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Smell the coffee

Smell the coffee

Jonathan Standen 07 May 2019

Addressing Climate Change through Waste Management Practice in the UK

The Climate Change Commission (CCC) last week issued a stark call to the UK Government and industry to urgently put in place measures to ensure the UK contributes to stopping global warming. The Commission’s report ‘Net Zero - The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming’, published in May 2019, sets out how the UK should set and vigorously pursue an ambitious target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to ‘net zero by 2050, ending the UK’s contribution to global warming within 30 years’.

The report sets out that a net zero greenhouse gas target for 2050 would respond to the latest climate change science and fully meet the UK’s obligations under the Paris Agreement (2015). As a way of reminder, the Paris Agreement is an agreement achieved within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) dealing with greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions mitigation, adaptation and finance starting to apply from the year 2020.

The CCC reporting states that ‘In committing to a net zero GHG target, Parliament must understand that, while many of the policy foundations are in place, a major ramp up in policy effort is required. Noting that the foundations are in place including diversion of biodegradable waste from landfill, efficient buildings and low carbon heating, these policies must be strengthened, and they must deliver action.’

The net zero target goes beyond the reduction needed globally to hold the expected rise in global average temperature to well below 2o C, and beyond the Paris Agreement’s goal to achieve a balance between global resources and sinks of greenhouse gas emissions in the second half of the century. There is need however to replicate this ambitious target across the world. If this was achieved coupled with ambitious near-term reductions in emissions it would deliver, the report states, a greater than 50% chance of limiting temperature increase to 1.5%; this perfectly illustrates how much work is needed globally to address the problem we all now face.

The reporting sets out a spectrum of sectors which must be addressed, including the role that food consumption and waste management plays in the overall strategy. Specifically, it recommends that biodegradable waste should not be sent to landfill after 2025, which will clearly require additional regulative and enforcement efforts with further supporting action implemented through the waste chain. The report encourages societal choices that lead to a lower demand for carbon-intensive activities, including an acceleration in the shift towards healthier diets with reduced consumption of beef, lamb and dairy products, and reductions in food waste, with one fifth of UK agricultural land shifting to tree planting, energy crops and peatland restoration.

A significant contribution to methane gas emissions from landfill sites directly comes from the disposal of food waste. In the UK, it is estimated that that annually 10 million tonnes (Mt) of food are wasted. A fifth of UK greenhouse gas emissions are also associated with food, mostly created during its production.

In the UK, emissions from waste sector have fallen by 69% since 1990, due to the UK’s landfill tax, which has reduced the amount of biodegradable waste going to landfill. There has also been an increase in methane captured at landfill sites. Further active steps are now being taken in waste management through the drive for greater recovery and the minimisation (if not cessation) of landfill of biodegradable waste, though the need for greater coordination within across the UK is clearly evident. Scotland currently has a target to reduce emissions of all greenhouse gases by at least 80% by 2050, when compared to its 1990 levels. The target, originally set in the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009, is under review as part of the new Climate Change Bill currently being considered by the Scottish Parliament which may provide for a more ambitious target to come forwards.

The Waste (Scotland) Regulations 2012 ban biodegradable municipal waste (BMW) from landfill in Scotland from the 1st of January 2021. As yet, no transitional arrangements are in place, which will have significant implications for those who have responsibility of managing the waste stream. In preparation for the Regulations coming into force, the Scottish Government has now made public a report [1] it has commissioned on the current and future markets for the disposal and recovery of BMW.

The reporting concludes that ‘despite the significant notice that has been provided of the ban, the alternative waste management options that will be needed may not be available at sufficient scale or at an affordable price at the point when the ban commences’. Authorities which account for 55.5% of residual household waste have made the financial investment to ensure solutions are in place before the ban comes into force. However, other authorities which account for 23.6% of household waste have no alternative arrangements in place at the moment. The remainder have long-term solutions in place but are unprepared for the short-term. The reporting also confirms that ‘commercial waste operators without access to alternative infrastructure appear yet to have made adequate preparations for the ban’.

The ban in the short-term is predicted to lead to a significant rise in residual waste treatment costs for organisations that have not already secured a long-term contract, particularly so given the estimated capacity gap in waste treatment infrastructure in Scotland, which stands at approximately 1 million tonnes. The consequence of this, in the short-term at least, is that there will be a greater reliance on exports and landfill in England, though in remaining capacity terms this is also becoming limited.

In England, the new Government’s Resources and Waste Strategy published by Defra in December 2018 seeks to reverse the focus on disposal to landfill with the aim to ‘redress the balance in favour of the natural world…to move to a more circular economy which keeps resources in use for longer.’ The Strategy puts in place a framework to support the step-change needed in recycling performance. In England, the ambition is to recycle at least 65% of waste arisings (and in Scotland and Wales 70% by 2025), but the recycling rate has slowed, particularly so over recent years, and it presently stands at approximately 45% (up from 11% in 2000/2001); in comparison, Wales is set to become the world leader for recycling by 2020, currently achieving recycling rates of 63.8% for municipal solid waste, which includes household plastic and other packaging.

With recycling rates in England having now plateaued, during recent questions at the House of Commons Theresa May emphasised the need to maximise the amount of waste recycled, rather than sent to incineration or landfill, and warned that whilst work to drive down waste to landfill was welcomed, ‘if wider policies don’t deliver our waste ambitions in the future, including higher recycling rates, then the government will consider the introduction of  tax on the incineration of waste’. There is however a need to incentivise industries to reduce their emissions in ways which do not adversely affect competitiveness.

But what part of the residual waste, the non- recyclable elements which remain after recyclable elements, have been retrieved? If the 65% recycling target is achieved, then Defra forecasts that there will still be up to 20 million tonnes of residual waste to be managed by 2035. Now, approximately 3 million tonnes of residual waste is exported from the UK to fuel energy generation.  Retaining that material in the UK, and diverting it from landfill, offers up a potential resource in the form of refuse-derived fuel; this could be treated through energy-from-waste processes to benefit home-based demands for energy generation and CO2 savings, necessary to contribute to the reduction in global warming.

To conclude, it is clear that there needs to be a rapid transition to practice which, together with other greenhouse gas producing sectors, will contribute to meeting the UK’s climate change commitments. However, the true measure of success is for the UK, along with other world nations, to provide leadership including the delivery of their GHG objectives ahead of time.  

[1] Waste Markets Study – Full Report (April 2019)