The waste sector must take the lead in dealing with the climate crisis, writes Nigel Harvey, CEO of lighting industry compliance scheme Recolight and climate activist.
OPINION: The recycling and waste sector clearly creates huge environmental benefits by diverting waste from landfill, and by encouraging greater reuse. But the need to act on the climate crisis means that is no longer enough.
We can all see the impacts of increased emissions on the climate. With only 1.1 degrees of warming, deadly heatwaves, flooding, droughts, wildfires, and increasingly violent and frequent hurricanes are already commonplace. And science tells us it is going to get much, much worse.
To avoid catastrophic climate breakdown requires global cooperation and much stronger leadership from the UK government as we prepare to host the COP26 in November. But every industrial sector in the UK must also play its part. And with our strong green credentials, we in the recycling and waste sector should be taking a greater lead.
What might that look like?
EfW is not sustainable
First and foremost, we must stop building new energy from waste (EfW) plants – and cut the use of existing plants. Without effective carbon capture in place, they are simply adding to the UK’s carbon emissions, at a time when they should rapidly reduce. We must face the fact that energy derived from waste produces emissions that directly contribute to global heating.
We cannot hide behind claims that the industry only accounts for a small percentage of UK carbon emissions – many, many industries could make similar statements. Every industry, every sector must play its part in eliminating avoidable emissions. Equally, it is not acceptable to claim that diverting waste from landfill gives us the right to continue to emit. We must strive for zero emissions – the lives and livelihoods of our children and grandchildren depend on it.
Elimination of recyclables in residual
As an industry, we must accelerate efforts to ensure that recyclables and biodegradables are not put into residual waste, or that they are subsequently removed. That means governments and waste authorities must mandate more separate collections.
It also requires better communication with both consumers and businesses, so that both understand how to do the right thing. Government must implement new extended producer responsibility regimes covering a much wider range of products to ensure that producers are required to manage and finance their waste.
Recyclables should be recycled
We must, with the support of government policies, take full responsibility, right down the supply chain, for ensuring that the recyclables we collect are actually and properly recycled.
That may necessitate greater investment in recycling plant in the UK, rather than excessive reliance on operators in distant countries. And increasing requirements for producers to use recycled content will be necessary to ensure markets exist for recyclates.
Manage the methane
Nationwide mandatory waste food collection from homes and businesses is essential to avoid the damaging consequences of methane emissions. The Climate Change Committee also recommended significant improvements to methane capture from landfill, and better aeration of composting.
Reduce waste arising
We need government to implement policies that will genuinely reduce waste arising. The focus on full net cost and deposit return schemes in the packaging industry will certainly help.
More waste now arises from deliveries by online distributors and marketplaces. They must be brought into full compliance with these and other regimes, to ensure they finance their share of waste. But more is needed – substantial fiscal drivers, and in some cases outright product bans, are required to help businesses and consumers avoid single use and disposable products.
We need to do more to encourage and facilitate reuse over both recycling, and the supply of new products. That requires a whole raft of government policies that give consumers and businesses more confidence to buy reused products, and that make them more attractive commercially.
There is no reason why the “preparation for reuse” industry, covering a wide range of products, could not become a major sector in its own right.
As a sector, we need to accelerate moves towards net zero. That may mean contracting authorities will only work waste management companies that have made clear net zero commitments. Those commitments should be evidenced by short term milestones to achieve the commitments, with verification of achievement of those milestones a condition of contract continuation.
Celebrate our successes
Finally, there is already some great practice in our sector, and evidence that many are already playing their part to tackle the climate crisis. Electric refuse collection vehicles are being trialled. Some recycling plants already use electricity from 100% renewable sources. Some waste businesses are setting ambitious carbon reduction targets, both for their own emissions, and for those over which they have influence (scope 3).