Is incineration the right solution for Hackney’s Waste?

Photo: Tim Lewis

The recent articles in the Observer and the Channel 4 Dispatches programme have raised once again the question of whether incineration is the right solution for Hackney’s waste. 

The evidence that incineration competes with recycling and that it will soon become the dirtiest form of energy generation confirm our call for the council to think again about the plans for the new incinerator at Edmonton which has been given development consent and is on the verge of construction.


The future for the incinerator project

We ask what will the incinerator project look like by 2040?  Will it be an embarrassment: an expensive, high-carbon energy source fuelled by fossil plastic carbon from across London?  Will it become a barrier to Hackney achieving net zero by 2040?


In our community response to the council's declaration of a climate emergency in 2019 we asked for a review of the incinerator decision.   The response was "The incinerator and alternative plans have been fully reviewed.  The North London Waste authority will not be conducting a further review to get the same answer".


We think a new review will get a different answer because it will ask different questions in a new context.


Declaration of a climate emergency

Since 2015 both the UK government and Hackney Council along with 5 other NLWA boroughs have declared a climate emergency and Hackney now includes its share of incinerator emissions in the carbon budget, linking the incinerator to Hackney's climate emergency declaration.  The carbon emissions from various waste management alternatives should be reviewed to see which method will best help us achieve the 2040 net zero target.

Review of alternatives

The Alternatives assessment report which forms part of the DCO (Development Consent Order) was carried out in 2015, and did not consider the carbon impact of the alternatives. 


The CHP development strategy report also carried out in 2015 doesn't look at how net emissions will increase over time.

The 2019 Carbon screening report from Ramboll, the consultants advising on the incinerator design, does not stand up to scrutiny on several counts, mainly the lack of a non-landfill alternative, and is severely compromised by the conflict of interest.

None of these reports properly considers alternative waste management options.  None of them looks at how net carbon emissions from incineration will increase over time.  None of them considers the future impact of reductions in residual waste volume and the energy content of the waste.

Residual waste in NLWA currently contains a high proportion of recyclable materials.  Rather than incineration it would be better to recover recyclable materials mechanically, generate biogas for energy, and sequester fossil carbon, a scenario not considered by these reports.

Carbon emissions from the incinerator will increase over time 

The incinerators fossil emissions will be balanced out in the early years by the heat and electricity that it will generate.  They will reduce the need for high carbon energy to be generated elsewhere.  However, this rosy picture will change over time.

The UK government has legislated for zero carbon emissions by 2050 and this will require decarbonisation of both the electricity and heat sectors.  The carbon savings from the heat and electricity will dwindle so the net emissions from the incinerator will increase over time, and will still be increasing in 2040 when Hackney aims to achieve net zero.  By 2050 when electricity and heat will need to be 100% decarbonised the incinerator will look like a very high carbon source of energy. 

How will Hackney achieve its net zero target in this new reality?   

The incinerator is too big because it has to be efficient

The new incinerator is planned with a 40% increased capacity compared to the current model.  The forecast used to justify this increase is looking increasingly unrealistic as residual waste levels have failed to increase, despite an increasing population in the NLWA area. 

High efficiency is key to the classification of the new incinerator as a waste recovery facility, rather than a waste disposal facility and this is one of the main drivers for the designed capacity.  In order to maintain that efficiency additional waste will need to be imported from other areas to fill the capacity, against the principle of self-sufficiency.

Residual waste volumes are likely to fall, not increase

We are pleased to note that plans for fortnightly waste collections are expected to divert 4500 tpa of waste from residual waste to recycling.  This will also provide a great opportunity to communicate about recycling as part of the change in service.  We are also aware of the great progress being made by the excellent Hackney recycling team in improving estate recycling facilities.  Great strides have also been made in waste education, food waste collection trials and on-the-go collections.  The council is making improvements to reduce single use plastics, is participating in an NLWA low-plastic zone in Dalston, and recently submitted a Reduction and Recycling Plan to GLA for the period 2020-2024. 

It is clear that Hackney is accelerating the changes towards a circular economy and we are thrilled to be involved as a community partner in establishing the Library of Things in Dalston and Hackney Wick.

Within London the Mayor has set a household waste recycling target of 50% by 2025, a municipal waste recycling target of 65% by 2030, and a target to cut London's food waste and associated packaging waste by 50 per cent per person by 2030.  

In 2019 the government announced its waste and resources strategy for England which includes extended producer responsibility for packaging, a packaging waste recycling target of 75% by 2030, legislation to mandate separate food waste collections, and a 65% recycling target for municipal waste by 2035.  

These policies are expected to lead to a 30% reduction in municipal residual waste by 2035.

Achievement of these targets, which are necessary for moving towards a circular economy, will reduce the volume and calorific value of residual waste, increase the gap between supply of waste and the planned incinerator capacity and reduce energy efficiency.

Cost effectiveness

We were startled recently to hear that projected costs for the ERF have risen to £1.2bn.  How can we be assured that this will not detract from necessary investment in recycling and waste prevention?  Will further costs be incurred in carbon offset or carbon capture to achieve net zero by 2040?  Is a cost-review not timely before committing to such a long term project?

Our questions for Hackney


  • Does the declared climate emergency mean that we should look again at what is the lowest carbon waste management solution to help us achieve the 2040 net zero target?
  • Will net emissions from the incinerator increase over time and prevent Hackney achieving net zero by 2040?
  • Will falling residual waste volumes mean that the incinerator will need to import waste from other areas or burn recyclable materials to maintain operating efficiency and cost effectiveness?
  • Should we not consider these points before tying Hackney in to a long term project which will prevent us achieving net zero by 2040?

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Comment by Sustainable Hackney on May 8, 2021 at 11:36

An interesting report by environmental consultants Eunomia issued in December estimates that carbon emissions from incineration will be no better than landfill by 2035.  There is a serious risk that these plans will prevent Hackney from achieving it's 2040 net zero pledge, made in the 2019 climate emergency declaration.   We have asked Hackney's two NLWA representatives Mete Coban and Robert Thompson for a meeting to discuss alternatives and ask for a review.

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