Where does our recycling go?

Edmonton incinerator
Local authorities are sending recycling waste to be incinerated rather than properly sorted.


Materials carefully sorted by residents for recycling are being incinerated because some local authorities don’t prioritise sorting it properly.

Councils know they can throw it into a lorry and send it off to their local incinerator, along with a lot of food waste that they haven’t even tried to recycle.

Building incinerators has become the lazy alternative to landfill and we have now officially reached the point where England and Wales burn more waste than we recycle.


A revealing article for the Hackney Gazette showed how a fifth of recycling produced locally was sent for burning at the Edmonton Incinerator.

The councils blame residents, but Greenpeace investigators who worked at the Hackney MRF (Material Recycling Facility) claim that unopened bags of recycling were sent to be burnt.

The workers are undervalued and it’s hard work. And the huge variation in the rates of rejected recycling between different areas of the country can’t be explained by people in one area caring less than those in another area.

On average, five percent of recycling nationally was burnt or put into landfill last year, but Newham sent 33 percent of its recycling off to burn. Newham has the worst recycling rate in the country at a mere 14 percent of its total waste. The rest it mostly burns.

In Hackney it is nearly a fifth of recycling being sent to burn, but this is unsurprising when the council belongs to the North London Waste Authority which burns twice the amount that it recycles.

Climate emergency 

If Labour and Liberal Democrat councils are serious about the climate emergency and achieving zero emissions, then they have to not only stop building new incinerators but closing down the ones they have recently supported.

A report commissioned by the campaign group UK Without Incinerators points out that the government hasn’t updated its figures to consider the huge increase in the amount of plastic that is going into the waste stream since 2011.

Plastic is based upon oil and that means that the greenhouse gas emissions from incinerators are nearer 20m tonnes a year, way higher than the government’s under-estimates.

If we are phasing out petrol and diesel vehicles, why are we happy for incinerators to burn oil in the form of plastic?

This Author 

Jenny Jones is a peer in the House of Lords. 

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