The waste sector’s role in delivering Net Zero in the UK

13th March 2020 Posted by

In the last 30 years, the UK waste industry significantly reduced greenhouse gas emission, bringing it down by 69% from 1990. Remarkably, the last decade has seen some of the most rapid declines in emissions of any sector with exception of heavy industry and power.

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 a significant driving factor. We have seen recycling rates grow to 45% and have witnessed an extensive programme of new energy recovery and heat and power plants being built to reduce our reliance on landfill thus reducing the associated problems of methane emissions.

Energy-from-waste facility

The newer energy-from-waste (EfW) facilities (such as Ardley, Avonmouth, Wilton and Belvedere) have significantly reduced the sector’s emissions compared to earlier facilities, aligning with the more stringent EU regulations. The UK waste and resources sector is now showcasing what can be achieved with clear policy and political leadership coupled with an appropriate period of time for securing investment and building the appropriate infrastructure.

However, many campaigners are arguing that EfW doesn’t have a role in a more circular, sustainable resourceful world and many of us would accept this position. We also acknowledge the need for these technologies to play a transitional role as the UK recycling rates move from 45% to 75%. The increasing refill, re-use and refurb will continue to phase out landfill. As such, a planned transition is needed, using sensible technologies. What the sector needs from government is clarity of how it intends to meet its Net Zero Carbon target, which sectors it will prioritise and what interim targets and interventions it plans to use to invoke change. Without this clarity investment will stall, and it takes years to plan, build and commission large-scale infrastructure. Our one big ask of government is the creation of investable conditions, with policy consistency and sensible timetabling.

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) recently called for a ban on all biodegradable waste sent to landfill by 2025, ahead of any policy timetable being proposed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). However, DEFRA and the devolved administrations are already considering the right mix of policy interventions, enforcement and incentives needed to make this happen, from mandatory food waste collections and free garden waste collections through to new incentives for district heat networks. The outlook is positive, and the resources sector is ready to play its part in collecting, harvesting and processing these new resources, to generate green energy or to help improve soil fertility.

In the meantime, there is plenty of activity underway in our sector. We have already begun to phase out the purchasing of conventional petrol and diesel trucks by 2040. I have seen first-hand their excellent performance in several of our contracts in recent months. The roll-out of food waste services across the UK has not only improved the capture and use of this material but has also contributed to consumer education about wasteful consumption patterns.

Consumer engagement is going to be key if we are to really address climate change here in the UK, not only in terms of food waste but also with decisions about commuting to work, choices about holiday destinations and our fast fashion purchasing habits.

Our role in UK’s drive for decarbonisation

Our sector also has a future role in helping to decarbonise other priority UK sectors. We can harness potential fertilisers and composts for improving agricultural productivity. It’s also possible to capture plastics and through chemical recycling provide critical feedstock for both aviation or the chemicals sectors with clean recycled content.

The opportunities are really opening up for the resources and waste sector to become an intrinsic part of the UK’s drive for decarbonisation. With the right policy levers and clarity of priority sectors from government, we will be ready to invest. SUEZ has for several years been helping CEMEX to decarbonise their cement production in the UK, feeding 120,000 tonnes per annum of ClimaFuel (utilising black bag waste and refining it into a sold recovered fuel that substitutes for coal) at their facility in Rugby.

This displaces 70% of their coal demand and has significant benefits on carbon and other emissions. As a company, we are working on other joint ventures to explore our role in supporting other sectors and brands.

With the current reforms to Extended Producer Responsibility, consistent collections and a tax on plastic bottles with low recycled content, the immediate direction of travel for the resources and waste sector is clear. Greater recycling and packaging redesign to minimise cost will have significant benefits in terms of carbon emissions, but to meet the 2050 target, the sector will need to move further up the hierarchy. This will include working on refillable and reusable packaging and responding to the desire from many for greater use of deposit return schemes to keep packaging alive longer. Importantly, there will be opportunities to work beyond our traditional boundaries to support the decarbonisation of other sectors, outing the resource industry and the heart of the UK’s net zero agenda.

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