Recognition of the need for new waste metrics is growing, but what form should they take?

Written by: Maxine Perella | Published:
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The ability of weight-based recycling targets to capture more value from the waste materials we produce has often been called into question over the years.

Now, as UK and EU policy interventions become more focused on waste prevention and circular thinking, is it a case of out with the old metrics and in with the new?

Certainly, there is growing consensus in the UK that Brexit offers such an opportunity to break with tradition.

Last month, the Environmental Services Association (ESA) published a report, Smarter Measures for the Circular Economy, arguing the case for introducing new metrics alongside the existing weight-based system – not only to target more problematic waste materials, but to improve environmental performance of material flows across the entire value chain.

Significantly, the report suggests taking a lifecycle thinking approach to environmental performance by applying different metrics at different stages of the value chain. For producers this might mean increasing the use of recycled content in products, or designing products for greater durability.

For local authorities, metrics could be used to benchmark performance with key performance indicators (KPIs) set for residual waste per capita, landfill diversion – even circular material use rates.

Jacob Hayler, executive director at the ESA, says Defra’s forthcoming Resources and Waste Strategy could potentially set a precedent by signalling a divergence from the requirements of the EU Circular Economy Package, which are mainly focused on higher weight-based targets.

“The question for us is, if current weight-based recycling levels are already distorting behaviour and leading to some perverse outcomes, surely much higher weight-based recycling targets would distort behaviour even more, and surely there is a better way of doing things,” he says.

The ESA commissioned Ricardo Energy & Environment to research and write the report. Jamie Warmington, senior consultant for resource efficiency and waste management at Ricardo, says a switch to lifecycle thinking will be important as the industry’s scope changes from waste management to resource recovery management in the coming years and that new metrics should reflect this.

“When undertaking lifecycle assessments, it’s quite regularly the case that most of the environmental burdens are attached to the production and consumption phases.

"The real environmental benefit which the waste management sector can provide is the capture, reuse and efficient recycling of this material to mitigate the need for these upstream activities,” he explains.

Warmington points to various policy documents such as The Clean Growth Strategy, Industrial Strategy and 25 Year Environment Plan.

“All of these documents adhere to the approach of looking at materials in a full lifecycle way, including production, consumption, end of use and end of life – with all four stages contributing to both material productivity and environmental impacts,” he says.

“As such, one of the key considerations for any new metric will be assessing which behaviours we need to change to contribute to the overarching targets of doubling our material productivity by 2050 and contributing as a sector to reduced environmental impact.”

New partnership

So how might these new metrics work alongside conventional weight-based recycling targets? Warmington says weight could remain as the key metric given that the first step in calculating most alternative metrics is still the collection of accurate weight-based data to monitor the progress of waste through the supply chain to its end destination.

“There is no reason why weight-based metrics cannot continue to be monitored alongside other metrics such as a carbon target, since the core underlying dataset is the same. The difference would be in how this information is used,” he says.

“Once weight-based targets are translated to carbon metrics, any targets set, say a 2% carbon reduction per year, will drive the performance changes rather than simply aiming for collecting the heaviest materials.”

The report outlines a phased approach to the implementation of any new metrics, which Hayler says is important. “We’ve got existing systems that capture weight-based targets, so it’s about incrementally adding to those systems and improving the granularity of the information you’re collecting. This then enables you to introduce the right targets and KPIs in the right places to get everything pulling together.”

That said, there are likely to be practical challenges. One is that any lifecycle assessments or analysis for waste stream materials will need regular updating. And there are potential consequences in terms of monitoring performance if, say, the environmental benefit of recycling a particular material changes.

According to Eric Bridgwater, principal consultant for Eunomia, these issues need to be carefully thought through. “A local authority might, for example, invest a lot of effort in targeting materials with a high emissions factor, like textiles – but if manufacturing processes changed so as to reduce the carbon intensity of production, the authority’s performance would suddenly drop, despite their efforts,” he says.

There could also be implications for wider society. “Aggressive targeting of textiles could encourage local authorities to draw material out of the charity sector, which could have an unfortunate social cost. Free garden waste services would also be more difficult to justify,” Bridgwater says.

He further points out that the context of strategic policy is likely to change in the coming years, which could introduce another layer of complexity. If priorities, powers and responsibilities change, targets may need to evolve. In addition, if a metric or set of metrics is designed that is too complex or hard to understand, this might reduce any behavioural change impacts.

“It will be best to bring the public, and indeed resource sector practitioners, on a journey that arrives at a few, easily grasped measures that give us a better picture of the changes that new policies are achieving,” Bridgwater advises.

Lead by example

Lessons are starting to emerge north of the border in the form of Scotland’s Carbon Metric (CM), which has been in existence now for a number of years. Michael Lenaghan, who leads on the CM for Zero Waste Scotland – one of the organisations that helped develop it – says it’s “working really well” in practice.

“It’s giving us a whole new way of thinking about material consumption and waste, and the impact that has on climate change. Most of what the world has done to address climate change has focused on energy and making the supply of energy more efficient.

What the CM tied to the circular economy has allowed us to do is also focus on mitigating the demand for that energy – which is ultimately material consumption and the use of services attached to materials,” he says.

The CM is now informing Scottish waste policy – one example being the country’s target to reduce food waste per capita by 33% by 2025. “[This] was developed because food waste was identified as a carbon-intensive waste,” says Lenaghan. “I do think what we’ll start to see is more waste-related targets that are really informed by, and seeking to maximise, climate change savings.”

The metric has also enabled more accurate accounting of ‘outsourced’ emissions from the waste sector, such as those produced by Energy from Waste (EfW). For example, while waste policies may encourage EfW, the emissions produced by an EfW plant are judged to belong to the energy sector.

“You will see as EfW has increased in Scotland, landfill emissions have steeply declined, but it’s not to say there’s been an absolute reduction in emissions, it’s just that those emissions have been moved to another sector,” Lenaghan says.

“The CM really starts to call into question the idea that EfW is an environmentally sustainable process – it brings evidence to bear on issues like that, which previously have not been challenged too much.”

In recognition of its success, the CM will soon be published as an official statistic alongside Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) waste data, enabling a comprehensive carbon assessment of household waste. “That’s a huge step forward for the metric,” Lenaghan says.

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