According to government figures, a record two-fifths of Bedford Borough’s waste was incinerated in 2020/21.
In the past, the UK sent almost all of its waste to landfill. These were seen as an inexpensive and easy way to get rid of rubbish.
When a new landfill tax made this more expensive, municipalities had to use an alternative, which is to burn the waste (incineration with energy from waste (EfW)).
David Spencer, spokesman for Covanta Rookery South, Stewartby, said: “The benefit of energy from waste is that you get a lot of electricity which you can export to the grid.
“You can also reuse ferrous and non-ferrous metals that are mined after the treatment process, and the ashes can be used in construction projects.”
Neil Grimstone, Managing Director of Covanta Rookery South, said: “Additionally the landfills are leaking methane, which is a much more harmful greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide we emit here.”
Biodegradable waste sent to landfill slowly decomposes emitting methane for many years after it is deposited.
Although it has a shorter atmospheric lifetime than carbon dioxide (CO2) (12 years compared to centuries for CO2), methane has a greater effect on global warming (84x greater than a tonne of CO2 over 20 years).
The government’s Net Zero Strategy (October 2021) commits it to exploring options for virtual elimination of biodegradable municipal waste to landfill from 2028.
A Defra spokesperson said: ‘Through our historic Environment Act, we continue to take action to prevent waste and increase the amount of waste that is reused and recycled.
“We are very clear that incineration should be a last resort behind the prevention, reuse and recycling of waste. However, it is better to use the waste to generate energy rather than putting it in landfill for future generations to care for.
In 2017/18, 24.4% (21,166 tonnes) of Bedford Borough’s waste was sent for incineration with EfW. In 2020/21, this figure has increased to 40% (33,499 tons).
This increase meant that for the first time the municipality was sending more waste to be incinerated than recycled. But it wasn’t because the council had decided to burn more rubbish.
A spokesperson for the council said: “The drop in recycling rates is [due to] a number of factors.
“Covid-19 garden waste collections have been suspended and there has been a widespread closure of household waste recycling centres.
“No household waste from the Borough of Bedford is sent to landfill, everything is sent to the local energy recovery facility to power local homes with locally generated electricity.”
However, some waste still ends up in landfill. The council spokesperson said: ‘A small amount of commercial waste and bulky items are going to landfill and we are working to ensure this is reduced to zero in the near future.
Concerns about emissions from the Covanta site were raised at the full board meeting in July. The council did not respond when asked if it had ever raised concerns about emissions with the incineration site it used before moving to Rookery South.
By John Guinn
Local Democracy Journalist