The UK waste sector can play a pivotal role on the climate change debate

15th May 2019 Posted by

Posted by Dr Adam Read.Dr Adam Read, External Affairs Director, SUEZ reccyling and recovery UK

The last few weeks have seen media attention return (hopefully not for a limited time only) from Brexit to global climate change.

With the release of Sir David Attenborough’s fine BBC documentary ‘Climate Change – the facts’ and the release of the UK Committee on Climate Change’s report ‘Net Zero – the UK’s contribution to stopping global warming’ which highlighted which sectors need to do in order to reach the UK’s 2050 net zero emissions target, things are heating up.

Attenborough’s programme could become a watershed moment in this debate, just as he achieved with Blue Planet II and the fight against plastics.

He not only highlighted a world where climate change is here today, but one which is forcing society to take tough decisions each and every day, from where to live, and where to grow crops, to how we should power our ever-increasing urban spaces and booming population.

But the programme wasn’t all doom and gloom and did highlight some of the choices that are available to us as consumers, decision-makers and activists to help get us back on the right track again. It was a call to arms, and one that I hope the those of us living and working in the UK are ready and willing to embrace.

The waste sector has played its role

The last 20 years have seen a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (down by 69% from 1990) from the waste sector, while the last 10 years have seen some of the most rapid decline in emissions of any sector (apart from heavy industry and power production).

This has been achieved by clear UK and EU policy driving change, with the landfill tax (in response to the EU Landfill Directive and its targets to phase out biodegradable material going to landfill) being the primary driving force.

We have seen recycling rates grow to 45% (and then stagnate) and have witnessed an extensive programme of new energy recovery (and heat and power) plants being built to reduce our reliance on landfill and the associated problems of methane emission from sites both old and new.

The newer Energy from Waste (EfW) sites has significantly reduced the sector’s emission performance (compared to earlier facilities and to landfill as a whole) in line with more stringent EU regulations.

The UK waste and resources sector is now showcasing just what can be achieved with clear policy and political leadership and an appropriate period of time in which to secure investment and build the appropriate infrastructure.

So what can the sector possibly contribute in the next 20 years to continue to play its role at the forefront of the push towards zero net emissions?

Lead from the front

We cannot afford to stand still and reflect on our successes, and Defra’s now closed consultations and last year’s Resources & Waste Strategy demonstrate just some of the performance step changes, policy interventions and new solutions required to contribute to a net zero carbon future.

One that is based on the principles of extended producer responsibility (EPR), circular economies, and greater resource productivity and efficiency. We must all expect to play our part in delivering even more emission reduction in the coming decade or so.

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has called for a ban on all biodegradable waste sent to landfill by 2025, ahead of any policy timetable being proposed by Defra.

However, Defra and the devolved administrations are already considering the right mix of policy interventions, enforcement and the incentives needed to make this happen. These include mandatory food waste collections and free garden waste collections, through to new incentives for district heat networks. So things are looking positive.

The waste sector has already actively begun to phase out the purchasing of conventional petrol and diesel trucks by 2040, while the roll-out of food waste services across the UK have not only improved the capture and use of this material, but also contributed to consumer education about wasteful consumption patterns.

And consumer engagement is also going to be key if we are to really address climate change globally, not only in terms of food waste but wider in terms of decisions about commuting to work, choices about holiday destinations and our penchant for fashion purchasing.

In many respects we have real opportunities ahead of us to make the short term policy, technology and regulatory changes needed to make zero net emissions a reality, but do we have the ambition to do so, or might a carbon tax be on its way, and is society really ready to play its role?

Anaerobic Digestion is already delivering a 1% reduction on greenhouse gas emission and if the sector develops along the lines that the consultation documents suggest, then it could deliver up to a 5% reduction on its own, if we get source segregation and quality feedstocks right.

The UK Resources Council has also begun looking at longer-term market demands for both organic and recyclable feedstocks, from the chemicals manufacturing space to aviation and agriculture.

With the increasing demand for renewable heat, renewable fuels and improving soil productivity, there are plenty of new opportunities for synergistic developments between the resources and waste sector and a number of new green markets with a high demand for new feedstocks.

All of these opportunities are being driven to some extent by the need to decarbonise the transport and industrial sectors in the UK and the resources and waste sector can continue to lead from the front in helping to green other sectors.

But are consumers ready to play their part fully?

One would hope that the Blue Planet effect will grab the UK public’s attention and deliver a step change in attitude and action. It is clear that the ongoing policy agenda from Defra is clearly towards a culture of recycling, moving away from our throwaway habits, towards prevention and reuse – but will this be enough?

Will a thorough reform of EPR ensure that consumers buy sensibly, recycle religiously and accurately, and demand that brands redesign their products to improve recyclability and reduce wastage?

If the proposals on the table deliver, then 2050 targets for net zero emissions may be deliverable ahead of schedule, at least for the resources sector and associated sectors that are working with us.

But if the public can’t be encouraged to ‘do their bit’ we may well miss the boat and have might have to reconsider their voluntary status.

It may well take restrictions on air travel, limits on meat purchasing, vegetables only being available in-season, and a more rapid phasing out of conventional petrol and diesel cars before consumers realise just how bad the situation.

Will we look back in 2030 and reflect if only we had bought more sensibly and recycled better, we wouldn’t be in this mess now? Only time will tell, but time is the one thing we are running out of time to act.


This blog was originally published on on 14 May 2019.

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