Reaching net zero

The setting of targets to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the resources and waste sector by 2040 is ambitious but achievable, says the ESA. So how do we get there? Phil Lattimore reports.

With the UK government committed to the target of achieving net-zero emissions across the economy by 2050, all sectors will have to take significant action to reduce and eliminate their carbon footprint – including, of course, the resources and waste sector. As well as tackling its own carbon emissions, however, the sector also has an instrumental role to play in enabling other parts of industry to achieve their net-zero targets.

In total, waste management and recycling sector activities help save more emissions across the wider UK economy than the sector produces; in 2018 alone, its activities resulted in nearly 50 million tonnes (Mt) of avoided carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions across the economy. This is equivalent to taking 10 million cars off Britain’s roads, according to the Environmental Services Association’s (ESA’s) recent report, A net-zero greenhouse gas emissions strategy for the UK recycling and waste sector. Sorting and recycling operations alone helped avoid around 45MtCO2e in 2018. However, the sector still generates an estimated eight per cent of the UK’s emissions (about 36MtCO2e), the report acknowledges.

The ESA report was released in June, and is the first comprehensive greenhouse gas (GHG) assessment for the sector. It sets out a blueprint for recycling and waste management to achieve net-zero emissions by 2040 – a decade ahead of the UK government’s target.

‘The ESA has set the sector an ambitious target, which will be challenging to reach, but, we think, realistic under the right policy scenarios – which are absolutely key to success,’ says Jacob Hayler, ESA executive director.

Commenting on the report, ESA chairman Gavin Graveson says: ‘Over the past 30 years, our sector has made almost unrivalled progress in this area and reduced its emissions by nearly half [46 per cent]. This has been achieved by diverting waste from landfill, increasing recycling, and improving the technologies and processes used in waste management, as well as by investing in research and training.’

Over the past 30 years, our sector has made almost unrivalled progress in this area and reduced its emissions by nearly half [46 per cent]. This has been achieved by diverting waste from landfill, increasing recycling, and improving the technologies and processes used in waste management, as well as by investing in research and training

However, he adds, it had to go further in addressing its direct and indirect emissions. The net zero by 2040 target is credible and achievable, Graveson maintains. ESA members are poised to invest billions of pounds over the next decade in the infrastructure, technology and skills needed to scale up and meet this challenge, he says.

Road to net zero

Jon Brookes, head of partnerships at producer responsibility compliance organisation Ecosurety, believes all industries must engage and take action if we are to reach net zero by 2050. ‘The resources and waste sector has an instrumental role to play in achieving the country’s net-zero target by increasing the amount of materials we collect and recycle, as well as by improving the range of materials we recycle,’ he says.

‘Our industry can help resources to stay in circulation for longer, by giving producers more access to recycled content for their production lines, which would reduce their over-reliance on virgin materials.’

Andy Dick, government policy manager at Zero Waste Scotland (ZWS), agrees that the sector has a vital role to play in the transition to a net-zero economy. ‘Without a sector-wide transition from a focus on the bottom of the waste hierarchy to a push to move all possible materials to the top of the hierarchy, the UK cannot achieve a circular economy,’ he says. ’The circular economy offers a sustainable solution to managing our resources, but a clear pathway to this transition is needed.’

Dick believes government support is key to success, and while policies such as the deposit return scheme and extended producer responsibility (EPR) for packaging are helping, ‘the government recognises more needs to be done’. ZWS is currently working with government on a route map to achieve 2025 waste targets and net-zero requirements for the waste sector.

Without a sector-wide transition from a focus on the bottom of the waste hierarchy to a push to move all possible materials to the top of the hierarchy, the UK cannot achieve a circular economy

Waste prevention, reuse and recycling should be the focus to have a greater impact on emissions, Dick says, adding that ’behaviour change will be a key parameter in success, with fundamental changes needed in most facets of day-to-day life around how we travel, what we eat and the way we do business’.

Brookes believes the sector can ‘play a fundamental role in raising awareness and driving engagement in environmental issues to support a widespread cultural shift and behaviour change’. He says the ambition in the target will provide a nudge to some businesses to start addressing their GHG emissions and facilitate conversations within the supply chain to cut emissions (see panel, ‘Client action’).

