Waste firms develop flawed protocol for reporting emissions

A voluntary carbon reporting standard for waste firms is being developed by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. But it does not allow comparison of company or site performance.

A long-called-for standard for reporting carbon emissions from waste companies could be in place by mid-2009.

French waste management firms Veolia, Séché Environment and Suez (the parent company of UK waste firm Sita) are in the final stages of writing a voluntary protocol for measuring greenhouse gas emissions from waste operations.

The standard is needed because local authorities and businesses frequently ask for details of waste companies’ emissions when contracting waste management services. Investors are also putting pressure on companies to report their climate change impacts, for instance, through the Carbon Disclosure Project.

The protocol is being developed under the auspices of Entreprises pour l’Environment (EPE) - a partner organisation of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.1 Under the protocol, firms are required to produce an annual inventory of their emissions. This takes the form of a table listing types of waste management operations such as landfill, incineration, sorting and biological treatment (composting and anaerobic digestion).

The WBCSD has previously published a similar protocol for the cement sector, which is used by most large cement manufacturers.

For each type of operation, waste companies have to report their "direct" greenhouse gas emissions such as methane from landfills. Separately, they have to report on "indirect" emissions - those associated with electricity used. Finally, firms must report any greenhouse gas savings achieved by the process. For example, from burning landfill gas or recycling materials.

The decision to allow firms to report such savings is controversial because those cuts are also likely to be claimed by electricity suppliers and manufacturers. The protocol says double counting "should be avoided", but otherwise offers little comment. A spokesman for EPE claimed double counting would not be a problem because the standard will not be used under any regulatory regime. "Its purpose is simply for reporting firms’ annual CO2 emissions," he said.

Under the protocol, all figures must be provided in tonnes of CO2 equivalent. A total emissions figure must also be given.

The protocol has been welcomed by waste firms. The Environmental Services Association - the UK’s waste management trade body - is already examining whether it can be adopted for use in the UK. Work is "at an advanced stage", a spokesman said, but no timescale has been set for completion.

However, the protocol appears seriously flawed because it does not require companies to report emissions from individual sites. Nor does it require companies to report normalised emissions data, such as CO2e per tonne of waste handled, to enable comparison between firms and processes. This means that in its current form the protocol will not provide councils or investors with the benchmarking tool they require.

An EPE spokeswoman said she did not think councils or firms would want to know about emissions from individual sites. They just wanted to know firms’ total emissions and have evidence that they are acting to lower them. "This protocol is really going to be used by [waste] companies [themselves] to see their own performance," she added.

The lack of comparable emissions data is already a problem with current reporting by UK waste firms. Only Biffa and Sita report a figure of emissions per tonne of waste handled, but these cannot be compared as both companies treat waste in different ways. Sita operates four incinerators; Biffa none.

In November, Shanks became the final major waste firm to report its carbon footprint.2 Its assessment shows emissions from its mechanical-biological treatment (MBT) plants and landfill operations, as well as emissions from transport and electricity use.

Interestingly, Shanks also reports emissions savings from recycled material and the use of MBT outputs in cement kilns. However, it does not claim the savings but labels them as "saved by others". Shanks was responsible for 219,000 tonnes of CO2e in 2007/08, the report says - up from 192,000 tonnes in 2006/07. The jump was mainly due to increased burning of landfill gas.

Waste Recycling Group has also recently issued the latest version of its corporate responsibility report.3 Its first assessment, published last year, claimed credit for "sequestration" of plastics and lignin (a constituent of wood) in landfills that do not degrade under such conditions (ENDS Report 395, p 20 ). This put WRG’s landfills emissions at 127 kilograms per tonne of waste - far below the average emissions from landfill of 182kg per tonne given by the Environment Agency. WRG came in for criticism because of this. The Agency said WRG had already effectively achieved an emissions saving by not incinerating the plastics.

The company’s new report says it recognises these criticisms. However, it still claims emissions savings from landfilling lignin. A figure for plastics is also still given, but is not included in the calculation of WRG’s total emissions.

WBCSD’s protocol does not allow firms to claim credit for sequestrating carbon in landfills. However, an annex to the standard says "continued effort is needed to develop a recognised methodology", suggesting it could be incorporated in future.

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