Blog: Decarbonising the waste sector (it’s not that simple!)

The final webinar in the joint Suez and CIWM webinar series, saw our expert panel discuss how to decarbonise the waste sector, the priority opportunities and the wider issues that need addressing in terms of the sector and its relationship to other sectors who are also trying to decarbonise. Here, Dr. Adam Read (External Affairs Director at SUEZ recycling and recovery UK and the webinar chair) and CIWM’s Helen Chaplin reflect on the recurrent themes, the audience concerns on the bigger issues, and look forward to what might happen in the short and medium term.

Energy from Waste – part of the system?

Energy from Waste (EfW) is frequently used as a solution to landfill, however it became evident in the discussion that as the UK moves towards renewable energy, EfW will need to evolve and decarbonise (or improve its efficiency at least) to remain a key part of the sustainable waste management portfolio.

Steve Palfrey (Head of Waste Management at Suffolk County Council) stated that while the energy previously produced by EfW displaced fossil fuel generated electricity in the UK grid and would thus have a relatively positive carbon impact, the energy mix in the UK is shifting to more renewable sources and as such the energy derived from EfW onto the grid would have little or no positive carbon benefit. Emma Beal (Director at West London Waste and Chair of NAWDO) agreed with Steve, expressing that “as the grid decarbonises, we will have to monitor what goes into our energy from waste plants as a method of decarbonising the system.” She continued by confirming that the “amount of carbon embedded in the waste we handle dwarfs the activities we do on a daily basis in order to manage that waste” which is why in West London so much effort has been focused on waste prevention, particularly around food. It might seem obvious, but in order to halve the amount of petrol and diesel journeys that are made to fulfil service requirements, as part of a greening agenda, the amount of collections that take place will need to be halved, or the fuels used will need to be significantly better (hydrogen or electric were both mentioned). Emma also openly acknowledged that we will all have to get creative to find the solutions, and Stuart Hayward-Higham (Technical Development Director at SUEZ recycling & recovery UK) responded to the challenge stating that ‘the sector needs to change the systems used to stop moving waste multiple times’.

Steve declared that in Suffolk they are actively researching options to drive up the efficiency of their EfW,  such as combined heat and power (CHP) and moving away from supplying the national grid to more local networks for both heat and power. He commented on some of the potential uses for CO2 generated, including uses in agriculture (not just as heat but as an enhanced growing environment) as well as carbon capture and storage opportunities, but that most of these weren’t really available at a commercial scale just yet.

Dr Dominic Hogg (Chairman of Eunomia) suggested that an interim solution to decarbonising the EfW sites would be adding a mixed waste sorting facility at the front of every incinerator (and landfill), as happens in the Nordic countries, because to reach net zero, plastic can’t remain in waste feedstock to be incinerated. The quality of sorting is now good enough, that around 70% of the plastics can be sent into a recycling route, which would significantly reduce the emissions of fossil carbon. Stuart confirmed that the ESA are currently looking at this issue (the removal of plastics from the residual stream) in more detail and a paper on decarbonising our sector is expected before December 2020.

Steve considered that 2030 is an ambitious target for net zero, but one that his Council have committed to some 20 years ahead of the UK target date, but confirmed that offsetting has its potential role to play in future assets like solar farms. He stated that there is an expectation that the embedded carbon in our waste is going to need offsetting somewhere else, and was confident that offsetting had a place in a net zero strategy, even if it was a bridging or transition stage rather than the end goal or solution.

The audience indicated in the first of a series of polls that they were asked that the sector ‘would be helped by being brought into UK Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) earlier’ but on the whole the audience were unsure of this issue, which isn’t unexpected as the waste sector is outside of ETS currently. Stuart thought that 2023 was an ambitious target, and that the earliest likely date would be 2025, but he suggested that “we should be planning ourselves ready to be bought in at that point, as it’s a really hard discipline to adhere to and we have to be hard on ourselves to ensure we are ready.”

Dominic remarked that it is not a case of the sector being in or out of the ETS, because many of the materials sectors such as the manufacturing of aluminium and steel are already there. He stated that the carbon price will be higher for those sectors because of the ETS, and that the value of using more recycled content instead of primary resource will increase which should also help drive changes in our waste and resources systems.

Resource use – this is key

Recycling and the intended shift towards the circular economy was openly discussed throughout the webinar as a means of decarbonising the sector, however it has multiple challenges that must be addressed if it is to succeed.