While maximising the sector’s contribution to the UK’s net-zero pledge, the ESA’s strategy will also help facilitate a green recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, according to Graveson. The sector is currently worth £7.8bn a year and employs around 123,000 people, so the ensuing economic benefits should be felt across the UK. However, this requires a positive policy agenda from the government that builds on the resources and waste strategy, he adds.

The road map in ESA’s report details key priorities, including:

  • Investing a forecast £10bn in recycling infrastructure over the next decade to make the recycling process more efficient, reduce associated emissions, meet the government’s 65 per cent municipal recycling target, and create 40,000 permanent jobs
  • Decarbonising non-recyclable waste treatment by removing organics from landfill by 2030 and plastics from energy-recovery facilities, while working with government to enable carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) technology to mitigate remaining emissions
  • Transitioning vehicles and fuel use to zero-emission sources.

Within these, a number of targets and commitments are being set (see panel, ‘ESA targets for net-zero 2040’). These will be revised every five years against progress, policy changes and market shifts to ensure they are achievable and consistently ambitious. The ESA’s annual report will review and report on progress towards these targets.

’Our net-zero strategy and supporting reports compiled by independent environmental consultants Ricardo show the methodology we used to conduct our sectoral carbon-emissions analysis, which are based on widely accepted best practice for carbon accounting,’ says ESA’s Hayler. ‘This methodology is completely transparent and can be used by individual organisations across our sector to calculate their own emissions contribution.’

Reduction challenges

In such a complex sector, which encompasses many diverse areas and technologies, the 2040 target presents a number of significant challenges. The ESA report acknowledges that waste avoidance would have the biggest impact on the sector’s emissions, but is not within its immediate control – effective waste prevention as part of a functioning circular economy would be essential to support the UK’s climate objectives.

‘From our sector’s perspective,’ says Hayler, ‘the biggest greenhouse gas savings will come from limiting food waste and stopping organic material from being disposed of in landfill, alongside significant improvements to the volume of waste material we recycle as a proportion of all waste. Therefore, working with manufacturers and retailers to design for recyclability, and fostering healthy circular economy markets for secondary materials, are both essential parts of this.’

Most of the sector’s direct and indirect emissions (scope 1 and 2) derive from energy usage in recycling processing plants, and these are expected to increase as more materials are collected for recycling to meet targets. Other major scope 1 and 2 emission sources include the landfilling of residual wastes and waste collection and transport, plus energy recovery operations and transfer stations.

From our sector’s perspective, the biggest greenhouse gas savings will come from limiting food waste and stopping organic material from being disposed of in landfill

‘The analysis behind our net-zero strategy shows that – although saving more carbon across the economy than it generates – the act of recycling is an energy-intensive process and emits three-times more carbon than energy from waste [EfW],’ says Hayler. ‘The sector, therefore, needs to address carbon across all its activities, including recycling.’

Even boosting recycling efficiency will leave residual waste that has to be disposed of, says Hayler, but EfW – although its produces GHG emissions – offers a less carbon-intensive solution than landfill, particularly if other carbon capture technological solutions can be implemented to mitigate emissions.

‘Reducing the energy intensity of recycling is important because this will further improve the contribution of recycling towards a net-zero economy,’ Hayler adds. ‘However, even under the most ambitious recycling performance scenarios, there will still be a need to treat significant quantities of residual waste, and EfW offers a lower GHG emissions solution than landfill for this – saving an average of 200kg of CO2e per tonne of waste compared with landfill.

‘Under our net-zero strategy, our sector will need to help reduce the proportion of fossil-based materials in residual waste, make EfW plants more efficient and use heat offtake, and implement carbon capture and storage solutions to mitigate remaining emissions.’

Chain reaction

Brookes, from Ecosurety, believes that one of the big challenges will be collaborating with the full supply chain to measure and reduce scope 3 indirect emissions: ‘Focusing on our direct scope 1 and 2 emissions is a good start, but won’t be enough; we all need to work with our suppliers and customers to measure and reduce our indirect emissions. Influencing them to make changes to reduce their own emissions will be critical.

‘Enabling insights through data is absolutely key to ensuring businesses can make strategic decisions effectively and engage with their supply chains. For example, Ecosurety is working to enable producers to gain more accurate and sophisticated insights into their packaging or product data to help commercial modelling of EPR fees, and to understand associated recyclability assessments and, ultimately, associated carbon impact – for example, GHG emissions for production/disposal of packaging, focusing on key life-cycle stages, including required transportation.’

