ESA - Environmental Services Association
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Carbon Management


Waste management accounts for 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions, largely through methane emissions from landfill. However, within the UK, as well as providing a third of the Country’s renewable electricity, the waste management industry has been one of the most effective sectors in reducing greenhouse gas impacts. According to the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, the sector’s emissions fell by 58% from 1990 to 2006.

The waste management sector’s activities also contribute towards indirect carbon savings made elsewhere in the economy.

The use of recycled material in new products, both domestically and abroad, offsets the requirement for energy intensive production from virgin materials, whilst generation of renewable energy helps to reduce the economy’s reliance on fossil fuels.

The Issues

Greenhouse gas emissions from UK waste sector: In 2008 ESA’s seven largest operators’ greenhouse gas emissions were in the order of 8.8 million tonnes CO2 equivalent (CO2e). This figure includes emissions from all Member activities including transport and estimated landfill gas emissions.

Direct vs indirect emissions: Some trade-offs can occur between waste and climate change policy. This is due to the fact that increased recycling (which indirectly reduces emissions in other sectors) can cause higher direct emissions from the waste management sector in the form of transport emissions from increased vehicle movements and higher energy consumption at material recovery facilities. At the same time, some of the climate change benefits occur through decreased emissions outside the UK when the material is used as a substitute in primary production processes. This contrasts with the climate change benefits of energy recovery from waste which occurs within national borders as emissions from domestic energy generation are offset.

While recycling in general tends to be helpful in terms of reducing aggregate global emissions, the complexities described must be taken into account when developing policy. 

ESA Policy Recommendations

  1. The government should utilise the public sector’s purchasing power to increase demand for recycled products.

  2. The government should introduce incentives into the waste and climate change policy framework to reward the embedded carbon savings derived from recycling activities. This would enable the recycling sector to realise the value of its carbon savings as is already the case with emission savings resulting from renewable energy generation.

  3. The Government should ensure that any metrics developed to measure the greenhouse gas impacts arising from waste management and recycling activities are robust, transparent and consistent across the UK.

  4. The government should introduce resource pricing to virgin materials to reflect fully the greenhouse gas impacts of extracting raw materials.