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South London Waste Partnership responds to Channel 4 Dispatches programme ‘The dirty truth about your rubbish’ (aired 8 March 2021)

March 9, 2021

Responding to the Dispatches programme ‘The dirty truth about your rubbish’ (broadcast on Channel 4, 8 March 2021), a spokesperson for the South London Waste Partnership said:

“The South London Waste Partnership boroughs (Croydon, Kingston, Merton and Sutton) welcome any informed and balanced debate on the important issue of how best to manage the country’s non-recyclable (residual) waste. The recent Channel 4 Dispatches programme raised some interesting points. However it failed to address a key issue, which was to present a viable and preferable alternative to energy from waste (EfW).

“The programme directly compared EfW with coal and gas fired power plants, suggesting that EfW is only marginally better than coal and worse than gas when it comes to carbon intensity. But that comparison is nonsensical because there is a fundamental difference between EfWs and coal or gas fired power plants: The core role of EfWs is to treat waste. The fact they produce energy as a by-product of that process is a welcome bonus. 

“If we were to close down all the UK’s coal and gas fired power plants tomorrow, then the valuable natural resources they burn could be left undisturbed in the ground. Close down the UK’s EfW plants tomorrow and we would still be left with millions of tonnes of waste each year that cannot be recycled. What would we do with that waste? Currently the only alternative for local authorities would be to start filling up our landfill sites again; a huge backward step for the environment.

“Until we can find an answer to that problem there will always be a need for EfW plants, which provide a cost-effective and environmentally sustainable alternative to landfill (every tonne of waste diverted from landfill to EfW reduces carbon emissions by about 200kg CO2e).

“Dispatches went on to claim that areas of the country that rely on EfW plants to treat their residual waste also have low recycling rates. That is not the case in The South London Waste Partnership region. The four boroughs have made excellent progress with their recycling rates in recent years, outperforming regional and national trends (see graph below). This shows that recycling and energy from waste can live side by side.

Recycling rate graph

A graph showing the national, London and SLWP recycling rates from 2016 to 2020

“A particularly alarming claim made by one of the programme’s contributors was that official recycling rates are based on what’s collected at the kerbside and that they don’t take into account what actually happens to the recycling after it’s been collected. The suggestion being that large quantities of household waste that has been carefully sorted by residents is not recycled but instead is used to ‘feed’ energy from waste plants instead.

“That is simply not the case. The South London Waste Partnership boroughs’ recycling rates reflect the proportion of household waste that was actually recycled. Any waste that has been properly sorted by residents is recycled. To suggest otherwise is inaccurate and has the potential to damage trust in the system and reduce residents’ motivation to sort their rubbish – something none of us want.

“What is true is that residents have a really important role to play here. Reducing the amount of plastics we all place in our rubbish bins is by far the most effective way of reducing the amount of fossil-derived carbon emitted from EfW plants. We will continue to work hard to encourage residents to use the comprehensive recycling services we offer to their full potential. We also look forward to national policies being introduced by the government in the near future that will remove much of these plastics from the residual waste stream entirely.

“Anyone who wants to know more about where the SLWP boroughs send the recycling and residual waste they collect is encouraged to watch the Destination Recycling videos at: www.slwp.org.uk/destination-recycling