Time to cut carbon cost of recycling

Recycling is, as we all know, good for the environment. But could more gains be made from the public's willingness to sort their rubbish?

According to corporate financial advisers Grant Thornton and waste consultants Oakdene Hollins they could, and significant CO2 savings could be made if we spent more time recycling materials sensibly and less chasing straightforward weight targets.

A report published this week by the money men and consultants argues that the Government’s policy of tonnage-based recycling targets delivered at the lowest possible cost means that the carbon cost of differing recycling processes is being ignored.

The UK’s preferred method of recycling glass – grinding mixed-colour glass into sand – is actually having an unnecessary, negative impact on the environment, claims the report.

Current recycling targets for glass should be saving the country 300,000 tonnes of carbon emissions per year by 2008 but according to Grant Thornton and Oakdene Collins, we could be saving an additional 100,000 tonnes at no extra cost.

Energy savings, and thus a reduction in carbon emissions, can be made by collecting green, brown and clear bottles separately, melting it down and using it to make glass again.

But this becomes expensive and time consuming if householders or local authorities are not separating different coloured bottles before they reach the recycling facility, argues the report.

Grinding glass to make sand and other materials might offer a quick win in terms of weight targets, says the report, but it actually generates more CO2 than if it were sent to landfill and alternative materials produced.

Nigel Mattravers, waste specialist at Grant Thornton said: “The Government has done a good job in promoting recycling awareness and raising recycling levels.

“However the current focus on how many tonnes we recycle and the fixation with meeting weight-based targets rather than on energy efficient recycling methods is actually having an adverse effect on the environment.

“Energy intensive recycling methods such as glass grinding for use in the construction industry may be helping us to meet tonnage-based recycling targets.

“However, they are failing to reduce harmful CO2 emissions, which would be lower if all the glass was sent directly to land fill sites.

“The current basis for establishing landfill diversion targets, and the balance within the resource recovery agenda is incorrect and should be supplanted by a better driver of sustainability based on the carbon impact or green house gases.”

The report, The impact of the carbon agenda on the waste management business, can be found by following the link.

Dr Martin Gibson, programme director for Envirowise, told edie he believed the report focused the debate to tightly on what happens to the glasss at the end of a products lifestyle and more attention could be given to how the material is being used in the first place.

“Consumers are to some degree at the mercy of retailers, designers and manufacturers who control packaging choices and specifications, before a product even reaches the shelf, shopping trolley or recycling box,” he said.

“Whilst it is vital to assess and curb where possible the environmental impact of recycling this ‘post-consumption waste’ it is also important to note that many in the business community are committed to identifying ways to reduce the levels of glass and other packaging materials used in the first place.

“The report refers to the waste hierarchy as the key driver in current waste disposal practice, but this is to over-simplify the work being undertaken here.

“Giving primacy to the early stages of product development across all industry sectors has already triggered innovative solutions such as cleaner design, design for disassembly and remanufacturing – which must increasingly be considered and supported in policy making decision too.”

Sam Bond

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