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Environmental permitting

The process of incineration of waste creates a number of emissions. Regulation of waste incineration stems from EU legislation, principally the Industrial Emissions Directive 2010. Under this legislation incinerators must operate under a permit regime based on Best Available Techniques. Following the UK’s EU exit, the body of law implementing this regime is now classed as retained EU law and remains in place through domestic regulations, including the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales Regulations) 2016, as amended. An environmental permit will set conditions which limit the discharge to air, water and soil of specified substances.

Once an operator has an environmental permit, changes in the operation of the facility may require the operator to apply (to the relevant regulator) to vary the permit.

Planning permission and incineration policy

In addition to obtaining the correct environmental permits, new incineration plants will also need obtain planning permission. Further information about the planning considerations for England is set out in the UK Government’s Planning Policy for Waste document, 2014 and in Northern Ireland from the Department for Infrastructure’s Planning policy webpage. In its December 2018 Resources and Waste Strategy the then UK Government said that “Incineration currently plays a significant role in waste management in the UK, and the Government expects this to continue.” More recently, in response to a PQ in October 2022 the Government stated that it, “has no plans to introduce a moratorium on new incineration capacity in England.

In Scotland, an Independent Review of the Role of Incineration in the Waste Hierarchy in Scotland, was led by Dr Colin Church (Chief Executive of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining) and a final report published in May 2022. In June 2022 the Scottish Government accepted all twelve recommendations, including Dr Church’s recommendation that no further planning permission for incineration facilities should be granted.

In March 2021 the Welsh Government announced that it was putting in place an immediate moratorium on new large-scale energy from waste plants.  The moratorium covers new energy from waste plants with a capacity of 10MW or more, and came into effect immediately.

Waste hierarchy

Regulations also provide for a “waste hierarchy”. This gives top priority to preventing waste in the first place. When waste is created, it gives priority to preparing it for re-use, then recycling, then recovery, and last of all disposal (e.g. landfill and incineration where there is no energy recovery).

Opposition to incineration

Incineration can be a controversial form of waste management. Proposals for new incineration facilities often face strong public opposition. Many environmental groups oppose incineration and there are also specific campaign groups against incineration, including UKWIN (UK Without Incineration Network). UKWIN argues that, among other things, incineration is a barrier to a circular economy – preventing resources from being reused, depresses recycling, is a nuisance and gives rise to air pollution concerns.

Specific concerns

There has been concern about the impact of air pollution from waste incinerators on human health, particularly in respect of Particulate Matter (PM). Following a recent major study on modern municipal waste incinerators (MWIs), Public Health England (PHE) has said “PHE’s risk assessment remains that modern, well run and regulated municipal waste incinerators are not a significant risk to public health. While it is not possible to rule out adverse health effects from these incinerators completely, any potential effect for people living close by is likely to be very small.”

Environmental organisations, such as the Green Alliance, have expressed concern that public and private infrastructure investment in energy from waste facilities has undermined recycling ambitions. They argue that that the Government should shift focus upstream, so that materials are captured and repurposed before they become waste.

The Committee on Climate Change noted in its 2022 Progress Report to Parliament noted that Energy from Waste and incineration plants are responsible for about a quarter of the waste sector’s emissions and that incineration emissions had increased by 3% from 2019 levels. The Committee has warned against an over-reliance on incineration and said that greater investment in recycling was needed.

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