Dominic hopes that “as we move towards a circular economy, that production will shift away from primary materials towards secondary materials”. But Dominic believes that a recycling rate of 50-65% isn’t going to be sufficient in terms of the net zero agenda, and proposes we need to get to 80% before we can be confident that we are decarbonising the sector. Dominic concluded, with much agreement from the panel, that only by reducing overall consumption, consuming more secondary materials, reusing and circularising our processes will the carbon intensity fall.

Steve identified the potential risk of intensifying collection activity, with more kerbside sort collections, wider commercial recycling services and mandated food waste collections from households and businesses, which could result in more carbon. He suggested combining changes with a shift in fleet and fuel use (hydrogen and electic vehicles were discussed) with restrictions on bin capacity and collection frequency (to help reinforce changes in consumer behaviour) to reduce the overall the carbon impact of collections.

Stuart discussed the legacy of waste (and how it is managed) and the urgency to move the agenda quicker and reduce the amount of waste we commit to landfill as he noted that the implications of sending waste to landfill today will still be a burden in 60 years’ time – something that doesn’t bode well for our net zero carbon target.

Emma openly supported waste minimisation (and prevention) but reflects that for some it gives “a sense we are taking things away from someone” and was thus a difficult set of actions to sell to consumers. She recommended looking at decarbonisation more broadly, not just through the waste and resource sector lens. She explained that by grouping certain activities, issues and aspects together, it could be possible to create space for enhanced biodiversity in our urban environments by reducing the space available for cars to create low carbon neighbourhoods. These low carbon neighbourhoods, would make the jump towards shared ownership models smaller and thus more likely, which would in turn help to make materials used more circular and the carbon emissions of the area significantly lower. If you can provide a positive vision of the future, then Emma believes it’s more likely to get acceptance from the public and businesses alike, but how do we plan for this locally when so many authorities and their departments might need to be involved? Perhaps there is a need for leadership, politically, environmentally and socially, right now to drive these types of pedestrianised low carbon zones forward?

Commenting on the results of the second poll, namely how to decarbonise the sector in the short to medium term, Stuart was in favour of bringing the mandatory food waste collections proposed for 2023 in DEFRA’s Resources & Waste Strategy forward, because of the carbon embedded in the wasted food, its production system and its post-consumer handling, however he thought it would be difficult to do so. He stated that ‘we should be encouraging services to be developed as quickly as possible rather than waiting for the government to set the policy framework sometime in 2021’. Emma found from her experience that offering food waste collection to every household isn’t the issue, it is getting the households to engage with the service that needs solving, a recurring theme that has been discussed in previous CIWM & SUEZ webinars – behaviour change and habit formation.

Behaviour change – at the heart of the transition

In order to move forward on the decarbonisation journey, all panellists agreed that a primary agenda item is the need to change behaviour as well as the systems and processes within organisations that will restrict desired behavioural change.

Steve warned that a crucial element of the waste and resources strategy that mustn’t be lost is the behavioural change aspects. He sees this as a massive opportunity to change behaviours to move away from current consumption patterns and move into models like leasing and shared ownership, which links back nicely to the resource use issues discussed earlier. He suggested that the funding from the resources and waste strategy must go towards behaviour change, and not just as part of the EPR money to help get packaging back for recycling, but to drive new norms around leasing, repair, refill etc.

Stuart advised that we need to ‘get the right changes in place, get them done quickly and build that habit’ if we are to decarbonise the sector in time for the policy agenda already set out. He went onto further warn that ‘if we go into a period of continual change, or constant flux, in terms of services and messages then we will never form the habits we need’.

Andy Whyle (Environment & Sustainability Specialist with Ricoh UK Products Ltd) supported the results of the third poll, stating that he was torn between using less primary resources and targeting behaviour change. He said that ‘originally we targeted behaviour change at Ricoh as we recognised segregation at source increased the value of the material’, however he identified that working in collaboration with the value chain allowed him greater understanding of the quality levels required. Andy acknowledged that it really depends on what part of the journey the organisation is on as to what the first action should be. Sage advice indeed for any organisation considering net zero carbon targets and strategies, do your baseline assessment and then prioritise your interventions.

Metrics – we need to get them right

One of the main issues discussed between the panellists was that of measuring the carbon in individual organisations and supply chains, but also being able to compare it with others to evaluate performance and set SMART targets.

