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:
- operating and processing 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
- groundwater interacting with ground contaminants or landfilled material
- land and the nature contained in or supported by its soil being directly contaminated with pollutants.
- Pollution associated with transporting materials
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 and have a role to play in future biodiversity net gain through the restoration of these sites.
There are a small number of legacy landfill situations that will require ongoing management or remediation.
Additionally, many recyclable products are flammable – paper, for example, cardboard and plastic and waste can contain sources of spontaneous ignition such as lithium batteries, fuels, chemicals and the presence of hazardous chemicals in waste. Resultant 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.
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 is also the legacy of waste from industries that operated in the past without today’s environmental awareness, which requires ongoing attention and remediation.
Indirect impacts on pollution are identical to direct impacts, but their impact tends to be overseas, which is potentially uncontrolled with a higher risk of environmental harm. Virgin materials sourced both overseas and within the UK also contribute to indirect impacts.
A key challenge is mis-description of exported waste. For example, sending poor-quality recyclable materials or materials disguised as second-hand goods, such as waste electronics, end of life vehicles and even end of life ships are not fit for reuse.
If countries receiving such exports from the UK do not manage this waste to the same standards as the UK, we are effectively unintentionally allowing 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 is a great example of a practical implantation of this framework. It brings together businesses from across the entire plastics value chain with government and NGOs to address the plastics pollution problem [source].
One of the more challenging issues for the Environmental Services sector is what to do with what is left over when the possibilities of reducing, reusing, remanufacturing, recycling has been exhausted. What remains must either go through a “recovery process” or be landfilled.
Biological recovery processes can be used for organic wastes such as composting and anaerobic digestion. This is widely accepted as a positive solution as this can be managed as a short, sustainable carbon cycle.
However, a significant quantity of these residual materials is often of fossil fuel origin – such as non-recyclable plastics, some rubber and synthetic materials – as well as contaminated organic materials unsuitable for biological recovery.
Currently, the most established and reliable recovery process is incineration with energy recovery.
Yet incineration raises several environmental considerations:
Incineration destroys any hazardous chemicals and avoids the creation of more landfills which potentially destroy natural land, but it releases the carbon stored in these materials.
o The waste from incineration can be further recycled, reducing the demand for virgin materials. Metals are recycled from the ash which otherwise would be lost
o Sand, stone and ash and can be used to create building materials
The carbon emissions trade-off is complex:
o The efficiency of energy generation, for example, combined heat and power
o Collecting or transporting waste long distances also has high emissions
o Effectiveness of the emission controls
o The potential for future carbon capture technology
The composition of residual waste and the amount of fossil carbon it contains can be improved through changes to product design and life cycle.
Fly-tipping in England now costs the country’s economy more than £392 million a year – up from £209 million in 2015. [i]
The operation of illegal waste sites in England costs the economy an estimated £236 million a year – up from £98 million in 2015. [i]
Getting nature positive
Management of pollution by the Environmental Services sector is tightly regulated but there’s always an opportunity for improvement.
Inspired by steps waste management and recycling services companies are already taking, we’ve compiled suggested actions to help you on your journey to getting nature positive.