Through the carbon lens
18 February 2020
The climate emergency might be just the catalyst the waste industry needs says Will French, Principal Consultant at Resource Futures. It is time to embrace the drive for measuring the carbon footprint of waste and the advances that may bring.
There is a new line cropping up in local authority waste collection and treatment optimisation models. Where local authority leaders once scrutinised the variables of cost versus recycling performance, ease of implementation and public acceptability, there is a new entrant in town: carbon.
Scrutinising waste through a carbon lens is clearly not a new phenomenon, but its entry into the day to day decisions of local councils is.
The trouble is, as many organisations new to this are discovering, carbon footprint analysis can be conducted in a number of different ways, with differing scopes and outcomes. There are many assumptions and variables to factor in: the efficiency of recycling plants, where they are located, fleet efficiency, logistics and so on, which impacts the decisions that local authorities will want to make.
An obvious starting point is introducing an electric fleet. The larger gains are around optimising collection and recycling approaches i.e. changing what is collected and how.
“The drive to tackle the climate emergency and factor carbon into decision making might just be the impetus this industry needs to tackle stalling recycling rates.”
The evidence points to an optimum for carbon reduction around collecting materials separately, minimising contamination rates and driving up the quality of materials, thereby maximising the ability to retain the value of those materials and maintain resource efficiency.
Herein lies the rub. The drive to tackle the climate emergency and factor carbon into decision making might just be the impetus this industry needs to tackle stalling recycling rates, increase quality of recyclates and therefore the viability of a well-functioning circular economy.
The implications extend right up the value chain in terms of resource use. A report from the Centre for Industrial Energy, Materials and Products (CIEMAP) in 2018, a collaboration between four universities, found that more careful use of British resources could cut emissions far more than most government climate policies have managed in recent years.
It cited making product design more efficient, supply chains less wasteful, increasing durability of products and encouraging reuse. There’s nothing new here about these principles I hear you say, and you’d be right.
Completing the picture
But framing resource use around ‘carbon’ and ‘tackling the climate emergency’ is relatively new and an opportunity that leading proponent, the Ellen Macarthur Institute, hasn’t missed as evidenced by its report in late 2019: Completing the picture – how the circular economy tackles climate change.
Nowhere is this more pressing than in the construction industry. More than 35 billion tonnes of non-metallic materials are extracted from the earth every year, the majority of which is used to build homes, schools, offices, hospitals and so on.
And yet 35% of the world’s landfill is made up of construction and demolition waste! (Engineers Journal, December 2019) Meanwhile the built environment contributes about 40% of the UK’s total carbon footprint, where 50% of a residential building’s whole life carbon emissions are associated with its construction and the materials used.
“The tide has turned and climate change and the need to improve carbon performance may just be pivotal to our vital transition from an industry focused on waste and recycling to one that focuses on minimising resource extraction.”
Better circular construction models tackle both resource use and carbon performance. While progress has to date been slow, it’s something we are tackling in Scotland, working with Zero Waste Scotland to help construction businesses adopt more circular practices from design right through to build and decommissioning.
2020 brings the UK’s fourth carbon budget ever closer, one that we’re not on course to meet. While the climate emergency may not have been at the top of our latest government’s campaigning approach, it did make the Prime Minister’s acceptance speech. There’s no avoiding the highly visible impacts it is reaping on a daily basis and the persistent and increasing voices of the general public demanding action.
The tide has turned and climate change and the need to improve carbon performance may just be pivotal to our vital transition from an industry focused on waste and recycling to one that focuses on minimising resource extraction in favour of resource efficiency and value retention, enabled by a circular economy.
So, let this be the decade of transformation and let’s embrace the drive for measuring the carbon footprint of waste and the advances that may bring.
This article first appeared on Circular Online in February 2020.