Waste sector faces carbon challenge

The UK is at a turning point in uniting the agendas on waste and carbon, according to the Environment Department (DEFRA). New research has highlighted the carbon benefits of waste recovery, and the Environment Agency has unveiled a life-cycle analysis tool to assist thinking at local and regional level.

The government sees an opportunity to engage with citizens on recycling as part of a wider climate strategy, according to Neil Thornton, a senior DEFRA official responsible for waste.

He said there would be "no shocks" in the revised waste strategy, now expected in May following local and devolved assembly elections. "However, one of the things we will be doing in the waste strategy is uniting the climate change and waste agendas."

Mr Thornton was addressing a conference of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management.

Also addressing the conference, Peter Jones, a director of Biffa Waste Services, picked up the agenda now facing the waste industry. "It will be carbon, carbon, carbon," he said.

Mr Jones said the waste industry manages some 40 million tonnes of direct carbon emissions via disposal facilities and vehicle fleets. Some waste businesses, including Biffa, would like the sector to fall under the EU emissions trading scheme.

Waste firms have already gained experience with tradable certificates under the renewables obligation, in relation to landfill gas power plants and waste combustion. Landfill gas abatement overseas is also earning credits for some UK contractors under the Kyoto Protocol’s clean development mechanism.

Measurements of landfill methane emissions are open to challenge but in principle it would be feasible to bring landfills under the EUETS. Incinerators could also be included, with operators having to obtain allowances for fossil carbon emissions linked to the combustion of plastics.

Moving further, to award credits for recycling and composting would be problematic because there is a risk of double-counting. For example, recycling of glass leads to reduced carbon emissions in the glass industry, which may already be working under an EUETS permit. And often the carbon benefits from recycling accrue to other countries where the waste is reprocessed, such as with plastic bottles shipped to China.

Mr Jones suggested that, nonetheless, customers with corporate responsibility strategies are likely to want to know the carbon footprint of waste management services. Data collection for carbon accounting might therefore feature in waste management services.

Local authorities are also set to take more interest in the carbon emissions associated with waste management. The revised waste strategy will encourage councils to weigh up the carbon impacts of options when developing municipal and regional strategies.

To this end, the Environment Agency has developed a new life-cycle analysis tool, WRATE 1 (Waste and Resources Assessment Tool for the Environment). WRATE was developed under a £1 million DEFRA grant, with technical input from consultants at ERM and Golder Associates. Unlike its predecessor, WISARD, the intellectual property belongs to the Agency.

Agency science manager Terry Coleman said the tool would help in building consensus on local waste strategies. Improvements compared with WISARD are that it is easier to use and allows municipal waste to be broken down into different waste streams. It also contains data on a wide range of waste facility types rather than just those presently operating in the UK. WRATE’s future development will be self-financing, with users charged £1,850 for a standard licence and £6,750 for a full "expert" licence.

Also in March, DEFRA unveiled research into the carbon emissions associated with waste management, building on a review by the Waste and Resources Action Programme last year which found recycling usually has lower impacts (ENDS Report 376, p 7 ).

Environment Minister Ben Bradshaw said the research would help councils "reduce the cost and maximise the benefits" of the shift from landfill.

A report for DEFRA by ERM2 concludes that the largest potential for cutting carbon emissions over and above existing waste recovery efforts is with the following waste streams:

  • Manures and slurries, via anaerobic digestion.
  • Waste wood, through combustion and energy recovery.
  • Waste paper and card, either through recycling or combustion with energy recovery.
  • Non-ferrous metals, through recycling.

It says that recycling of textiles and plastics also has potential to deliver significant carbon reductions, as does the treatment of kitchen and green waste by anaerobic digestion.

WRAP will shortly publish cost-benefit research on biowaste management, drawn up by Eunomia Research & Consulting, which seeks to quantify carbon emissions, taking account of the sequestration of carbon in soils when composts are applied.

Another Eunomia study published by WRAP in March looks at the options for managing food waste,3 and argues that the UK has an opportunity to take the lead in Europe on the issue, learning from experience in other member states to manage biowaste more cost-effectively and sustainably.

Eunomia concludes that separate collection of food waste, coupled with anaerobic digestion, is likely to deliver the best environmental performance. This option also minimises processing costs, avoiding costly in-vessel systems for processing garden waste.

If applied across the UK, this system of food waste management would reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared with landfill by 1.6-3.6 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent.