With 40% of the UK’s carbon emissions originating from households, greener homes are crucial to the country’s 2050 net zero target. Waste is a big part of this: every year, the average household in the UK produces a tonne of waste, which equates to roughly half a tonne of carbon – 4% of a household’s carbon footprint. Of the waste that is classified as ‘residual’ – or non-recyclable – a recent waste composition analysis conducted by Cory produced some interesting results. The study found that dense plastics and film, while only representing 16% of the residual waste by weight, contributed 65% of the fossil carbon emissions that result from its treatment in an energy from waste (EfW) facility. These fossil carbon emissions add new carbon to the atmosphere and exacerbate global climate change.
A challenge we face in reducing this plastic content, is that responsibility cannot be assigned to one party to produce one easily identifiable solution.
Take consumers. We can all play our part in adopting more conscientious consumption habits and sorting our waste and recycling responsibly. But will universal adoption of these behaviours, even if this were a realistic possibility, solve the problem altogether? No, not when many plastics – including various types of plastic packaging – are simply not recyclable. That said, it’s encouraging to see increasing numbers of supermarkets offering services for the recycling of flexible plastics.
However, while consumers can play an important part in reducing emissions from waste, prevention is better than cure. Enter the Waste Hierarchy, which ranks waste management options according to what is best for the environment. At number one, ‘reduce’ is clearly the most favourable option – but to achieve this, we need systemic change. Government must force business to become responsible for the cost of managing its packaging and products post-consumer. This will incentivise business to design out waste and unnecessary packaging, ensure products are repairable, and easily dismantled at the end of life to ensure those materials can be easily reused. Governments must support business in this purpose, through investment, taxation, and legislation. The UK Government’s proposed Extended Producer Responsibility scheme, the rollout of which has been delayed, will be critical.
So how about waste companies? It’s tempting to point to the businesses that manage the waste, but to what extent do these businesses control what they receive? Frankly, none of it. That’s not to say that companies like Cory shouldn’t play their part in reducing the emissions at the point of processing. Thanks to the landfill tax, which helped to divert waste from landfill and into EfW, UK emissions from waste dropped by 71% between 1990 and 2019. The sector now needs to go further – and the signs are promising. Over the past year or so on the back of rapidly evolving policy, there has been a surge in waste businesses pursuing carbon capture and storage projects. If successful, this will help some (although probably not all because of geographical constraints) EfW operators to significantly reduce household carbon footprints. It could even create a negative emissions profile for businesses that capture fossil (from plastic content in waste) and non-fossil carbon (from wood, paper, food content in waste), i.e. the carbon from materials that are already part of the natural carbon cycle. Other measures to mitigate carbon emissions include plastics removal technologies, which waste companies and the local authorities that comprise a large part of their customer base are exploring with interest.
Reducing household emissions from waste requires a multi-faceted approach, with all parties seeking to control the part that they can control. Rather than pointing the finger of blame, it’s crucial that we realise that much like anything else in a complex world of infinite variability, it’s probably not quite as simple as that.