Recycling is key to unlock residual waste decarbonisation

Charlotte Rule, Jun 30, 2022

Climate and Energy Policy Advisor, Charlotte Rule, looks at the recent CCC report and what more the industry can do to further decarbonise the sector.

This week the Climate Change Committee (CCC) released its latest detailed report to Parliament assessing the progress of several key sectors across the UK on their road to net-zero. The key message was unsurprising – more needs to be done and quicker. 

For the resources and waste management sector, the CCC acknowledged the sustained efforts of the industry towards reducing its emissions through reducing and diverting biodegradable waste away from landfill. However, it noted (as we in the sector are well aware of by now) that additional efforts are required to further decarbonise residual waste treatment, which will primarily be achieved by moving more waste material further up the waste hierarchy. 

Last year, the ESA released its ambitious net-zero strategy which offered a framework for the sector to reach net-zero emissions by 2040. This acknowledged that continued efforts to reduce, reuse, and recycle are vital to reduce the amount of waste generated; to move towards a circular economy, and ultimately reduce the sector’s emissions. For the treatment of residual waste, emissions reduction is best achieved through strategies to boost floundering national recycling performance while using CCUS, where feasible, to mitigate the unavoidable emissions from the material left over. 

The CCC report reflects this central message and acknowledged that for the sector to reach net-zero, urgent clarity on the detail and implementation timeline of key waste management reforms is needed from Government. It also suggested that Government creates a clear “roadmap” for decarbonising our sector – a journey the ESA and its members have already begun. 

The ESA therefore agrees with the CCC assessment that Defra and the devolved administrations should publish a detailed decarbonisation plan for the waste sector to help facilitate the transition and we hope the ESA’s ambitious net-zero strategy provides a useful resource in the process. Additionally, we have written to Defra jointly with our local authority counterparts to reiterate the CCC’s call for recycling policy clarity to enable industry to begin implementing the necessary service changes in pursuit of higher recycling performance on an urgent timeline. 

However, even with the proposed recycling and waste reforms in place and delivering on their ambitious targets, residual waste will continue for be produced for the foreseeable future. For this waste, energy recovery remains the lowest-carbon viable solution for its management and is subsequently an essential and complementary component of the UK’s waste management system. Most of the UK’s top performing local authorities for recycling also rely upon energy recovery, as do the devolved administrations. 

Energy recovery capacity must of course be balanced with current and future residual waste arisings and it is important to remember that “municipal waste” is a subset of the total residual waste stream provided to energy recovery facilities. When municipal household waste is hopefully diverted further up the waste hierarchy over the next decade, the residual waste capacity in energy recovery will be met by commercial waste currently going to landfill – a point it is important to remember while the policy focus remains on local-authority waste arisings. 

The ESA’s relevant working groups continue to ensure our sector is on the correct trajectory to meeting our 2040 net-zero target, and we look forward to further working with Government to achieve this.