Zero Waste Scotland’s Dr Ramy Salemdeeb and Edinburgh Napier University’s Dr Ruth Saint introduce a tool that offers insights into the true environmental cost of waste, and explain how it could be used in designing future policies.
Last autumn, we wrote an article1 highlighting the importance of the waste and resource sector in shifting the focus from weight-based targets toward impact-driven policies. We demonstrated the huge benefits of such policies in our fight against the continuously deteriorating environmental conditions on our planet.
Weight-based targets are undoubtedly the bedrock of numerous policies that have been instrumental in the evolution of the sector. However, it’s time to start thinking about how we can go beyond recycling rates and consider the true environmental cost of waste generated in our cities and regions. We are not alone in this drive towards impact-based accounting: Defra2 advocates for this pragmatic shift in its latest waste strategy for England, alongside other organisations such as the Welsh Government,3 Wrap,4 and the Environmental Services Association.5
In our first article, we talked about our endeavour at Zero Waste Scotland to sail the murky ocean of waste environmental footprint indicators by developing a new science-based tool that will help us to design policies that will tackle the overall environmental impacts of waste. In this article, we will share some interesting findings from our work, and invite you to jump on board and explore the benefits of impact-based indicators in designing future policies.
The right tool for the job?
The Scottish Waste Environmental Footprint Tool (Sweft) is a state-of-the-art decision-support tool developed in collaboration with Edinburgh Napier University and Cambridge Architectural Research. It is based on the pioneering Scottish Carbon Metric,6 which was introduced in 2011 to offer an insight into the carbon impacts of waste.
Although the Carbon Metric has helped us to better understand the impact of waste on warming our planet, it provides limited insights into the true environmental cost of waste. Focusing solely on the carbon impacts of waste might lead to the development of policies that shift the problem from climate change to other issues, such as biodiversity, which could inadvertently increase the overall burden on the planet.
Although the Carbon Metric has helped us to better understand the impact of waste on warming our planet, it provides limited insights into the true environmental cost of waste
We are facing multiple environmental crises, so it’s imperative for policy-makers to work simultaneously to fight climate change and stop environmental deterioration.
Built following the latest advancements in life-cycle assessment and ecological economics, Sweft quantifies the environmental impacts of waste across 16 environmental indicators. Unlike other environmental accounting tools, it expands the scope covered to include whole life-cycle impacts of waste generated, from resource extraction and manufacturing, through to end-of-life management options and disposal routes. This approach is crucial to show the substantial environmental benefits of waste prevention and ‘moving up’ the waste hierarchy.
What have we learnt so far?
To demonstrate the benefits of expanding the set of environmental indicators covered – for example, beyond carbon – we carried out the assessment using Scotland 2019 household waste data, published by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency.
In this article, we cover five key indicators: carbon footprint, water, land, material use, and air quality. The heat map (see Figure 1) shows the relative impacts of waste, which allows policy-makers to identify hot spots and key waste categories to target when developing policies.
Our analysis shows that there are low tonnages of waste textiles, so tackling this waste stream would not boost Scotland’s overall recycling rate significantly. However, textiles have the highest impacts in terms of carbon footprint and air quality, highlighting the necessity to target them if we want to radically reduce our overall carbon footprint.
…Textiles have the highest impacts in terms of carbon footprint and air quality, highlighting the necessity to target them if we want to radically reduce our overall carbon footprint.
Across the five key environmental indicators, food waste is the most impactful overall, showing very high impacts for water, land and material use. Targeting food waste would, therefore, not only help us to increase recycling rates and reduce our carbon footprint, but also alleviate pressure on water and land resources. These waste categories should be targeted in future policies, and considered in holistic policy development, to reduce their environmental burden.
There are key initiatives introduced to target these troublesome waste categories: the Scottish Government7 is currently focusing on food waste, with an ambitious reduction target of 33 per cent by 2025 and a landfill ban by 2025; Wrap8 has recently launched its ‘Textiles 2030’ programme, which includes reduction targets for water and carbon.
Zero Waste Scotland is facilitating discussion about future policy options for waste and resources among a wide range of stakeholders, as we work towards Scotland’s ambitions of achieving 70 per cent recycled waste by 2025 and, beyond that, meeting our ambition of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2045.
To this end, our team explores, debates and encourages discussion around a range of policy options and tools, which could inform this collective work in the months and years to come.
- Making an impact, September/October 2020 Circular.
- Resources and waste strategy for England
- Beyond Recycling
- Carbon waste and resources metric
- Why wait? Weight isn’t working. Smarter measures for the circular economy, Environmental Services Association, Ricardo Energy and Environment
- What is the carbon metric?, Zero Waste Scotland
- Making things last. A circular economy strategy for Scotland, Scottish Government
- Textiles 2030, Wrap