13 Sep 2021
The government says that waste management is only responsible for 4% of UK greenhouse gas emissions. But this statistic only tell a partial story of the consequences that our throw-away society has on the climate and nature.
The extraction and processing of natural resources to make the products we buy produces a large amount of greenhouse gases overseas. Almost a quarter of the average person’s energy consumption and associated emissions is a result of the things we buy. In addition, around 90% of biodiversity loss is related to resource use. Buying less, reusing, repairing, and then recycling what we do buy reduces this.
With the decline in manufacturing in the UK, we now import an increasing amount of the products we buy – from clothes to furniture, electronics to toys. And with those products come the emissions produced in order to make them. According to the Climate Change Committee, the UK’s total emissions if you include those from our consumption is roughly double that of emissions from the UK alone. Each person in the UK is responsible for around a staggering 5.4 tonnes of imported greenhouse gas emissions every year – the equivalent of 11 long-haul flights.
The government has published a Waste Reduction Strategy. However, it has been strongly criticised for slow policy development and an over-reliance on voluntary initiatives with business, despite strong evidence that these fail to deliver. The government also has a Resource and Waste Strategy, which has some strong policies in areas such as food waste collection but is still unfunded.
The Climate Change Committee has recommended that waste should be reduced by more than a third by 2030, and 68% of remaining waste should be recycled or composted. It has also made specific recommendations to local authorities, which have a leading role in waste treatment. Friends of the Earth says higher recycling rate targets are needed given some local authorities are already exceeding 68% recycling. The stretch target we recommend is zero waste – 100% recycling and composting – by 2030, although we recognise that this also requires product manufacturers to make sure all goods are 100% recyclable.
Our goal is to be a sustainable consumption and zero waste area where all waste is minimised, recycled or reused as part of a circular economy approach.
What councils should do
Councils play a critical role in waste management because they collect and dispose of household waste. They can also model best practice in their own operations and encourage businesses to minimise waste.
In Wales, several councils have achieved reuse, recycling and composting rates of around 70% for household waste. This is much higher than in England, where the rate is only 45% on average. Friends of the Earth says that every local authority should be on a pathway to zero waste by 2030 with a minimum of 75% reuse, recycling and composting by 2025.
Points 36 to 40 in our Climate Action Plan for councils suggest councils should:
36. Send zero waste to landfill or incineration.
Not a single council in the UK has achieved this yet but it must be the goal of each one.
While waste is still going to landfill, any biodegradable waste (paper, food, etc.) should be separated and composted. This is to avoid creating methane (a powerful greenhouse gas) in landfills.
Some councils send their waste to burn in an incinerator, but this contributes to climate change even if electricity is produced; incinerators emit more CO₂ per megawatt-hour than gas-fired power plants, even when they're being used to produce electricity from waste.
In total 70% of packaging waste is recycled, but only 39% of plastic packaging is. A lot of this plastic is sent abroad to countries like Turkey and Malaysia where it's recycled with poor environmental and worker safeguards.
Councils must not send recycling overseas to vulnerable communities in poorer countries with lower health, safety and environmental standards.
37. Use food waste according to the food waste hierarchy of prevent, reuse, recycle; and ensure remaining non-recyclable biodegradable waste is used to generate biogas.
Food waste should first be minimised. There are now apps that people can use to share food that is no longer needed (eg, Olio) on the individual level. On the commercial level, retailers should be encouraged to share unwanted food with charities for use by those who are financially struggling.
Any unavoidable food waste should be collected door to door (much like standard bin collections) and sent to an anaerobic digester, a container that will turn the waste in renewable biogas for use in heating. If the waste goes to landfill it will turn into methane, escape into the atmosphere and add to climate breakdown.
38. Adopt circular economy waste policies in relevant plans and contracts.
A circular economy is where no resources are wasted and instead any waste materials produced are reused by others or recycled. Pioneered by the Ellen McArthur Foundation, the circular economy approach is now championed by businesses and local governments alike. But councils can do more than just get their own policies in order; this should include demanding recycled materials from their suppliers.
39. Promote community sharing and reuse to reduce waste and unnecessary consumption.
Councils should promote sharing schemes such as Freecycle (where people can offer possessions they no longer need for free) or Gumtree and eBay (where people sell second-hand goods).
They should also financially support community furniture and electrical appliance recycling schemes that enable low-income households to buy refurbished furniture and appliances, as well as textile upcycling schemes as an alternative to fast fashion.
40. Ban the use of single-use plastic in council offices and premises.
Some councils have made commitments to ban or phase out single-use plastics, as well as encourage and support their local community to help reduce plastic pollution. Councils should prioritise reusable containers and tableware over single-use items made from other materials, wherever possible. For example, reusable cups and plates are preferable to single-use compostable tableware.
Brighton & Hove’s policy commits the council to eliminating single-use plastics across all its offices and at events held on council land. Surrey says it is working towards zero single-use plastics in its own estate and has given its 600 firefighters reusable bottles, replacing daily bottled water. Plymouth had pledged to ban single-use plastics on all its premises by September 2019. The council is also encouraging community ambassadors and business pioneers to help deliver its Plan for Plastics across the city.
The government has made several headline-grabbing announcements: it says it will pass the cost of recycling and waste disposal on to product manufacturers and retailers through introducing full cost recovery for products that end up in household waste. It also says it will standardise recycling practices across the country, and that it will mandate the separate collection of food waste. These are welcome commitments, but as yet there is no funding or plan to deliver on them.
Plastic is a particularly problematic material, as we have seen through its impact on wildlife in rivers and oceans. Friends of the Earth is campaigning for a new targets to eliminate plastic pollution.
Councils have been warning for some time that they won’t be able to deliver action at the scale and pace commensurate to the climate and ecological emergencies without additional powers and resources. Friends of the Earth has joined local government organisations, academics and other NGOs in setting out a "Blueprint" of what is needed from national government to support councils in key policy areas.