Climate change is one of the biggest threats to nature.
What’s going on?
When considering the Environmental Services sector’s impact on climate change it is important to separate out recycling from recovery processes and waste disposal.
The recycling sector’s positive impact on climate change is substantial.
Virgin materials come at a significant environmental cost. The starting point is the mining or extraction of minerals or oil, they are then refined and finally turned into finished raw materials. The energy and transport costs to do this are high. Compared to using virgin materials, recycled metals, minerals, plastics, timber, paper and card save around 60-90% of CO2 emissions, dependent on the material. [source] Furthermore, reuse can increase these savings to over 95%. Due to the large quantities of raw materials used globally the impact of reuse and recycling on global emissions is very significant.
Transitioning to a circular economy is one of the most powerful moves we can make to decarbonise the global economy.
Direct impacts on climate change arise from the fuel and electricity used in the collection, recycling, and the transport of recycled commodities back so they can be made into new products.
One of the biggest environmental costs is logistics, which can account for up to 70% of these costs. But compared to the avoided emissions from the production of virgin materials, the emissions related are vanishingly small.
For example, the World Steel Association puts average global carbon emissions at 1850kg CO2 for each tonne of steel produced. The collection, processing and shipping of recycled steel to a steel producer has a cost of around 30kg CO2 per tonne. Remelting this and converting this to a tonne of new steel costs a further 500kg CO2. [source]
That said, measurement and disclosure of emissions created by fuel and electricity use can provide valuable insight into the efficiency of recycling supply chains.
Every tonne of CO2 still counts. Energy productivity programmes include sizing equipment for optimum performance, operator efficiency training, elimination of double handling, yield improvements, payload & throughput optimisation.
When waste materials are collected from diverse sources it is often logistically inefficient as they must be sorted, cleaned and often densified to make further transportation efficient.
Businesses need to make structured commitments to transition to renewable electricity; transition to carbon-free transport via road, rail and sea; and set targets to improve energy productivity in all aspects of production and logistics.
If materials cannot be recycled, they move as directly as possible to a high-quality recovery or disposal outlet.
A move towards a nationally simplified and consistent approach to municipal recycling collections would help with such issues.
The use of clear binary labeling and separating waste materials better at the source can cut transportation inefficiencies. And when sorting machines are presented with more target material, yields are increased while energy requirements per tonne of recycled material produced are reduced.
Waste recovery and disposal outlets such as incinerators and landfills are also sources of significant emissions.
The incineration of carbon-based materials is effectively turning stored carbon back into C02. Organic materials also degrade and decompose in landfills creating methane. Most regulated landfills manage their gas emissions proactively.
The key issues for waste recovery and disposal centre again around the circular economy and design for durability and recycling rather than recovery. Incinerators need to look at the practicalities of carbon capture and storage.
Indirect impacts on climate change arise from the production of low-quality recycled materials, which then require further processing at their end destinations.
Exported waste needs to be fit for recycling, or it impacts the recycling process at the destination. For example, if the material is only 80% clean, it requires 100% reprocessing, with added risks of higher transport costs and alternative disposal methods – such as a landfill.
Creating an economic environment where high-quality recycled products are in demand and their value pays for the additional investment in technology required to achieve this quality is one key issue. Ensuring that regulation does not allow the export of low-quality wastes for recycling as commodities is another.
Positive steps include:
- Mandated minimum recycled content in plastic goods.
- Plastic Packaging Tax: a new tax that will, from April 2022, apply to plastic packaging manufactured in, or imported into the UK, that does not contain at least 30% recycled plastic. The tax will provide a clear economic incentive for businesses to use recycled plastic in the manufacture of plastic packaging, which will create greater demand for this material.
- Extended Producer Responsibility, which puts the economic burden on producers to incorporate the cost of high-quality recycling systems into the price of new goods (relative to the cost of new goods, incorporating a cost to dispose of properly at end of life is small).
Avoided impacts are related to the avoidance of emissions from the production of virgin commodities through a circular economy.
As stated above, steel world average emissions are 1850 kg per tonne of steel, for example. When recycled sources are used, this becomes 530kg. When re-used sources are used, this cost drops to just 15kg.
Other recycled raw materials have similar emissions benefits. Paper and cardboard save 68%, aluminium 95%, and plastics 88% 30.
The key issues in all three areas relate to the implementation of circular economy principles and the waste management framework. We must use less, and re-use and recycle more.
Products must be better designed. And producers must take responsibility for the consumption and provenance of the resources used in their creation, and the impact of these products over their lifetimes.
The recycling and waste management sector has reduced its GHG emissions by 46% since 1990.
The UK waste management and recycling sector recently announced plans to invest £10 billon of new money in recycling infrastructure to drive up recycling rates and cut down waste.
The industry has also pledged to increase capture of methane emissions, the most potent form, by 85% from landfill by 2030.
Getting nature positive
Inspired by steps waste management & recycling services companies are already taking, we’ve compiled suggested actions to help you on your journey to getting nature positive.