image credit

Chartered Institution of Water and
Environmental Management (CIWEM)

106-109 Saffron Hill, London, EC1N 8QS  
Tel: 020 7831 3110   Fax: 020 7405 4967

UK Waste Management Options and Climate Change


This Policy Position Statement (PPS) considers the impact of waste management in the UK on climate change (and vice-versa) and sets out the position of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) on the management of waste and resources in this context.

CIWEM's Position:

1. Professionals working in waste management and associated areas need to ensure that they are aware of current thinking on climate change and the impact of their area of work on greenhouse gas emissions.

2. The focus for the UK should be on resource efficiency and waste prevention following the amended hierarchy in the revised Waste Framework Directive. Recycling is too far through the life cycle of a product to deliver the kind of carbon savings that will be required to meet ambitious emissions reduction targets.

3. Whenever a strategic or long-term waste management decision is made, it should be done in pursuance of sustainable development and in particular considering the possible impact on the environment and on climate change.

4. When climate change is being considered in waste management decisions, care must be taken to ensure that decisions do not:
- consider climate change as a factor when it may be insignificant;
- fail to consider non-climate factors that have a greater influence than climate change;
- fail to consider climate change when it may be central to making the most appropriate decisions.

5. There is a need for further research into an environmental accounting system for comparing the climate change impacts of waste management options.

6. CIWEM considers that managing waste in the UK makes a relatively modest contribution to carbon emissions at roughly 3.5% of the UK total emissions. Given the scale of greenhouse gas emissions reductions that are likely to be required to avoid dangerous levels of climate change, it is essential that the additional benefits from resource efficiency provided by sustainable production and consumption measures are pursued.

7. There is a need to ensure that the regulatory landscape is appropriate to optimise the use of waste as a resource with the reclassification of waste as non-waste so as to facilitate material re-use.

8. Expenditure should be proportionate to the emissions savings which can be achieved and investment in the waste industry is arguably higher than in other sectors which have greater potential for emissions reduction (for example energy and transport) and where some of this investment may be better placed.

9. There is significant potential for use of alternative vehicle fuels within the waste industry, given the close proximity of waste companies to waste products which can be used to produce fuel. A number of major waste operators are currently leading the way on development of alternative fuels.

The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) is the leading professional body for the people who plan, protect and care for the environment and its resources, providing educational opportunities, independent information to the public and advice to government. Members in 97 countries include scientists, engineers, ecologists and students.


There can be little doubt that our climate is changing as a result of man's influence (see CIWEM's over-arching PPS on the subject, 'Global Climate Change'). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)i tells us that world wide, long-term changes will be significant and affect many different aspects of life and its projections are increasingly understood to be conservative. There is increasing evidence that the UK climate is already starting to change.

The Impact of Climate Change on Waste Management

The impact of climate change on waste management infrastructure is not considered to be particularly noteworthyii, although there are some threats which should not be ignored. Landfills have a significantly long-lived pollution potential due to methane production and potential leachate escape. With increased temperatures there could also be more problems with pests at landfills.

Adaptation strategies may need to account for both flooding and sea-level rise when considering the position and construction of future landfills. The current infrastructure may however, be vulnerable to flooding, with the incidence of more extreme weather events. The impacts need to be understood and measures put in place to ensure that resilience to such events is adequate. The Environment Agency has established a sub-group to consider the implications of climate change (in particular extreme events of rain, wind and temperature) upon compliance management and how this might be reflected in the Agency's operations.

The Impact of Waste Management on Climate Change

Waste management as a whole is responsible for only a small proportion of total greenhouse gas emissions in the UK (just over 3.6% in 2008iii, and of which about 3% is in the form of landfill gas i.e. methane). Emissions have reduced from 52.9MtCO2e in 1990 to 22.7 in 2008. Nevertheless, this still equates to a large amount of carbon emissions and to a greater or lesser extent, all sectors of the economy and society must contribute to their reduction. The employment of different waste management options will affect the contribution that waste management as a whole makes to climate change - thus sensible use of appropriate waste management methods can help to deliver carbon emissions reductions. This principle has become central to waste management policy at both the European and UK levels, with significant expenditure on diversion of biodegradable municipal waste in particular from landfill, with greater levels of recycling and the development of new waste management technologies.

The EU recognises the importance of methane as a powerful greenhouse gas that needs to reduced in order to meet our climate change targets. This is set out in the European Commission's Strategy Paper for Reducing Methane Emissionsiv which states:

"…action on methane looks particularly promising given first, that it would take only a 10% reduction in methane emissions to stabilise methane concentrations in the atmosphere, compared to a 60% reduction of CO2 emissions to achieve the same result and secondly due to the short time methane resides in the atmosphere (12 - 17 years) compared to CO2 ( 50 - 200 years) a strategy to reduce methane emissions would have a more immediate impact on the global greenhouse effect compared to CO2".

It also goes on to say that within Europe the main focus is on those sectors that make the largest contributions to methane emissions, notably agriculture, waste and energy which in 1990 accounted for 45%, 32% and 23% of EU methane emissions respectively.

Evidence on Climate Change projections such as those from the IPCC indicate that the speed at which emissions reductions are delivered is crucial, as well as the scale of such cuts. Whilst the recognition of the contribution waste management makes to greenhouse gas emissions and therefore climate change is welcome, it is important that a holistic and proportionate approach to reducing emissions across the economy is employed, reflecting the contribution that those sectors make to total UK emissions and the savings that could be most readily achieved.

In this context, there is a need to be sensible about the resources that are committed to reducing the greenhouse gases from waste management facilities. Significant reductions in methane emissions from landfills have already been delivered and whilst this is a tightly controlled area, it may be a wiser use of resources to expend efforts on the reduction of the emissions from energy consumption and transport use (considered to be about 57% of our 2007 greenhouse gas emissionsv) where we may be able to make greater and quicker environmental savings more economically.

