Follow the Money? – Why Incinerators cost more and lead us to recycle less

Decision time this month

The final decision on whether to progress with a so-called ecopark in Surrey was not made in the planning meeting (2 days before the planning permission granted in 2012 was due to run-out) but is due to be made when Surrey County Council Conservatives review a value-for-money assessment later this month. But whatever this concludes – whether Surrey saves or loses money from building the ecopark – it will cost British taxpayers a lot of money every year it operates. Here I briefly explain why. And set out a clear alternative.

Do the Math – It Costs More to Burn Waste

So what happens when we choose to build an extra incinerator instead of using existing landfill space or improving recycling?

Surrey’s new incinerator at Shepperton may or may not save the council money. Taking government average figures for new incinerators (Defra, 2013) suggest it could be between £20 cheaper and £35 more expensive per tonne than landfill costs us now, and around £70 to £140 per tonne more expensive than recycling.

That is because of around £100 per tonne Surrey pays to landfill waste, this only costs us, as taxpayers, around £20 per tonne as £82.50 per tonne of this is reclaimed by the government in landfill tax.

This means that the treatment of 55,000 tonnes of waste a year taken by the incinerator at the so-called ecopark at Charlton Lane could be saving Surrey County Council up to £1.1 million a year OR costing Surrey up to £1.9 million a year. We don’t know which, because Surrey is keeping these figures confidential.

But regardless of whether Surrey saves or loses money the government loses a lot more: around £4.5 million in lost landfill tax revenues each year. So, Surrey’s decision to shift waste from landfill to incineration will cost the British taxpayer overall between £3.4 and £6.4 million a year – which is between £85 million and £160 million pounds over the 25 year life of the plant.

[And this is before considering the upfront government money in the form of a ‘private finance initiative’ deal and the additional money that our waste contractor may get if they can prove that the two seconds the waste is ‘gasified’ before being burnt allows the Shepperton plant to classified as a certain type of incinerator (a gasification plant) so it gets even more government funding.]

I think it is ludicrous for Surrey County Council will have to make further cuts across the council – because the government encourages it to build an incinerator which reduces by millions the money that is available to allocate to local councils, including Surrey.

The Result: Planning to Recycling less.

Surrey County Council just passed its new Waste Management Strategy redefines recycling to include recovery – street sweepings, leaves and burning wood – in its target – dropping from a 70% target for recycling into one that is something over 60% instead. Surrey’s Conservatives should not accept that recycling rates are stalling and then pay more for privilege to burn ever more waste.

The £85 and £160 million of public money saved from not building the eco-park could be invested in good waste management: reducing, reusing and recycling even more of what we currently throw away.We should follow best practice in Europe, where the best councils aim for zero waste without incineration, with over 85% recycling rates already being achieved. But this needs the government to work with councils – and incentivise reuse and recycling rather than costing millions of taxpayers money when we decide locally to burn more waste.

The Alternative: Save Money by Recycling More

This extra money spent burning our waste could be instead be used to help us to recycle more. We could invest in building new recycling plants rather than building incinerators – to keep jobs in recycling plastics, and reverse the decline of UK paper recycling. This approach could create green jobs across the UK, a different way to rebuild our economy. The government should support councils across the country to make it easier to recycle where it is hardest – like in blocks of flats (45 councils supported – but not Surrey) instead of choosing to incinerate waste where recycling rates are lowest. This would be real leadership – inspiring all of us to make Surrey better together.

Who Benefits

So, who benefits from the current approach? Not the government or Surrey Councils.Instead it is the waste companies will who earn more and more per tonne for disposing of our waste.We can save a LOT of money by not pouring valuable resources into incinerators. The green alternative is to invest in what want actually want – better recycling collection and creating even jobs that can then reuse and recycle these valuable resources – which would be better for us all.