COP26… a missed opportunity?
The urgency of the environmental situation is becoming more and more evident. Extreme weather is now regularly creating problems for communities, cities, countries and even entire regions, with reports of such events seldom out of the news.
With COP26 in Glasgow looming large, the end of 2021 seemed like it was going to be a turning point. The Covid pandemic had finally made people en masse realise how fragile and tenuous human society is.
In the run up to the conference, ‘David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet’, the Netflix documentary by the veteran naturalist, served as an impassioned plea, and seemed to be a wakeup call for the citizens of Earth.
The warning is stark: There is a pressing urgency to limit temperature rise, because if it remains unchecked, in the 22nd century large tracts of the surface of the Earth will have become uninhabitable, useless for producing food, and beset by a sixth mass extinction.
Unfortunately, the outcomes of COP26 were rather underwhelming, if not disappointing to many hardcore environmentalists and people who may be environmentally minded, which may well be a majority of people, especially in developed economies.
The act of completing the final text (the ‘cover decision’) of the conference was marked by a furious round of revisions by leading economies to re-word the precise meaning to provide wriggle room.
The subtext about why these nations pulled back on accelerating fossil fuel reduction targets is, of course, economics. Even in the effort to control a deadly and unpredictable microorganism, you cannot shut down and ignore economics. A dysfunctional economy is in many ways more damaging than the disease itself. The Covid pandemic drove home this hard truth to many governments around the world.
Recycling overshadowed by the bigger carbon reduction picture
Of course, to some at least, recycling is carbon reduction’s younger and somewhat less urgent relative. The temperature raising greenhouse gases (GHGs) from waste management may only seem like a faint background shadow in the bigger picture.
In 2019 landfill contributed about 10 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) to the UK’s total of 455 million, or about 2.2%. Compare that with transport, which produced 122 million, or 26.8% of the UK’s total output.
While carbon reduction through winding down on fossil fuel holds centre stage, there is a danger that recycling gets overpowered and left behind. However, there is more to waste management than GHGs. Recycling is critical to preserving resources by maximising materials re-use, and preventing items that are simply surplus to requirements going to waste processing, or ending up in landfill unnecessarily.
Despite the UK now being outside of the single market, the EUs target of recycling 50% of household waste (WfH) by 2020 seems like a good place to start. However, despite the effort in Wales, which achieved 56.4% in 2019, and NI which achieved 50.6%, Scotland and England made poor showings, dragging the average down to 46.2%.
Time for a reset: Refocusing our recycling efforts
To refocus our efforts on recycling, it needs governmental action to set the tone and take the lead in addressing some of the key things holding back our recycling efforts.
Economics – Not cost effective to recycle some things
The beneficial effects of climatic and environmental recycling are often not reflected in its economics. Recycling reduces costs to society by helping to arrest pollution and climate change, but this effect is not supported by the business case. Consumers and waste management companies are collecting materials for producers who may pay less for them than the cost of collection. And new materials are sometimes available to manufacturers and producers at a lower cost than recycled materials. We need to make sure recycling and recycled material is not the least cost effective option and that it makes business sense.
Products and packaging – Producers need to be more involved
Manufacturers and producers often play little part in the economics of recycling. They have less incentive to consider packaging or product design and cost is usually the over-riding consideration. Consumer brands have the unique power to drive change in the marketplace. Packaging and product design can be hugely influential in determining the economic viability of waste management and recycling, and the manufacturers need to be part of the solution. We need to let producers take a more central role.
Practices – Some out of step and making it more difficult
Some of the core practices of the ecosystem of waste collection, materials recovery and broking and trading firms needs to be reviewed. The former practice of shipping to China for reprocessing was effectively ended in 2018 by its National Sword policy. Now, contaminated plastic waste often ends up in other Asia-Pacific countries, and on the edges of Europe, such as in Turkey and Albania. Sometimes it is in illegal dumps, where it is ‘processed’ by low paid workers, and even burned in open landfills. We need to have a better oversight and quality management of overseas processing, and get better at remanufacturing, recycling and reuse in the UK.
Councils get more from environmental budgets with Whitespace
Ultimately, there is a need to drive better recycling and material reuse behaviour by consumers and businesses. This needs to come from the top down and the recycling industry needs to lobby the government for action.
Quite simply, if we are to really move forward with the cause of creating a more environmentally responsible society, we need to create a more circular economy around waste management and recyclables. Across the country, local government in cities, towns and rural areas that is tasked with driving the action required to address climate change at community level.
Whitespace is committed to working in partnership with local authorities and their environmental services providers to help create more pleasant communities and to do their bit in the global battle to address climate change through more effective waste management.
Our waste and Environmental software solutions release efficiency, helping local, county, metropolitan and unitary councils to do more with available budgets. To see what we could do for your environmental services, book your free Whitespace demo to see how our software works.