Waste needs to be higher on the environmental agenda

Following COP26 in Glasgow, there is growing global consensus around environmental issues, from cuts to emissions to a promise to stop deforestation by 2030.

These are essential goals that will take money and commitment to overcome.

But one of the issues that wasn’t discussed at the event – and one that it is possible to tackle right now – is waste.

This was a missed opportunity. Estimates suggest that waste account for between 3 and 5 per cent of global emissions. However, experts like David C. Wilson, a professor in resource and waste management at Imperial College London, believe this figure is likely to be much higher.

There’s also the question of landfill. The UK alone produces 221 million tonnes of waste each year, with 44.1 of the UK’s municipal waste is recycled – and a long way off the UK government’s target of a 65% municipal recycling rate by 2035

The UK also faces a waste treatment capacity shortage of up to 6 million tonnes by 2030, in part because of China’s crackdown on paper and plastic imports.

Meanwhile, 30% of the food we produce is wasted – about 1.8 billion tonnes of it a year. If we stopped wasting food globally, we could reduce emissions by 8%.

The challenge ahead

So, there is much to do. And while the UK cannot achieve change overnight, by putting steps in place now, businesses can play an important role in reducing landfill and emissions.

According to Dr Adam Read, the President of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM), creating a circular economy and a world beyond waste – could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 39%.

The good news is that that waste is something that can be minimised with the right approach, expertise, and mindset. In addition to long-term goals like achieving carbon neutrality, it is an area that businesses can work with waste management experts to improve in an efficient and cost-effective manner.

The waste hierarchy

One of the most effective ways businesses reduce the waste they send to landfill is by introducing a waste hierarchy.

The concept is simple. At one end of the spectrum lies disposal, the last resort for dealing with waste – and one that has an unsustainable impact on the environment. At the other end is reduction: in other words, not creating waste in the first place! This can be achieved by measures like cutting back on packaging and avoiding for food waste.

What about recycling? Recycling gives old materials a new life. But it is not a perfect solution: it requires energy and resources that create emissions of their own – although still considerably less than creating something from new (for example, recycling aluminium drink cans saves up to 95% of the energy needed to make aluminium from its raw materials.)

The energy from materials that can’t be recycled may also be able to be recovered for use in certain processes or fed back into the electricity grid.

So, while recycling and recovery serve an important – and, in many cases, necessary – function, businesses should prioritise reducing their over waste and reusing materials where possible. They can avoid disposable cups and cutlery, for example, or donate furniture rather than sending it to landfill.

The importance of waste segregation

The other essential component of waste management is efficient segregation to ensure materials are categorised correctly and reused and recycled where possible.

Materials that can be recycled should not be considered waste: they are often potential commodities that might have been contaminated by waste and just need to be extracted.

In addition to sending less to landfill, companies can also see a return on materials like certain metals, cardboard, and plastics via rebates. And, with the right equipment and processes in place, companies can unlock long-term savings on their waste management.

It’s time to rethink waste

While waste may not have received top billing at COP26, it is an area where – if handled correctly – tangible, achievable progress can be made in a sustainable and cost-efficient way. Businesses are entitled to ask their waste management provider to ensure they are using the most effective methods to reduce the amount of waste being sent to landfill.

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