COP26: How can local government help Britain achieve Net Zero?

Young man activist holding poster with inscription against pollu

The eyes of the world have been on Glasgow for COP26, where global leaders have been outlining their commitments to protecting the planet and tackling our climate crisis. But sustainable living isn’t just an international movement.

At the heart of regional infrastructure, local government plays a key role in helping the UK to reach its goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. And many of the discussion points around COP26 have addressed how better-run waste management services can lower the country’s climate footprint.

Recycling rates are up – but so is energy waste

The good news for local authorities is that the country cares about climate change – and it’s showing up in their waste management habits. New research published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to coincide with COP26 shows that food waste is down 17% since 2007, while 45% of UK households now regularly recycle unwanted materials.

However, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has warned that the waste management sector needs to become more eco-friendly. In a webinar hosted on 11 October, the CCC’s senior analysts for international engagement and waste policy, Louis Worthington, remarked that 5% of the UK’s total emissions still come from the waste industry. And emissions from energy from waste (EfW) plants have trebled in the last decade.

In fact, the CCC has suggested that policies should be developed around carbon capture and storage from waste energy, encouraging authorities to invest in infrastructures that take methane emissions away from landfill.

Already, the Environmental Services Association (ESA) has committed to taking the resource management sector to net zero emissions by 2040, allocating £10 billion to deploying technologies that will capture up to 85% of methane from landfill within the next ten years.

The ESA has also pledged to remove plastic from energy recovery facilities, divert organic waste from landfill into energy production, and introduce carbon capture and storage technology across EfW facilities.

But what can local authorities do at regional level to ensure that appetite for greener waste disposal isn’t offset by increasing energy expenditure? The answer lies in smart waste management planning and collection procedures.

Residents need greater clarity on recycling procedures

Undoubtedly, encouraging more people to recycle is better for the environment than disposing of all household waste as general refuse. The UK still produces around 27.5 million tonnes of non-recyclable waste each year, so the more local authorities can do to promote their recycling services and encourage uptake, the better the impact on the environment.

Part of the problem with engaging households is people not understanding how their local recycling system works. UK recycling rates are significantly behind countries like Germany and the Netherlands – and many British residents attribute their apathy to confusing rules around what can be recycled and when.

The problem is exacerbated by the different approaches used by local authorities to manage recycling – even among neighbouring councils – which limits the opportunity for national or regional guidance.

That being said, there are still things that local authorities can do to support residents living in their area. As we discussed in our blog post do households really understand how recycling works?, education on what materials can be recycled and how they should be put out for collection is one of the simplest ways for local authorities to improve recycling rates. And systems like putting stickers on wrongly organised boxes and bins can teach residents to sort their recycling out accurately next time round.

Optimising routes will minimise emissions

Getting residents recycling is a powerful way for local authority teams to do their bit for protecting the planet. However, with energy created by the waste management process (regardless of whether items are recyclable or not), councils need to look at further ways to keep their carbon footprint down. And there are many savings to make around the way refuse collections are managed.

For example: route optimisation is critical to minimising vehicle emissions. Many local authorities can reduce mileage by building smarter journey plans that use fewer refuse collection vehicles. The challenge councils have is implementing the right waste management technology to put these plans in place.

Route planning may seem like a task that can be manually managed, but it is a time-consuming process. And what happens when the community’s needs change? A report of a missed collection or fly tipping incident creates additional work for collection crews, and it’s difficult to re-sequence routes without the help of online software.

Municipal waste management technology is a game-changer for council’s seeking greener refuse coordination strategies, as it allows operations to be fully optimised with minimal vehicle emissions.

Not only does digital technology take planning and management completely paperless; waste management software creates automatic workflows for implementing high standards of service while planning the shortest possible routes with the fewest rubbish trucks.

A technology-driven approach has the dual benefit of decreasing the carbon footprint of regional waste collections while lowering costs. An optimised route often means fewer vehicles to maintain, lower fuel costs, and even fewer staff to pay in some cases. All without compromising on collection quality.

And with more money remaining in the budget, councils can put greater investment into bigger sustainability initiatives – such as replacing current trucks with all-electric refuse collection vehicles.

Small improvements add up to a huge impact

When it comes to reaching the UK’s climate goals, the waste management industry recognises its critical role in reducing the country’s climate footprint. But sadly, the waste industry’s main headline from COP26 was the Glasgow bin worker strike – resulting in rubbish flying around the city during this high-profile event.

However, putting greater investment into green initiatives like route optimisation would liberate budget to give hard-working refuse collectors a pay rise.

Payroll politics aside, there’s a lot that local authorities can learn from the headlines around COP26 about committing to lower emissions. To tackle our global climate crisis, every country in the world needs to make significant changes now – and community-level initiatives will make a huge contribution to helping the UK hit its net zero targets.

A few more households recycling or a slightly better route plan might not seem like a major improvement. But by using waste management technology to drive incremental change, UK councils can have a major cumulative impact on reducing the country’s carbon footprint.

Over 100 UK local authorities are already using Whitespace municipal waste management software. Book your free Whitespace demo to start running greener refuse collections.


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