Climate change

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 is it important to separate out recycling from waste disposal.

The recycling sector’s impact on climate change is substantial.

Compared to using virgin materials recycled metals, minerals, plastics, timber, paper & card save around 60-90% of CO2 emissions dependent on the material.30 But reuse can increase these savings to over 95%, which in the global emissions context is very significant.

Transition 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 costs of collection, recycling, and the transport of recycled commodities back so they can be made into new products.

One of the biggest 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.

The World Steel Association puts average global carbon emissions at 1850kg CO2 for each tonne of steel produced, for example. 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.[i]

In terms of logistics, when waste materials are collected from diverse sources – which is often logistically inefficient. But they then 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.

Use of clear binary labelling and separating waste materials better at 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 commodities, which then require further processing at their end destinations.

These costs are two-fold.

An 80% clean material must be 100% reprocessed at its end destination. Further, the transportation cost of getting it there is 20% higher than it should be. Additionally, there is a higher risk that the 20% associated waste will be landfilled or disposed of in a way which creates more emissions and pollution.

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 recycled commodities is another.

Positive steps include:

  • mandated minimum recycled content in plastic goods

Avoided impacts are related to the avoidance of emissions from the production of virgin commodities through a circular economy.

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 benefits. Paper and cardboard saves 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.

Product 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.

What you can do

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