Governments and businesses globally are committing to Net Zero targets, but the UK’s journey towards zero carbon emissions from its waste sector is at risk of stagnating.
Michael Topham, CEO of leading sustainable waste management company Biffa, says that changing perceptions and policies around waste — and what we do with it — are key to regaining momentum.
The UK’s waste sector is running out of steam on its journey to Net Zero. Significant progress towards decarbonisation over the 21st century is now at risk of slowing down – a product of the COVID-19 pandemic and political turmoil.
Efforts to deliver on Net Zero commitments have been further hampered by an over-reliance on waste export and problems with materials which are difficult to recycle.
It’s a reality we can’t afford while the carbon clock ticks, but we can recover the pace. Building on the strong support for decarbonisation from the UK’s government and public, the waste management sector is uniquely placed to evolve and reignite its progress towards Net Zero.
Why is sustainable waste management so important?
Waste management has always been an essential service for businesses, with a clear role in the drive for decarbonisation that goes beyond treatment and disposal. Waste sector CO2e has reduced by 69% since 1990i, marking a stand-out contribution to the UK’s overall Net Zero goals.
There’s a missed opportunity to drive greater progress if we only focus on reducing emissions from waste treatment and disposal, and do not look at opportunities around waste reduction and collection. We’re working with businesses and government departments to support a transition to more sustainable waste management and prevention, facilitating increased recycling and reuse, as well as the redistribution of surplus to prevent waste.
How can we make waste management more sustainable?
Waste management is always evolving, with new recycling technologies reducing the proportion of waste sent to landfill – which was at 90%ii in 2000 and has since fallen to below 10%iii – but these processes still produce carbon in the absence of abundant clean energy sources.
Achieving the UK’s 2050 emissions targets requires a fundamental change in how we perceive and process waste. We therefore recommend a two-step process – shifting our mindset towards more sustainable waste management, and activating this change with progressive policies – detailed in our report, From Waste Hierarchy to Carbon Hierarchy: Biffa’s Blueprint for Waste Net Zero.
Driving progress towards Net Zero requires a change of mindset. While helpful in managing and reducing the amount of waste send to landfill, the traditional waste hierarchy doesn’t help us consider the carbon cost of waste management.
By looking at waste processing through the lens of carbon benefits, we can better identify the pathway to Net Zero for the waste sector.
This ‘carbon hierarchy’, which considers the emissions generated at each stage of the waste management process, can unlock critical carbon savings from waste across collection, reuse, recycling and energy recovery. In collections, switching the UK fleet of refuse vehicles to electric would save 290 Kt of CO2 each yeariv. On waste reduction, redistributing one tonne of surplus food to prevent it from potentially going to landfill can save 0.989 tonnes CO2ev.
These are changes the industry can make today, using advances in electric vehicle infrastructure and improved food waste reporting. We’re diversifying the Biffa fleet with 27 electric collections vehicles operating in Manchester, while our Company Shop Group – the UK’s leading redistributor of surplus food and household products, acquired by Biffa in early 2021 – saved 103,612 tonnes CO2e throughout 2022 by redistributing waste which could otherwise have ended up in landfill.
Developing the carbon hierarchy further with high quality recycling for plastics and Energy from Waste (EfW) recovery depends on maturing technologies and infrastructure, but these will also have a big impact on the Net Zero journey. We need to support ventures which will tangibly enhance the waste sector’s sustainability. This also means committing to closed-loop, food-grade plastic recycling – or ‘real recycling’, as we like to call it. This stops material quality being lost in the recycling process, so they can be used again for their original purpose, rather than downcycled.
We all know what they say about roads paved with good intentions. The UK’s drive to Net Zero is inspirational, but we need progressive policy development to steer the business community through this uncharted territory.
Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), the Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) and Plastic Packaging Tax (PPT) are foundational policies which are outlining the pathway towards Net Zero. But these schemes must develop and strengthen over time to make sure they support even greater sustainability in future.
At the moment, for example, paying the PPT is more affordable for some businesses than complying with the 30% recycled content requirement for plastics, so isn’t influencing behaviour change as much as hoped. Longer-term guidance on increases in both the rate of tax, and the minimum recycled content, will make sure that momentum isn’t lost.
Our Reality Check report calls for the accelerated roll-out of these schemes to incentivise reductions in packaging and increased use of other recyclable waste materials. We believe transparency and collaboration with businesses and governments is important to ease the transition. Projects like the Inflation Reduction Act in the United States demonstrate the value of government investment in the Net Zero transition – adopting a similar approach in the UK could remove many obstacles on the way.
What does the future of sustainable waste management look like?
Realising these changes will help us achieve our 2050 Net Zero targets and inspire wider benefits for the UK’s waste sector. Improving our plastic waste processing and recycling capabilities could launch the development of new and improved waste management infrastructure, along with the job creation and upskilling opportunities needed to run an expanded industry. We can look forward to the same progress with the growth of EFW too, driving sustainable growth for both the environment and the wider community.
Collaboration is key
Encouragingly, it’s all achievable. With the right legislation and commitment from the UK’s waste sector, we can regain momentum, making greater strides toward Net Zero.
Over the last four years, Biffa has invested more than £600 million into sustainable waste management. We’re proudly leading the charge as the only waste management company with waste prevention initiatives, and seek to collaborate with our peers to make even greater progress.
Our industry must meet its obligation to inform and deliver against new schemes, implement sustainable waste management strategies and support business and communities to create a more sustainable future.