Waste & the Climate Emergency

14 July 2021

Waste & the Climate Emergency
In recent weeks a number of reports, including by NASA and the UK’s Climate Change Committee, have looked at the impact waste is having upon the climate emergency. The common theme is that the rubbish society produces and how we decide to manage it is affecting the amount of Greenhouse Gases (GHG) we’re pumping into the atmosphere.


Take methane for instance. It’s been known for some time that the methane produced by rotting rubbish in landfill sites is 84 times more potent as a GHG than CO2 over the timeframe set to achieve Net Zero (i.e. 2050).
Researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, however, have suggested that methane from landfill sites may be six times more than estimated and that ”super emitter” landfills account for 43% of measured methane emissions. NASA’s research suggests that landfilling is playing a bigger role in accelerating climate change than previously believed. There may even be a need to revise how methane emissions are estimated.
On a more positive note, a new strategy published by the UK’s trade body for the waste and recycling sector to achieve net zero by 2040 – ten years ahead of the Government’s target – has highlighted that progress is being made (there’s also a video).
The ESA (Environmental Services Association) believes that the sector has halved GHG emissions associated with its activities over the past thirty years by “dramatically phasing out landfill and increasing recycling”.
In 2018 alone, the ESA estimates that thanks to ongoing activity such as landfill diversion, almost 50 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions were avoided across the economy. This equates to taking 10 million cars off UK roads.
Of course, producing less waste in the first place is the priority, but for that which can’t be or isn’t currently recycled, technology can help. arc21’s proposals, for instance to develop new waste facilities at Hightown Quarry will reduce GHG emissions by 57,000 tonnes compared to landfill and increase recycling rates by up to 10%.
Although GHG emissions from the waste sector have fallen by 46% since 1990 (the best performing sector after heavy industry and energy) the ESA believes more can be done. Net Zero by 2040 could be a realistic target. Key steps include investing more in recycling, removing organic material from landfill by 2030, removing plastics from existing Energy from Waste plants, adopting electric vehicles and working with Government to enable carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) technology. But to deliver this ambition – difficult decisions will be needed to permit time to allow the necessary infrastructure to be built and operational.
Phase out Waste Exports by 2030
Improving carbon capture from waste facilities was also identified in the latest progress report by the UK’s Climate Change Committee. It wants Northern Ireland to reach a 70% recycling rate by 2030 and ban bio-degradable waste going to landfill by 2025. In the next few years the Committee also wants to see long-term plans to divert virtually all waste from landfill and phase out waste exports by 2030.
It’s also important that new Energy from Waste facilities are CCUS ready and are consistent with recycling and waste diversion targets (arc21’s proposals are compliant on both counts).
At present the UK waste sector handles 221m tonnes of waste annually, three tonnes for every person. With the right political will, investment in new technology and support for the Circular Economy, we may not recognise the world in 20-years’ time.