There is significant potential for waste companies to fuel their collection fleets using alternative fuels such as waste derived biofuels. Whilst this would not make a large impact on the carbon intensity of the industry, it would represent a step towards sustainability given the close proximity of waste companies to waste products which can be used to produce fuel. A number of major waste operators are currently leading the way on development of alternative fuels.

CIWEM welcomes the strategic direction of the 2007 Waste Strategy for Englandvi which places emphasis on much greater consideration of waste as a resource, both in terms of energy and materials. In this context, CIWEM believes there should be urgent work on delivery of biogas (methane) injection into either the national grid or more local networks, together with the maximisation of energy generation from waste via anaerobic digestion, in addition to optimising landfill gas capture and utilising the potential for alternative fuelling of waste industry vehicles. CIWEM believes that more should be achieved in terms of reclassifying wastes as non-waste so as to facilitate their material re-use. We also suggest that consideration should be given to a new target for local authorities, which prevents them from contracting waste management facilities that are net users of energy.

Waste Management Options

Waste and resource management is a key component of sustainable consumption and production. The main municipal solid waste (MSW) options are rather simple. Very simply, waste can either be:
- landfilled;
- incinerated (with reuse or landfill of bottom ash and air pollution control);
- sorted and treated and then recycled, landfilled or used as a soil conditioner; or
treated and then sorted and then recycled, landfilled or used as a soil conditioner.

It is acknowledged that there is a genuine need for an environmental accounting system for comparing one system for waste management against another. However, it may be unfortunate that carbon accounting has become that system, because it may place unwarranted weight on the carbon emissions from waste management. A more realistic and possibly more sustainable method may be a conventional cost-benefit assessment, because this method also reflects the need to ensure a strong, healthy and just society. There are a number of ecological accounting systems available, for example the Environment Agency has a Life Cycle Assessment tool (WRATE), which is specifically designed to provide a multi-parameter assessment of waste options from collection to treatment/disposal. In any event, there is a need for greater work in this area.

There is presently a strong focus on recycling in the UK and other EU countries. High levels of recycling of both municipal and construction waste coupled with a ban on landfilling biodegradable waste could deliver significant carbon savings across the EU, estimated at around 50%. However, from a sustainability point of view, concentration of efforts on recycling may be misplaced as it occurs too late in the life-cycle of a product to be of maximum benefit to the environment. Recycling saves on the use of raw materials, however much recycling uses energy and produces products of quality inferior to the primary product. There has been a drive to meet weight-based targets at the expense of quality. Therefore, it is important to recognise where recycling delivers a net environmental benefit and where it does not.

Waste prevention is at the top of the revised waste hierarchyvii and represents the most effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because this reduces the consumption of raw materials and the need to expend further energy in managing the waste further down the line. This is the focus of a limited amount of policy and legislation but at present greater focus is applied to recycling. CIWEM's 2009 Manifestoviii emphasises that the UK continues to produce too much waste in the first place and a clear focus on tackling waste at source would in CIWEM's view be the most effective way of significantly reducing waste-associated carbon emissions further.

Another element of the waste hierarchy is "recovery" where waste serves a useful purpose by replacing other materials that would otherwise have been used to fulfil a particular function. The current regulatory regime often penalises the beneficial use of waste. Regulation of waste recovery activities such as energy from waste should foster good environmental behaviours and practice. This will enable more resource and carbon efficiency.

Sustainable development consists of several elements which can include the followingix:

1. living within environmental limits;
2. ensuring a strong, healthy and just society;
3. achieving a sustainable economy;
4. promoting good governance;
5. using sound science responsibly.

The first of the elements of sustainable development listed above emphasises that there is a need to use resources wisely. This means regarding waste as the endpoint of resource flow through the economy. As set out in the waste hierarchy, the main strand of this should be waste prevention, as, once produced, waste will inevitably be a drain on the economy and detrimental to the environment.

Both of the last two sustainable development elements relate to the responsible use of sound science. The promotion of good governance depends on the provision of accurate information to the public before asking them to participate in decision-making. Unless sound science is used responsibly, the general public will not take our work seriously. There is a need to be responsible about communicating both the science of climate change and the science of the significance of the reasons for choosing one waste management option over another.


June 2010

Note: CIWEM Policy Position Statements (PPS) represent the Institution's views on issues at a particular point in time. It is accepted that situations change as research provides new evidence. It should be understood, therefore, that CIWEM PPS's are under constant review, and that previously-held views may alter and lead to revised PPSs.

i. Climate Change 2007 - The Physical Science Basis. IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, editors S Soloman et al, Cambridge University Press, 2007
ii. Personal Communication: Prof. Harmut Grassl, former director of Physics of the Atmosphere Division, Max-Planck-Institute for Meteorology, Hamburg, opening lecture at the 2007 Sardinia Symposium.
iii. Department of Energy and Climate Change: 2008 Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Provisional Figures (Digest of Environmental Statistics), March 2009
iv. EC: Strategy Paper for educing Methane Emissions, COM (96) 557, 1996
v. Department of Energy and Climate Change: 2008 Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Final Figures(Digest of Environmental Statistics), February 2010
vi. Defra: Waste strategy for England 2007, May 2007
vii. EC. 2008. Revised Waste Framework Directive
viii. CIWEM: Fitting the Bill - A Manifesto for environmental Action, November 2009
ix. Defra. 2005. UK Sustainable Development Strategy


Chartered Institution of Water and
Environmental Management (CIWEM)

106-109 Saffron Hill, London, EC1N 8QS  
Tel: 020 7831 3110   Fax: 020 7405 4967