Nature and Environmental Services

How can the environmental services sector take a proactive and circular approach to nature and biodiversity?

Environmental Services is an industry where the direct impact of human consumption on nature is abundantly clear. The more we consume, the more natural resources we demand and the more waste and pollution we produce.

It is a broad sector, but in this chapter we shall focus primarily on companies which provide recycling and waste management services.

The UK produced 221 million tonnes of waste in 2016, and managing it generates 8% of the UK’s total carbon emissions.[i] This figure includes mineral waste, soils, dredging spoils, and household waste. Of the 221 million tonnes, 50% was recycled or recovered and 24% – 50 million tonnes – went to landfill.[ii]

The UK has well developed infrastructure for recycling and waste management which operates under tight regulation.

However, waste crime – such as illegal waste sites, waste dumping, and the export of waste in the form of poor-quality recycled materials or disguised as second-hand goods for reuse – is still an issue with real environmental consequences.

It is essential that we do not add to the world’s waste challenges, some visual examples include:

  • the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.[iii] This is the result of one truckload of plastic being dumped into the world’s oceans every minute[iv]
  • the million tonnes of electronic waste imported as reusable items which are recycled and disposed of unsafely in places like Ghana[v]
  • the 70% of the world’s obsolete ships that end up in South Asia, where they are broken under rudimentary conditions on the beaches with significant human costs and environmental impacts are significant[vi]
  • the 42 million-plus old vehicle tyres dumped in Kuwait which have been the source of repeated fires[vii]

If countries to which UK waste is exported do not manage this waste to the same standards, we compound and perpetuate existing problems.

The biggest impact the recycling industry can have on nature is the application of circular economy principles to reduce the impact of the extraction of natural resources such as fossil fuels (plastics and energy), trees (paper, packaging and timber), sand and minerals (bricks, concrete and asphalt), or metals.

The circular economy really starts with designing the things we use every day for better resource efficiency.

We must also understand the provenance of the materials we use. And if we can’t reuse or re-manufacture, we must encourage high quality recycling rather than downcycling to preserve the longevity of these materials.

 

Challenges facing nature

What’s being done

The Environmental Services sector is progressing well in understanding and addressing the issues directly related to climate change through carbon emissions.

Through the Environmental Services Association (ESA), the industry has committed to an ambitious roadmap to net zero by 2040 23. Many companies have also set Science-Based Targets.[i] Many have also joined the UN campaign RaceToZero.[ii]

Meeting demanding goals such as these requires joint action from business, government, supply chain, and customers. The path isn’t always 100% clear and further technology solutions are still needed, but the metrics are well understood.

It is anticipated that net zero and nature positive and the UK government’s target to recycle 65% municipal waste by 2035 (as set out in the Circular Economy Package) will drive £10 billion in UK recycling infrastructure investment over the next decade and create 40,000 permanent jobs.[iii]

The ESA is now in the process of expanding its nature positive roadmap in advance of the anticipated introduction of Science-Based Targets for all aspects of nature – biodiversity, climate, freshwater, land, and ocean – expected in 2022.[iv]

The expanded roadmap is intended to address wider biodiversity impacts and has identified four areas to focus on:

  1. Direct impacts on nature, land, water, and air arising from activities on sites.
  2. Indirect impacts such as the overseas impacts from processing exported materials.
  3. Avoided impacts such as circular economy benefits of avoided mineral extraction or material production, and the destruction of toxins from hazardous waste materials.

In the UK, Direct Impacts are already heavily regulated. Rigorous permitting and stringent pollution limits are set in Best Available Techniques (BAT) Reference Documents (BREFs) for Waste Treatment and Waste Incineration.[v] BREFs are regularly updated to tighten the limits on pollutants released and, in many cases, these are now at the limits of detection.

Already, the sector is putting significant effort into biodiversity net gain on existing land use.

Minimising operational footprints and looking carefully at boundaries, buildings, and non-operational parts of sites can make a difference and there is potential to make nature positive change on existing land banks, especially closed landfill.

The sector has also long promoted the Waste Hierarchy, which ranks waste management options according to what is best for the environment.[vi] Recent and upcoming regulatory changes continue to provide real economic incentive to avoid the generation of waste in the first place and nudge the economy to one that is more circular.

In the UK, we don’t reward businesses for investing in nature and biodiversity. Though there is some brand gain, it is not clearly translated into economic benefit in the same way carbon emission improvements are. To do such investments well, we must find innovative ways of making a nature positive approach pay.

Explore actions for nature

The path forward

Environmental responsibility and green credentials are more relevant today than ever.

Expectations of business customers and the public are at an all-time high. We must convert this pressure to action, allowing real economic benefit for those businesses that are prepared to lead on these issues.

Despite the absence of a consensus on metrics, there are actions that can be taken now.

A science-based approach to managing greenhouse gas emissions is now well-established and a priority issue in boardrooms. Yet this is not the case for biodiversity. Both net zero and nature positive should be qualifiers in winning bids and tenders.

Further, it is critical that biodiversity also becomes part of the discussion from off-set, not an afterthought or add-on.

The upcoming Environment Bill contains significant uplift in legislative power which will also drive significant change in the systems of waste and recycling, addressing important areas such as:

  1. Sustainable Production

This section of the Bill contains important legislative power to expand producer responsibility.

In packaging, producers will be responsible for the full net cost of the item – including end-of-life costs. This constitutes a significant expansion of the current producer responsibility system with much increased fees. There is also provision to broaden this principle into other waste streams.

  1. Sustainable Consumption

This section of the Bill supports the implementation of clear labelling to allow consumers to make more informed choices. There are also additional general powers to set resource efficiency requirements aimed at promoting recyclability, durability and repairability.

Enforcement of these rules will be crucial as lack of enforcement and associated waste crime can cause significant local environmental damage. Strengthening enforcement and driving higher operational standards more generally would reduce the sector’s footprint.

The case for investment in more stringent pollution limits is strengthened if an operator knows that this will not be undermined by the presence of lower quality, lower cost alternatives which only exist in the market due to a lack of enforcement.

The government has also introduced the concept of Biodiversity Net Gain into the planning system with new developments required to offset their impacts on biodiversity by purchasing biodiversity offsets from elsewhere.

Valley with river running through it

CEO Perspective

We are delighted to be involved in the Get Nature Positive initiative.

For the last decade we have seen an extraordinary acceleration of both understanding and action on the issue of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. However, this action simply stems from the fact we are simply living out of balance with nature.

Mitigating climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions is universal in its impact on nature but is also now well understood, even if the challenge is significant.

Chris Sheppard, CEO ERM Group

Read more