Brookes says the industry may also face a lack of engagement from small and medium-sized businesses, which may not have enough staff or budget to look at measuring their carbon footprint and put reduction plans in place. ‘At the moment, amid a raft of other complex and financially challenging legislative changes – such as the plastics tax and EPR – net zero is not top of the agenda for most small businesses in the industry, and it will have to change if we want to achieve the 2040 target without over-relying on carbon offsetting.’


As part of the strategy to tackle the complexities of reducing emissions across the sector, the ESA report calls on government to provide the right regulatory and policy framework to drive change, and deliver some of the technology and infrastructure required.

Hayler says: ‘Defra’s resources and waste strategy is a key component of moving more material into recycling, particularly through the introduction of EPR, greater consistency of collection services across local authorities, the introduction of separate food-waste collections, and the plastics tax. Beyond this, our sector will need the right policy support to underpin investment in carbon capture and storage technology, as well as the transition towards a zero-carbon fleet and, more widely, a net-zero electricity grid.’

Our sector will need the right policy support to underpin investment in carbon capture and storage technology, as well as the transition towards a zero-carbon fleet and, more widely, a net-zero electricity grid.

Boosting domestic recycling infrastructure will also help ensure we don’t ‘offshore’ our carbon emissions by exporting waste, as we currently do for half our recycling, says Brookes: ‘Support and incentives to encourage the creation and development of carbon-efficient recycling facilities in our territory would not only help reduce our emissions linked to transport, but also increase recycling and create jobs.’

Hayler agrees: ‘The government’s resources and waste strategy, if implemented correctly, will help to support domestic markets for materials recycling and reprocessing – and residual waste is only exported at present because of a processing-capacity gap, which is closing as the UK invests in more treatment capacity.’

There is some way to go to achieving these targets, but the scale of ambition itself may well drive change, says Brookes: ‘It is great to see ESA being bolder than the UK government target and leading by example with its net-zero strategy by 2040. It gives a nudge to businesses in the industry to start thinking about their own GHG emissions and facilitate conversations with their supply chains about plans to cut emissions. Hopefully, this net-zero strategy will help more businesses to start on their own road to net zero.’

ESA targets for net zero 2040

The ESA’s targets to achieve net zero by 2040 include:

  • Replacing all onsite fuels used for recycling, at transfer stations, sorting facilities, composting, anaerobic digestion, and energy from waste (EfW) facilities with 100 per cent zero-emissions sources by 2040
  • Implementing energy efficiency savings at recycling reprocessing plants and transfer stations to reduce fuel and electricity consumption by at least two per cent per year from 2021 to 2040
  • Diverting all organic waste from landfill by 2030 to recycling and energy production through composting, anaerobic digestion and EfW, with the support of mandatory separate food-waste collections
  • Switching all waste transport vehicles from diesel to 100 per cent zero-emissions sources by 2040
  • Starting to fit CCUS technologies to EfW facilities from 2025, with all plants fitted with CCUS where feasible by 2040
  • Ensuring all new plants are built with CCUS fitted, or are CCUS-ready, from 2025 onwards
  • Increasing capture of methane emissions from landfill to 85 per cent by 2030
  • Developing heat networks, where feasible, to deliver heat from EfW plants from 2021 onwards.

Client action

As part of the ESA strategy, the blueprint for zero carbon by 2040 commits to working with clients – such as local authorities and major corporates and other trade bodies – to facilitate carbon reduction. These initiatives will aim to:

  • Improve the resource efficiency of other sectors by encouraging waste prevention and avoidance and, where waste remains, by maximising the separation of recyclables and waste collected for beneficial material reprocessing and recovery
  • Inform the design of products for higher levels of recyclability and the expansion of recycling-led services
  • Encourage the adoption of decarbonised waste collection, transport and logistics vehicle fleets and fuel, through the progressive electrification and deployment of renewable and alternative fuels
  • Identify key interdependencies and cross-sector synergies that have potential to accelerate emissions reduction in recycling and waste management
  • Provide guidance on key measures that can be adopted in jointly delivered services and best practice contract procurement, and the role they can play to help the sector deliver a net-zero future.

This article first appeared in the September/October issue of Circular. 

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