The importance of the waste sector in achieving a zero-carbon economy

Andy Warhol once famously said: “They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” This statement has never been more apt when looking at the critical issue of climate change as it affects our planet today.

High profile campaigners such as Greta Thunberg and Sir David Attenborough have certainly taken a leaf out of Andy Warhol’s book and have engaged forthrightly to bring about much needed change.  But change is not happening fast enough with the latest United Nations-led report concluding that climate change is impacting more rapidly than predicted and with a greater intensity than expected.

November’s United Nations Climate Change Conference, otherwise known as COP26, is the next important milestone for climate campaigners and world leaders alike to take action on this vital issue.  We must wait to understand what changes will be agreed and how these changes will impact on individuals and businesses.

As a sector, the waste industry must be part of the solution. It is unique in the supply chain as it provides a service to each and every other sector. Therefore, any action taken to address climate change within our sector can have an exponential impact.  Given the fact that every business and household creates some form of waste, it is our responsibility to ensure it is collected and treated in the most carbon efficient manner as well as finding the most environmentally sensitive final destination.

Much has changed in the last five years, for example, the waste sector has made a remarkable impact on reducing the greenhouse gas emissions it creates by nearly 59% (Northern Ireland Greenhouse Gas Inventory 1990 – 2018 – NISRA). This achievement which has been helped to a certain extent by decreasing waste volumes from local authorities and improved landfill gas capture, is almost entirely due to the significant reduction of waste going to landfill over this period.

The alternative to landfill currently is to treat waste as a feedstock for energy recovery, which has increased by over 4,300% during the same period.  Given this, it is very clear that while waste to energy plants are preferable to landfill and bring several benefits to our sector, their carbon intensity – while no longer classified as ‘waste’ but as ‘energy’ within the Greenhouse Gas Inventory – is still too high and will constrain Northern Ireland’s progress towards zero-carbon.

If we are to contribute more towards our society’s zero-carbon future, then finding alternative final destinations for residual waste streams will be critical. I know that RiverRidge and other companies in our sector, have been working hard on this of late as we push our waste further away from landfill and recovery and further towards recycling.

However, in 2021 the fact remains that six out of our 11 local authorities continue to send all or a portion of the residual household waste directly to landfill.

I believe that our existing waste management companies in Northern Ireland have ample capacity to deal with the waste in a more carbon sensitive manner.

Our sector must continue to be innovative, continually looking at business operations to see how we can reduce our carbon footprint. We must pioneer ways, for example, of converting resources such as plastic and paper from heavily co-mingled residual waste streams into viable and reusable resources.

At RiverRidge, we are investing heavily in projects that will redirect resources such as plastic from our customers’ waste streams, towards treatment processes which are far less carbon intensive than incineration and which will have a real and meaningful impact on the UK’s Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emission levels.

And so, if we are to look to a zero-carbon economy Northern Ireland – then as Andy Warhol says you really have to change things yourself.