The claim has been made by Lambeth Council that it now has a ‘46% recycling rate’. It was trotted out for national recycling week And it was recycled in the Streatham Guardian today.
It would be surprising if this were the case, because Lambeth’s recycling has been lagging in recent years. It has fallen further and further behind the London average and is now lying in 28th place among London boroughs, recycling just over 27% of its waste according to official figures contained in the report at the end of last year from the London Assembly.
46% however is what Lambeth needs to achieve in order to reach the Mayor of London’s recycling targets, which are contained in Lambeth's waste strategy. The percentage of Local Authority Collected Municipal Waste reused, recycled or composted needs to be hitting this level by 2012/13.
The official statistics have still to be published for 2011-12, which makes the 46% figure even more perplexing. But closer inspection reveals that Lambeth has reached this figure by including waste it incinerates. This, it claims is “recycling” because some of the heat generated is used to make electricity (very inefficiently) and some of the materials from the ash are reclaimed.
When Lambeth has problems, what it often does is redefine things. It did it for example with potholes, meaning it didn’t have to repair as many. It is however less easy to redefine recycling. EU regulations set out a clear waste hierarchy, which makes it clear that incineration is not recycling.
Article 4 of the revised EU Waste Framework Directive (Directive 2008/98/EC) sets out five steps for dealing with waste, ranked according to environmental impact – the ‘waste hierarchy’.
Prevention, which offers the best outcomes for the environment, is at the top of the priority order, followed by preparing for re-use, recycling, other recovery and disposal, in descending order of environmental preference as follows:
1. Prevention: Using less material in design and manufacture. Keeping products for longer; re-use. Using less hazardous materials
2. Preparing for re-use: Checking, cleaning, repairing, refurbishing, whole items or spare parts
3. Recycling: Turning waste into a new substance or product. Includes composting if it meets quality protocols
4. Other recovery: Includes anaerobic digestion, incineration with energy recovery, gasification and pyrolysis which produce energy (fuels, heat and power) and materials from waste; some backfilling
5. Disposal: Landfill and incineration without energy recovery
What Lambeth are claiming is "recycling" is actually "other recovery" (4) and "disposal" (5) which is lower down the hierachy, and are not classified as 'recycling'.
What are the consequences of an emphasis on this rather than recycling? They are set out well here but in summary:
1. The energy produced is not “renewable energy” as Lambeth is claiming. The municipal waste being used is non-renewable, consisting of discarded materials such as paper, plastic and glass that are derived from finite natural resources such as forests that are being depleted at unsustainable rates.
2. Burning these materials in order to generate electricity actually creates a demand for “waste” and discourages much needed efforts to conserve resources, reduce packaging and waste and encourage recycling and composting.
3. Lambeth is incinerating materials which should be recycled. More than 90% of materials currently disposed of in incinerators can be reused, recycled and composted.
4. The incinerator poses a considerable risk to people’s health and environment. Even the most technologically advanced incinerators release thousands of pollutants that contaminate our air, soil and water. Many of these pollutants enter the food supply and concentrate up through the food chain. Incinerator workers and people living near incinerators are particularly at high risk of exposure to dioxin and other contaminants.
5. Burning the waste contributes to climate change. Incinerators emit more carbon dioxide (CO2) per unit of electricity (2988 lbs/MWh) than coal-fired power plants.
The place where Lambeth's incineration takes place is a Waste plant at Belvedere, Bexley. The plant was opposed by Ken Livingstone, among others, who took legal action against its construction. It was also highlighted by Friends of the Earth as something which would hinder, not help, in the battle against climate change.
In short, Lambeth’s recycling claims are not just misleading, they are destructive. They are creating more CO2 emissions, air pollution, and in the long term lessening the demand for recycling. This is greenwash.
[Update December 2012: The borough recycling rates for 2011-12 have now been released, and sure enough, Lambeth's recycling rate is exactly the same as last year at 28%]