Carbon in a Waste World or Waste in a Carbon World?

26th June 2023

lake with waste

Anthesis’ Principal Consultant Jamie Warmington joined a panel at a webinar titled “Carbon in a waste world”. The title played on his mind as he believes carbon will shape both policy and decision-making, so instead suggested it would be more accurate to describe the session as addressing “waste in a carbon world”. In this blog, Jamie discusses why this distinction is so important.

Reducing the carbon emissions associated with managing waste and resources is a wide-ranging topic and one that is only growing in both scope and complexity. It is engaging an ever-growing set of stakeholders in pre- and post-consumer supply chains as the challenge of achieving Net Zero comes into focus. In many cases, those impacted face more questions than answers as they navigate the requirements of carbon accounting, setting targets and implementing the changes required to meet them.

There is no doubt that to meet the challenge of Net Zero, the waste and resources sector will need to undergo a transformation. But for a sector that has been constantly evolving in response to policy, it has already started.

Before getting lost in the great amount of detail, it’s important to start with the basics.

The waste and resource sector contributes 6% of the UK’s direct emissions. Although this is relatively small compared to other sectors, it is important to note that in addition to reducing its own emissions, the waste and resource sector also has a significant role to play in the decarbonisation of other industrial sectors and achieving UK-wide science-based targets and Net Zero targets by 2050. This contributes to limiting climate change and minimising the risk of ecosystem and biodiversity loss.

There are three key questions that the sector needs to address for this transition:

1. How does sector approach the decarbonisation of waste and resources services?

2. How do we best support economy-wide decarbonisation by being a pivotal sector that is collecting and transforming wastes, providing high-quality and lower-carbon products and fuels to support the decarbonisation of other industrial sectors?

3. How do we balance the above by setting a policy framework which delivers on transitioning the waste sector to a highly efficient, low carbon system which remanufactures resources and carbon within closed loop systems?

When we look at progress to date the waste and resources sector has been successfully reducing overall emissions by two-thirds compared to 1990, with emissions falling from over 90MtCo2 /per annum to ~30MtCO2 per annum by 2019. Many of the improvements achieved so far have been through landfill diversion, delivered by increasing recycling and diverting an increasing tonnage of residual waste to Energy from Waste (EfW) facilities. However, this data sheds light on the next challenge – how does the sector reduce emissions from core waste treatment activities including collection, recycling, and energy from waste?

The first step for all waste management companies is to understand their baseline emissions using carbon accounting protocols to quantify which are Scope 1 (direct emissions i.e., burning fuel), Scope 2 (indirect emissions from the generation of energy and raw materials) and increasingly, Scope 3 (emissions that the company is indirectly responsible for up and down the value chain). From there it is possible to understand the scale of mitigation required, set interim targets to shape the ‘glide path’ to Net Zero and identify and implement the actions required.

It is widely accepted that recycling materials is less environmentally damaging than past ‘take, make and dispose’ models. However, recycling itself can be very carbon intensive, requiring power to operate equipment and transport fuels to move materials around. The supply chain and waste and resources sector are working together to increase the recycling rate to the government target of 65% by 2035 and beyond. However, direct emissions must be reduced. Luckily, it is easier and less expensive to implement mitigations for recycling operations than for EfW and landfill. The increasingly decarbonised electricity grid will help, as well as other measures such as the installation of solar panels on large facilities. Also, technological advancement in electric road haulage vehicles means it is now becoming feasible to operate a zero-emissions fleet.

EfW facilities face a bigger challenge to reduce direct emissions being at the ‘end of the pipe’ in terms of managing the residual waste created by society. As such, there are limited levers that they can utilise other than taking action to remove fossil-based plastics in the feedstock before combustion and/or investing in Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).

Decarbonisation in the waste sector is set to become a complex picture with far more nuance as to how to achieve alignment between circular economy and Net Zero. It will require careful consideration of which technologies we deploy to reduce carbon intensity across all aspects from collection to treatment and disposal.

It is vital for all actors to consider their role in achieving carbon reduction goals. It is crucial to not only start planning for carbon ambitions and setting targets but also determine the necessary implementation pathways to attain them.

Beyond the decarbonisation of direct emissions, there also needs to be a recognition of the role that the waste and resource recycling sector will play in the decarbonisation of other sectors of the economy. The waste and resources sector is uniquely placed to play a pivotal role. This includes:

  • Being at the heart of the circular economy, ‘re-manufacturing’ resources, adding value, and avoiding the carbon emissions associated with raw material production. The recycling sector will play a crucial role in reducing supply chain emissions by providing a core service known as “avoided emissions” or Scope 4 impacts to all other industrial sectors. For example, the recycling of a tonne of PET could avoid up to 6 tonnes of CO2 usually associate with virgin PET production.
  • Providing efficient, low carbon recovery and disposal routes to manage and reduce emissions for end-of-life materials and products.
  • Potential for non-recyclable waste to be feedstock for the manufacture of low carbon chemicals and fuels to transport and industry.

The crucial services delivered by the sector will come into focus if and when Scope 3 emissions reporting become mandatory. Scope 3 emissions are the upstream and downstream emissions of organisations that can make up nearly 90% of their emissions profile. It involves the carbon embedded in the materials and services they buy and how these are managed at end of life. This is another reason why quantifying your company’s emissions will become increasingly important – customers will soon start asking for this data for their reporting.

Given the value of the waste and resource sector to the broader decarbonisation goals, the government must create a policy framework to create certainty and stimulate the investment required to deliver Net Zero. The waste and resource sector is now intricately linked with industrial decarbonisation and therefore it is no longer effective to devise waste and resources policy in isolation. There is a significant potential for such policies to conflict with other sectoral decarbonisation pathways. This is particularly the case with developing technology designed to create ‘sustainable aviation fuel’ (SAF), a key part of the decarbonisation strategy for the aviation sector which will have a significant demand for residual waste as feedstock.

Anthesis has experts with in-depth knowledge of the waste management sector, carbon accounting and industrial decarbonisation. If you would like support with any of the below, please get in touch.

  • Landscape and policy review – ETS, CCUS and wider regulatory/policy context for carbon-related policies.
  • Market and peer appraisals – market position on carbon strategies, SBTI, Net Zero targets and ESG goals.
  • Support in baselining emissions, target setting and development of decarbonisation strategies.
  • Identifying and supporting the implementation of carbon reduction measures.
  • Data reporting and ESG / sustainability reporting.
  • Support on offsetting and in-setting carbon emissions.