Andy explained how they report a lot of carbon emissions at Ricoh, but they don’t report it on their waste streams which he appreciates is a valuable matric they are missing. This is a recurring problem across the sector he suggests and one that will need to be addressed as both the waste sector looks to accurately report the positive contribution it is making to decarbonisation, but also for other industrial sectors as they look to make inroads to their stretch targets.

Stuart commented how ‘data drives product design and waste minimisation’. He suggested that giving figures to customers helps to drive their thinking, and helps make them conscious of the opportunity for change. Stuart stated there is a ‘huge amount we can do if we know where to target ourselves’ and SUEZ are actively engaging with data share with many of their customers to promote the need and opportunity for changes now rather than later when the targets are harder.

Dominic identified that the difficulty of getting metrics to work well is the consistency and comparability of the waste data currently available, which is why DEFRA are actively supporting new projects looking at waste tracking data as well as analysis of potential new metrics that will drive the transition to net zero carbon. Dominic also rightly suggested that an indicator used internally within an organisation to measure progress could be very different from a metric used to compare performance across a sector or used to get peers competing against one another. As such, picking the right metrics going forward for a national reporting perspective, but which can be translated into internal reporting and target setting are going to be vital.

As a solution, Dominic suggests building a dashboard of indicators focusing on CO2 and energy to enable us all to know what is being consumed and how much of the embodied emissions we are getting back of what we are consuming. Unfortunately the panel were unsure whether this was a priority for Government(s) right now.

Collaboration – now more than ever

Another thread that ran throughout the webinar was that of collaboration, between ourselves as a sector and those we service, as well as the wider economy.

Stuart acknowledged that ‘as a sector we have the responsibility to help and enable others to change their carbon footprint as well as ourselves’. As such, we need to understand how we fit into the process and how we can influence the entire system not just the material handled post-consumer etc. For example, eco design requires feedback to designers and manufactures to ensure their products have as low a carbon footprint as is possible, and that they fit nicely into the circular economy in terms of their reuse, recyclability, and handling etc. Stuart also suggested that we need to think about how to establish local communities of suppliers who support repair and refurbishment, which are more circular and less resource intensive, but which also deliver wider social benefits. He commented that savings could be far higher if we work together rather than separately towards the end goal, and the panellists fully endorsed this sentiment.

Andy recounted the time that Ricoh’s zero waste to landfill standard lead them to work with Suez to turn their toner bottles into coat hangers using a solution designed for another waste stream, namely a fridge recycling centre, with significant cost and carbon savings. This shows the power of collaboration as they received an innovative solution through working in partnership, rather than going to market asking for a specific solution, limited by their perspective on the issue. As a result, they achieved a 77% reduction in cost.

All the panellists agreed that joint working, sharing best practice, and collaboration are key, across the value chain, and within our sector and beyond if we are to really give decarbonisation our full effort!

Conclusions & Reflections

It became evident during the webinar just how complicated the situation was, with many of the key issues interlinked. Furthermore, we currently don’t have the data needed to report our baseline or our progress, nor are the policies aligned.

As was mentioned multiple times, our sector’s future is seen as ‘empowering and enabling other sectors to achieve decarbonisation’, as well as achieving it ourselves. Andy agreed that collaboration leads to better circular economy solutions, but pleads for an agreed yet simple metric to be adopted to help all businesses to measure decarbonisation.

Stuart concluded that there are no magic solutions, so we should design the transitions, implement them and accept they won’t be perfect – we don’t have the time for perfect! And with the resources and waste strategy as a potential game changer for the sector, we’ll have to see what happens next, something Emma, Steve and Dominic all agreed on, the opportunity is there, but we must all grasp it and run with it.

Once again, we would like to thank the panellists for their time, insight and honesty, and all of the delegates for their participation in the polls and for asking so many excellent questions, some of which we just simply ran out of time to ask.

To watch the recording of the webinar follow the link here and watch out for more CIWM and Suez webinars coming soon, a new series of 90 minute deep-dive sessions will be available in August and September.

If you are a CIWM member, you can also discuss this topic and other current issues on Connect where the panellists and chairs are ready to engage on these and many other hot topics.

Written by: Dr Adam Read (External Affairs Director at Suez recycling and recovery UK & CIWM Senior Vice President) and Helen Chaplin (Technical Development Executive at CIWM).

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