Talking rubbish? – What really happens to your recycling

Empty plastic trays and tubs for recycling
Photo credit: Joan Ballington

Chris Davis studied human geography at King’s College London. He was involved in the university Labour society and is still an active member of the Labour Party. He is now based in Sussex, working for a renewable energy company, and has been working with Sussex Bylines to set up the young writers’ section ‘Our Future, Our Voices’.

The most eco-friendly city in the UK has a disturbing secret: recycling doesn’t mean what it used to. When we think of Brighton we think of a progressive, environmentally focused city, which prioritises cyclists and pedestrians over the car. We think of community beach cleans, and the hundreds of recycling bins dotted all over the place to handle the waste produced by the near 300,000 Brightonians and visitors.

What many people don’t know is that the recycling rate in Brighton is shocking, and most plastics put into those bins aren’t actually recycled. In fact, according to the local council, “only 22-29% of the total would be regularly recycled”; instead the majority of the plastics are sent off to be incinerated.

The council report references PTTs, or Pots Tubs and Trays, as the main type of plastic being sent off to be burnt. These plastics make up over 70% of the plastic packaging in the UK. If near to 80% of the plastics in Brighton are being incinerated, think of the picture across the rest of the UK: 90 incinerators are already in place, and there are 50 more proposed or in development according to Greenpeace.

The council noted in their report that they are concerned public confidence may be damaged by the low recycling rates and they’ve a right to think that. Waste disposal is of course a challenge, and there is no golden bullet. We know we need alternatives to landfill, but our plastics going up in smoke surely isn’t the solution.

The Newhaven incinerator, which serves six neighbouring authorities, opened in 2012 despite emphatic opposition from the locals. It produces enough energy to power 25,000 homes. This doesn’t seem like much and at what cost? To be precise: “An incredibly restrictive 30-year Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contract” that Brighton and Hove council is locked into, according to Green MP Caroline Lucas (email correspondence).

She told me that Veolia, who operate recycling and waste management for East Sussex County Council (ESCC) and Brighton and Hove City Council, limit what plastics can be recycled and therefore what heads to the incinerator. Changes to equipment allowing more types of plastic to be recycled would cost upwards of £1million which, after years of Tory austerity, the council simply can’t afford. Early termination of the contract would also be prohibitively expensive which has locked the area into a cycle of waste incineration for the foreseeable future. 

Veolia says on its website that it turns waste unsuitable for recycling into over 19 megawatts of energy at the Newhaven site, but as Caroline explained, it is Veolia, not the council, who determines exactly what waste is to be recycled, which allows them to create a constant stream of waste to be incinerated.

This is a cycle that is hard to break, and not only because of the PFI contracts many local councils across the country are trapped in. Waste incinerators operate as power stations, which need to be fed, resulting in more and more of our waste being burnt as opposed to being recycled. This is done to justify the huge investments into these projects, which are designed to be in place for decades.

It isn’t a sustainable solution either. Much of what ends up being burnt is plastic, which is made from oil; so to argue, as Veolia do, that waste incineration is less carbon intensive is simply not true. The Newhaven incinerator cost ESCC £145million, which begs the question: surely this money could have been better invested in improving recycling rates in the area, in housing or on greener forms of energy production? 

Night-time photo of Newhaven incinerator
Newhaven incinerator. Photo credit: stu8fish

We are facing a climate emergency. Investing millions of pounds in dirty projects set to last decades is not the way forward. Local Green Party councillors and the MP know this; the Greens were the only political party to oppose the Veolia contract when it was introduced. There are alternatives to incinerating waste, there just needs to be the political willpower and investment of capital to make these alternatives a reality. We only have one planet and we should be doing all we can to conserve it. 

This whole thing stinks.

It’s up to residents of Sussex to ensure that they do their part to reduce their waste and voice opposition to these projects. It’s evident, with another incinerator under construction in Horsham, that time is running out and we need to fight for greener alternatives.

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