This morning the environment committee turned its attention to the mayor's draft strategy for managing London's waste.
Environment policy advisor Isabel Dedring was - as usual - well briefed and committed to cleaning up a city which presents big future challenges. Industrial decline will lead to less waste being produced but the volume of municipal waste will continue to grow. A major target in the new strategy is to reduce the amount of household waste by 10% by 2020, an ambitious aspiration which is to be achieved by providing better information to householders and co-operating with large retailers to cut packaging.
A Varied City
London trails behind other regions in managing its municipal waste, with 49% still going to landfill. Whilst the challenge is greater as no other region is as urbanised as London, the witnesses also felt that some of the boroughs could have done more to encourage recycling. A beacon performer is the London Borough of Bexley - my colleague Gareth Bacon AM is the responsible cabinet member - where officers regard recyclates as valuable materials rather than waste.
In Bexley markets for paper, plastics, tins and glass are exploited to produce a revenue stream for the authority. They believe that they cannot afford not to offer recycling facilities.
Elsewhere more densely populated boroughs face the difficulty of encouraging recycling in blocks of flats. Bexley offer their suburban residents two wheelie bins and three different boxes to segregate their waste, but cramped apartments do not provide sufficient space for such luxuries. Residents wouldn't welcome five separate trips down the stairs with their bins when one black bag will suffice. Also the lack of gardens means there is no green waste, so the potential for recycling is lower. The good news is that flat owners tend to create less waste than large households.
For waste that cannot be recycled the traditional options have been landfill or incineration.
Landfill takes place outside London - the one exception being the site at Rainham - and the counties are unhappy about this continuing. A proscriptive landfill tax is going to make itself felt in coming years, providing a financial incentive for boroughs to reduce that 49% figure.
Incineration has traditionally played a significant role in London's waste disposal. Major incinerators at Edmonton and Lewisham have now been joined by the new plant at Belvedere which was held up by local opposition for many years. Outer London boroughs are no keener on disposing of Inner London's waste than the counties.
Incinerators carry a large capital cost so they need to be large if they are to pay for themselves. This in turn creates a demand that must be fed and perversely discourages attempts to recycle elements of their waste stream. Often the most easily recycled plastics and paper also provide the most calorific energy if incinerated, generating electricity and heat as useful by-products.
The London plants produce electricity but the heat currently goes to waste and the experts wanted to see pipe networks put in place to provide heating for nearby communities. Ultimately the most efficient option was to site incinerators close to major energy users - for example prisons or data centres - to minimise losses incurred in the transmission of heat and power over distances.
Or Something Else?
Much of the new technology for waste disposal is now proven and available. Options such as pyrolysis, gasification and anaerobic digestion take longer than incineration but are more carbon efficient. The time factor means that the plants require higher levels of staffing and labour costs present more of a problem than capital - so high waste streams are not required and recycling is not discouraged.
Isabel explained that the profusion of disposal sites envisaged in the old plan had been reduced and there was no longer an attempt to 'pick winners' from a suite of options that were still evolving. The intention was to use existing waste disposal or transfer sites for new plants rather than seeking permission for new sites. This is good news for householders who are never keen to have their waste handled on their own doorsteps.