How can the Environmental Services address the impact pollution has on nature and biodiversity?

What’s going on?

In the UK, the Environmental Services sector can contribute to pollution in three different ways: Direct impacts, Indirect impacts, and Avoided impacts.

Direct impacts are potential impacts on nature, land, water, and air arising from activities on sites.

They can arise in a variety of ways, such as:

  • Sites and landfills releasing pollutants into the air in the form of dust, gases, odours and noise
  • rainwater interacting with materials on site from precipitation
  • water used during the processing of waste or for dust and noise suppression
  • ground water interacting with ground contaminants or landfilled material
  • land and the nature contained in or supported by its soil being directly contaminated with pollutants.

A key issue is controlling illegally dumped or misclassified waste – either in landfills or unpermitted sites, which then have the potential to release pollutants into the soil, water, and air.

Most landfills have strong environmental controls, so have a role to play in future biodiversity net gain through the restoration of these former industrial quarries.

There are a small number of legacy landfill situations which will require ongoing management or remediation.

Additionally, many recycled products are flammable – paper, for example, cardboard and plastic and waste can contain sources of spontaneous ignition such as lithium batteries, fuels or chemicals.

Fires can result in an uncontrolled release of pollutants to air and water.

Direct impacts are addressed through rigorous permitting and stringent pollution limits are set in Best Available Techniques (BAT) Reference Documents (BREFs) for Waste Treatment and Waste Incineration to address the sector’s Direct Impacts. 

BREFs are regularly updated to tighten the limits on pollutants released and, in many cases, these are now at the limits of detection.

However, there also environmental legacies of how a wide range of industries operated in the past, without today’s environmental awareness, which require ongoing attention and remediation.

Indirect impacts on pollution are identical to direct impacts, but their impact is in an environment which is potentially uncontrolled with a higher risk of environmental harm.

One key challenge is the export of waste through misclassification. Another is the sending of poor-quality recycled materials or materials disguised as second-hand goods such as waste electronics, end of life vehicles and even end of life ships.

If countries receiving such exports from the UK do not manage this waste to the same standards, we are effectively condoning the release of pollutants into the soil, water, and air.

In a non-circular take-make-waste economy, avoided impacts can be significant.

The potential impacts of mineral extraction on water pollution, for example, are increased heavy metals, acidity, increased turbidity (suspended solids), and groundwater contamination. Meanwhile, air pollution issues include increased particulates, sulphur dioxide (SO2), oxides of nitrogen (NOX) and airborne heavy metals.

The promotion and implementation of circular economy principles and the waste management framework are essential to reduce such impacts. The UK Plastics Pact, for example, beings together businesses from across the entire plastics value chain with government and NGOs to address the plastics pollution problem.[i]

One of the more challenging issues for the Environmental Services sector is the residual element of the Waste Hierarchy once the possibilities of reduce, reuse, remanufacture, recycle, and current Best Available Technology (BAT) for recovery have been exhausted.

Biological recovery of ‘short carbon’ organic wastes through composting and anaerobic digestion is widely accepted as broadly positive, for example. Yet the balance of materials tends to be of fossil fuel origin – such as non-recyclable plastics, rubber and synthetic materials – as well as contaminated organic materials unsuitable for recycling. Currently, the most established and reliable BAT is incineration. Yet incineration raises a number of environmental considerations:

Diversion to recycling and biological recovery, removal of hazardous chemicals and use of renewable materials is the only way to reduce reliance on recovery, unless more landfill space is created.

What you can do

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