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OPINION: COP28 and waste management’s role in achieving net zero

Maxine Mayhew, chief operating officer for collections and specialist services at Biffa, explores how the UK waste sector can contribute to COP28 goals.


OPINION: World leaders are currently tuned into COP28 for two weeks of climate talks in Dubai. With more and more severe weather events being recorded globally, and a consistent increase in temperatures, it is a decisive moment for international climate action.

Maxine Mayhew, chief operating officer for collections and specialist services at Biffa

It is vital that governments work together with the private sector to take action for a sustainable future. But while key topics that have a waste implication are on the COP28 agenda (energy, urbanisation, food, agriculture, and infrastructure), waste management and its role in decarbonising the economy, is not receiving the same focus and acknowledgement it needs.

As a leader in the reduction of global emissions, the UK has an important role to play in putting a greater emphasis on the role of sustainable waste management to achieve Net Zero ambitions across industry and society, and to work towards Waste Net Zero in the waste sector.

While the waste sector has had a positive impact on carbon reduction in the UK in the last few decades, with landfill tonnages down 50% from 2010 to 2020 and CO2e from the sector down by over 73% in 2020 from 1990, the UK still produces too much waste and doesn’t recycle enough of it. Too many materials are not designed for recyclability, and collections systems are often inconsistent and unclear. More worryingly every tonne of food waste ending in landfill produces approximately 4.2 tonnes of greenhouse gases, and the UK wastes almost 9.5 million tonnes of food every year. 6.4 million of that is edible food (not including from farms). This is unacceptable when there are so many communities and families struggling to put food on the table.

Food waste

Preventing food waste through better food surplus redistribution is a must. Increasing recycling rates by reigniting recycling levels is also critical. Otherwise the risk is that the positive impact sustainable waste management has had on decarbonisation levels in the last few decades slows. This is an issue we warned about a year ago in our Blueprint for Waste Net Zero report, in which we re-affirmed sustainable waste and resource management as an opportunity to unlock enormous economic benefits and help decarbonise the UK.

This challenge is not limited to the UK, without the infrastructure or policies in place we will not be able to create a much-needed global circular economy, leading to missed opportunities to redistribute surplus, transform more waste materials into recyclate for manufacturing, or to support the repair and reuse of discarded materials and products.

The infrastructure challenge is already causing serious problems, especially in developing economies. Without the work from NGOs such as WasteAid in tackling the climate change impacts of poorly managed waste in lower and middle-income countries, plastic pollution will become, if it isn’t already, a crisis. These countries need further investment and guidance to ensure they can manage their waste in a more sustainable manner, including re-using as much as possible and diverting waste from open burning and dumping into recycling and recovery, with all the long-term environmental and economic benefits that brings.

Back in the UK, Biffa have been at the forefront of the waste industry for more than 100 years, and in that time, have transformed from a linear operation to one that embraces the circular economy, prioritising waste reduction, reuse, and recycling. We have unrivalled insight into the policy levers and systems that can contribute to Waste Net Zero and are experts in sustainable waste management.

Policy

We have been working for many years on a range of core policy implementations from the Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) to energy recovery, plastics recycling, and Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR).

The full implementation of EPR is expected in 2025, and the importance of sound, consistent policy, backed by evidence and the input of industry, is more vital than ever as the sector moves into the delivery phase of Defra’s resources and waste reforms, as well as the need to ensure alignment between EPR, DRS and Simpler Recycling.

The other big policy driver for our sector in the medium term is the inclusion of energy-from-waste in the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) from 2028. This will help to push plastics out of residual waste as we seek to decarbonise those facilities, but 2028 will come around very quickly, so we need to work now to ensure that the ETS delivers on its intended outcomes and that the sector is ready when it does. In the UK, an outright ban on the export of plastic waste will stimulate investment and ensure vital recovered materials are available.

Recommendations 

Our vision on what needs to happen next is built around seven key policy asks:

  • Embrace the move from Waste Hierarchy to Carbon Hierarchy

Waste policy needs to migrate from the outdated, tonnage-based waste hierarchy to a carbon-based hierarchy. This will mean the carbon cost of all activities (in particular energy from waste) being recognised, alongside support for new recycling technologies and carbon capture, and intelligent reform of Landfill Tax.

  • Drive more adoption of recycled plastics

The Plastics Packaging Tax is a good start; ambitious, progressive forward guidance is needed to ensure investment momentum is maintained. The roll out of Extended Producer Responsibility will incentivise reductions in packaging and increase use of recyclable material and should be rolled out in concord with other relevant policies.

  • Consider a moratorium on more Energy Recovery Facilities

The development of the UK’s network of energy recovery facilities is almost complete and we now need policies to be implemented and objectives delivered before deciding if we need any more.

  • Take more action to phase out waste export

An outright ban (including OECD) on the export of plastic waste is an important step; restrictions for other materials should be considered based on environmental risk if not recycled properly. This will stimulate investment and ensure vital recovered raw materials are available in the UK.

  • Accept that landfill will continue to play a role

Landfill is essential for certain types of waste which cannot be reused, recycled or recovered, as a disposal point of last resort. It needs to be addressed in national and local infrastructure plans. If we don’t act now, we will have a landfill capacity crisis very soon.

  • Champion a zero-emissions, competitive collections market

Zero emissions zones in urban areas would accelerate the transition to low/zero carbon fuel, but local government infrastructure funding will be needed. Legislation should support a dynamic and competitive collections market which responds to customers’ needs.

  • Providing more solutions for food waste

More needs to be done to redistribute food, and having greater accountability measures and incentives for food businesses will be essential for accelerating engagement and halving food waste by 2030. Whether food waste reporting is mandatory or voluntary, businesses who have access to more robust and transparent data, and sustainable redistribution and waste management processes in place, will be best placed to speed up their waste reduction efforts.

Overall, we believe that by looking at waste management through the lens of a carbon hierarchy, we can better enable the circular economy and identify the pathway to Net Zero for UK industry and society, as well drive Waste Net Zero for the sector. There is positive momentum being made with the above policies for the sector, but more action is needed.  We hope the global governments, including the UK will start to look at this as a priority at future COP events, and recognise the key part waste management has to play in a sustainable future.

 

 

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