop recycling of UK waste paper have grown dramatically since Waste Strategy 2000 was written. As we decarbonise electricity, the CO2 emissions associated with paper production and recycling reduce.
The question, ‘which is better?’ is deceptively simple, and has no simple, global, permanent answer, which makes using old data dangerous. With energy policy set firmly in the direction of decarbonisation, though, we can be confident that, whether or not EfW could compete environmentally with paper recycling in the past, it will not be able to in future.