Net zero and waste – as simple as 1, 2, 3

Net zero and waste – as simple as 1, 2, 3
25 November 2021

Net zero and waste – as simple as 1, 2, 3

It hasn’t been long since the anticipation of COP26 when the world was filled with hope that our collective leaders would agree to deliver the necessary changes required to save humanity. Views on what was achieved are varied, from “we are moving in the right direction” to “we fall short of the significant changes required”.

I shared the waste sector’s concerns that we were absent from the main agenda and reflecting on the events of the past month or so, my thoughts on us moving towards net zero can be summed up in three main points.

As simple as 1, 2, 3...

Travel


Everything within the supply chain needs to travel less. Our societal functions have become used to “just-in-time” logistics, with an “I-want-it-now” culture. The miles quickly rack up – foods imported from distant shores; material supply chains covering huge distances; our working patterns travelling to an office – and these all require a support infrastructure. Delivering net zero will require compromises, and yes, seasonal fruit may then be available only during certain seasons – and that should be OK.

Consumption

retail
We need to consume less. It’s common knowledge that we consume more than two and half worlds’ worth of resources – however you look at it, that is not sustainable.

In addition, much of the world’s population is seeking a better quality of life and growth. Growth is measured by the gross domestic product, which is based on the level of consumption. Global economic growth assumptions of a mere 3%, as compound growth, quickly reach unsustainable levels. Put simply, success and growth measures are inconsistent with the urgent needs of humanity.

Clearly the less we consume, the less energy we need to source the raw materials, make the products, transfer them to the point of sale and then manage them at their end of life. Decarbonisation of the energy used solves only part of the problem.

We don’t need to abandon capitalism; we simply need to think differently about how we measure growth and success. Wealth is not just about money. An existing forest is worth more to humanity than money that is used to fund carbon-offsetting schemes to plant more trees. We also need to capitalise on service-based rather than product-based business models.

Personal accountability

personal responsibility

We need to be accountable for our own actions. This is not just about politicians signing agreements, but more about individuals making the right decisions. We all have a role to play in the type and frequency of the transport we use, what food we eat, how much energy we use and so on.

So how do we change behaviour?

thinking about behaviour

One of the main problems with acting on the three points mentioned is that it requires compromise, hard choices and personal impacts on our lives. That is hard for us to accept, but essential if progress is to be made.

We need to change our behaviour so the application of key behavioural change theories will be pivotal to any sustained change. When we think about the three main types of behaviour change, it is important to remember that “voluntary methods” are the most effective, and more importantly have longevity. They also require the most effort.

Let’s look at types of behaviour change using water use as an example:

  1. Voluntary management is where the individual believes in the need to change their behaviour and therefore enacts that change. They will proactively seek opportunities to save water by not leaving a tap on, watering the garden with water collected from rainfall and so on.
  2. Supply management is where the supply is limited due to physical intervention. In our water example, this could be sprinklers on our hosepipes.
  3. Demand management is where behaviour change is forced due to a tax or ban. For example, a hosepipe ban.

All three methods reduce water use, but their longevity is significantly different.

  1. For demand management, once the ban is released, use will go back to normal levels, making the change short-lived.
  2. For supply management, sprinklers are reducing how much water is being used, but there is no restriction on frequency or duration of the hosepipe use.
  3. For voluntary management, the individual understands and believes in the benefit of using less water and, as that is their decision, they continue with the ‘good’ behaviour indefinitely.

So, what does this mean for the waste sector?

In the first instance, it is interesting to observe that the waste sector’s approach to behaviour change has been largely focused on demand and supply management measures. For example, landfill tax, material bans and restricted residual collection systems. Voluntary measures are more focused on provision of education and information as opposed to defining a clear common purpose and explaining the WHY.

The waste sector has rightly been vocal about the positive contribution it has already made to decarbonisation, being associated primarily with managing the volume of material and emissions associated with landfill and energy from waste. Over the past two decades, significant strides have been made in diverting waste from landfill, making a major contribution to the reduction of emissions. But, as a sector, the potential value of our contribution is so much more than that.

We should stop referring to ourselves as the waste or even resource management sector; we are part of the materials management sector. Stakeholders across our sector need to be involved throughout the supply chain. This starts with material design (to ensure the material can be circulated within either the material or bio economy); behaviour change (influencing what and how people purchase and consume); through to material supply driving secondary materials markets or contributing to society’s power requirements.

While net zero ambitions rightly focus on decarbonisation of energy supply, we must not forget that avoiding or reducing that energy requirement in the first place must take priority. A key principle of the circular economy is looking for alternative business models, replacing products with service-based solutions. After all, the consumer does not want the lightbulb, they want the light; they don’t want the fridge, they want their food to be kept cold and fresh and so on.

Manufacturing new products requires energy, water and materials. Transportation of the end products or raw materials to make a product will most likely create carbon emissions, especially if shipped or flown from overseas. Energy is required to pump the water, and so the interconnected complexity of the materials management ecosystem goes on. We make progress when the starting point is circular economy and our actions involve sustained behaviour change at an individual, corporate or national level.

The waste and resources management sector can help to drive this forward and has a pivotal role in helping society to achieve net zero.

To revisit my earlier three points:

1. Travel

We need a combination of decarbonising the way we collect materials (e.g. electric or hydrogen instead of combustion-powered vehicles) and providing the solutions to convert waste into fuel, (initially biofuels and gasification and then hydrogen).

2. Consumption

The obvious point is application of a circular economy. But this also builds on the extensive work done on purchasing behaviour and waste minimisation. A good example is how we buy food and some of the great work done by organisations like WRAP on the love food, hate waste campaigns.

3. Personal accountability

Recycling, while the second worst option to landfill, has a key role to play in returning high quality secondary materials back to the supply chain. The recycling container is a key visible point of interface with the public. While recycling alone doesn’t solve the issue, an individual’s continual feeling of “doing their bit”, is part of a wider solution. Therefore, individuals need to maximise recycling levels in terms of participation and material capture rates, minimising (ideally eliminating), contamination.

So those in the waste sector are key to delivering net zero?

Is the waste sector justified in its frustration at not being the centre of attention at COP26? I think so, yes. And this is just in developed society.

If we expand to developing societies, where formal systems are not in place, where dumpsites and uncontrolled open burning forms a key part of the waste management solution, then globally, waste and resource management performs a critical role in mitigating climate change and limiting global temperature increases. But that’s another blog.

Travel, consumption, and personal accountability – as simple as 1,2, 3...

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