Ming’s podcast question hotline is a great idea and it is a shame they didn’t go with it earlier.
Unfortunately, it was let down by the content. No Mr Campbell, it is not a matter of deciding between incineration and recycling. There is a third option which is usually labelled as “incineration”: energy from waste. In other words you burn waste product and capture energy from it – as energy efficient as most gas or oil powered generators and even more so if you make it part of a combined heat and power system. And there is a fourth option which ought to be at the top of everyone’s agenda but gets sidetracked: waste reduction.
A lot of things – not least of all paper – are environmentally very expensive to recycle with little gain. Indeed, environmentally speaking, surely burning used paper has got to be better than growing crops specifically for the purpose of energy production – at least you get a double hit? Plastic is a tricky case: because of the way much of it is treated, it is often much more environmentally friendly to burn, but there’s a lot of mileage in regulating to standardise the plastics we use for packaging and thus make recycling more viable.
The claim that incineration discourages recycling is utterly spurious. Think about it. If it is true that an incineration industry discourages recycling (actually the EU’s top recyclers are also top energy from waste generators), then it is equally true that a recycling industry discourages waste reduction. If you are going to employ such simplistic arguments then the only conclusion is to oppose both.
A more sensible approach is to have an integrated recycling and energy system in which the two work hand-in-glove. A more sensible approach would be to tightly regulate incinerators to ensure that only modern, efficient and zero-emissions systems can be used. A more sensible approach would scrap the landfill tax and replace it with a tax on packaging at source to discourage creating unneccessary packaging in the first place. Yet the FoE lobby, which unfortunately Norman Baker pays too much lip service to, actively works against it. Not for the first or last time has the environmental lobby proven to be a hindrance not a help.