Is it Actually Achievable to get to Net Zero?
Zero Waste solutions form an integral part of the global response to climate change and the race to net zero. Net Zero Waste focuses on reducing, reusing and recovering as much waste as possible by implementing waste management solutions that minimise the amount of waste sent to landfills. The burning question is how attainable is Net Zero Waste and Zero Waste to Landfill in practice?
Zero Waste to landfill is achievable in certain situations, but for the vast majority of sites, the answer is “no”, at least, not in our current economic situation with our current value chains. More often than not, companies simply externalize their impacts in their Zero Waste to Landfill journey. For example, sites often consider that taking their waste off-site to a materials recovery facility (MRF) is seen as Zero Waste to Landfill, when in fact materials recovery facilities generally only have a 60 – 70% diversion of waste from landfill. At single grade sites, mixed general waste consists of approximately 20 – 35% recycling. When streams are segregated at source then the ratio of dry mixed recycling (DMR) recovered at a MRF can be improved. This means cardboard, food, glass and DMR are segregated from general waste at the point of generation. In this scenario approximately 55% – 80% of recyclables can be extracted.
IMPORTANT CONSIDERATIONS WHEN TARGETING ZERO WASTE TO LANDFILL
The two most notable items to consider when striving for zero waste to landfill are cost and carbon footprint.
Depending on the recycling market, it is often easily achievable to get to 60% recycling with the standard paper, plastic, metal and glass grades. Because of economics, any other solution will likely cost more than disposal to landfill so increasing recycling performance will come with a premium. The simplest way to gain an understanding of why zero to landfill will increase your costs is using the law of diminishing returns. The concept is illustrated below. As the diversion rate increases, the marginal cost rises following the law of diminishing returns. At most of our sites, we are currently at the lowest cost. Interventions to improve the output (in this case the recycling performance) will only increase the marginal cost.
Carbon footprint follows a similar pattern. The recycling of organic waste to increase diversion from landfill decreases the carbon footprint of a site’s waste practices. The interventions necessary to divert the remaining waste are often carbon intensive. This can be for a number of reasons. Often service providers that recycle this waste are few and far between, resulting in high logistical emissions or it is impossible to recycle these grades and incineration is seen as the only other option.
SHOULD ZERO WASTE TO LANDFILL EVEN BE A TARGET?
We believe that the Zero Waste to landfill is a journey supported by data. We first need to understand what is being sent to landfill and then figure out better things to do with it. At Don’t Waste we understand that waste audits are a critical starting point to improve further (Read: Do you know what’s in your waste stream?). There are many insights which can be gleaned from an audit which will inform what the best zero waste solutions might be, and those solutions may speak to procurement, tenant solutions or source separation. Net Zero Waste should certainly be the aim, but it is a challenging journey that requires an incremental, data-driven approach.
NET ZERO WASTE VS. ZERO WASTE TO LANDFILL
Net Zero Waste and Zero Waste to Landfill are often used synonymously. Although the difference between the two is nuanced, it is important to differentiate the two.
In short, Net Zero Waste allows for minimal amounts of disposal where Zero Waste to Landfill does not. Net Zero Waste appreciates that often diverting all waste from landfill can actually be less environmentally friendly and so makes room for the remaining small percentage of waste to be sent to landfill and offset. Zero Waste to Landfill involves diverting all waste that is generated from disposal, no matter the environmental and financial costs.
IN WHICH CIRCUMSTANCES IS NET ZERO WASTE ACHIEVABLE?
The two examples where Net Zero Waste is actually achieved is when the organic waste is processed with an alternative and the inorganic waste is either turned into construction material with a polymer or sent to a brick kiln for use as refuse derived fuel. These solutions are not available to all sites depending on proximity to these organic and inorganic solutions and the carbon footprint of the transport. This should be factored in to see whether these alternatives are environmentally friendly.
As our #DontWasteTime campaign draws to a close, it is our hope that the Conference of Parties (COP26) accelerates the urgent climate action needed across all stakeholders to achieve Net Zero. Don’t Waste can support your Zero Waste Journey by providing transparent data-driven insights into your waste streams and recommendations for zero waste solutions. We ensure that transparency is at the forefront of your Zero Waste to Landfill journey and provide waste management solutions that are aligned to your sustainability strategy.
#DontWasteTime take action and start your Zero Waste Journey today.
Linus Naik: Group Sustainability and Business Development Manager ()