UK's waste management sector targets net-zero emissions through £10bn infrastructure overhaul

The trade body representing the UK's resource and waste management industry has unveiled a sector-wide commitment to reach net-zero emissions by 2040, through a £10bn investment into new recycling infrastructure and a focus on zero-emission vehicles.

The sector has reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 46% since 1990

The sector has reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 46% since 1990

The Environmental Services Association (ESA) represents 85% of the UK’s waste management sector and has today (30 June) unveiled a net-zero commitment set for 2040. The commitment will be supported by a £10bn investment into new recycling infrastructure and technologies that can capture methane emissions. The ESA is aiming to increase methane capture by 85% from landfill by 2030.

The £10bn infrastructure commitment is welcome, considering the Green Alliance has warned that there is currently an £11.4bn investment gap in reaching net-zero across transport, buildings, the circular economy and infrastructure.

Additionally, the sector, which has reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 46% since 1990, will aim to decarbonise non-recyclable waste treatment by diverting organic waste from landfill and into recycling and energy production by 2030. Plastics will also be removed from energy recovery facilities and carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology will be introduced across Energy-from-Waste (EfW) facilities by 2040, where feasible.

The sector has also set a 2030 deadline, whereby only zero-emissions collection vehicles can be purchased. Petrol and diesel vehicles in fleets will be phased out entirely by 2040. All vehicle and onsite fuel will be switched to biofuel and zero-emission sources by 2040.

The ESA’s executive director Jacob Hayler said: “Our members have committed to an ambitious target and we have developed a clear and detailed plan to get there. This is an urgent and important task for the UK which we are excited, willing and able to invest behind.

“Critical to our success is a continuing constrictive partnership with Government to ensure the policy framework around decarbonisation continues to drive the right decisions which will ensure we can accelerate the UK’s net-zero ambition.”

Two areas of discussion between the ESA and the Government will be regulatory and policy context around CCS and the decarbonisation of industrial vehicles.

The ESA will provide annual progress updates and will review the strategy every five years to account for any market shifts and policy updates. A full GHG review for the sector will be conducted every two years, with results included in the ESA’s annual reporting.

Waste conundrum

The UK’s waste footprint has grown steadily since 1990, despite action from policymakers and businesses around a ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ framework. The UK is currently producing 27.5 million tonnes of non-recyclable waste annually, excluding plastics.

The UK’s options for dealing with this waste are to either burn it at EfW facilities, landfill it domestically, or ship it overseas. The latter option is not compatible with the UK’s commitments on climate change or waste and resources, according to Policy Connect, due to the fact that exported waste is often documented as recycled or sustainably managed, but is either burned in unregulated locations or left to pollute nature. Moreover, many nations are banning or limiting waste imports, which has pushed the cost of this option up in recent years.

Some green groups advocate the scaling up of EfW, dubbing it “safer, cheaper and cleaner” than landfill. Indeed, research suggests that up to half a million homes – the number of properties in Birmingham – could be heated using EfW by 2030 if the Government works with the waste management industry to dramatically scale up capacity and related infrastructure.

More broadly, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has stated the circular economy is key to the net-zero transition. According to the Foundation, moving to renewables across the globe will only address 55% of greenhouse gas emissions. To tackle the remaining 45%, the paper notes that transitioning to close-loop value chains, diet shift, emerging innovations and carbon capture and storage are all required.

Commenting on the ESA’s commitment, Rt Hon George Eustice MP, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: “The ESA’s commitment today is absolutely vital in helping us achieve our world-leading target of net-zero emissions by 2050, building a net-zero economy and leaving the environment in a better state for future generations.

“The recycling and waste management sectors are key to the success of our reforms, from creating deposit return schemes for drinks containers to encouraging more recyclable packaging. This commitment will help the nation transform the way we deal with waste and reduce our emissions.”

Matt Mace



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