Are ‘zero landfilling’ commitments rubbish?

Zero waste to landfill is a dated environmental target that really means waste is being burned not buried – and that isn’t always a good thing, says David Burrows.

Greene King recently announced that it had achieved its target to send “zero waste to landfill”. The achievement “sets a benchmark for the hospitality industry”, said Hugh Jones from the Carbon Trust, which runs a standard for verifying such claims. But does it?

Other hospitality and food companies also send no waste to landfill, or have targets to do so. These include JD Wetherspoon and Marston’s (both have achieved zero waste to landfill), McDonald’s (2020 target year) and Pret (zero landfill in the UK since 2012). This marks progress but it’s not quite the sustainability success story some of these brands make it out to be.

“The term, zero waste to landfill, is a carefully crafted marketing phrase, which could just as well be reworded to say, ‘we burn all our residual waste’,” one resource policy expert told me.

Burning is generally accepted as the preferred option to burying, with “recovery”, for example via energy-from-waste (EfW), sitting above landfill in the EU’s waste hierarchy. However, there is surprisingly little data comparing these two options in relation to carbon emissions.

A recent paper by Policy Connect, promoting the benefits of EfW as the “low carbon” option to deal with residual waste (that which has not been removed, reused or recycled), used a 2014 figure from the Green Investment Bank that stated EfW facilities “typically save up to 200kg CO2e per tonne of waste on a lifecycle basis compared to landfill”. But research last year by Tolvik Consulting calculated the difference to be just 32kg CO2e per tonne.

Zero Waste Europe, the campaign group, has said incinerators have higher greenhouse gas emissions than electricity generated through conventional means, like fossil gas. This is largely because of all the plastic that ends up being burned. “If there is one way of quickly extinguishing the value in a material, it is to stick it in an incinerator and burn it,” noted professor Ian Boyd, the former chief scientific advisor to Defra in an evidence session with the Efra committee in 2018. “It may give you energy out at the end of the day, but some of those materials, even if they are plastics, with a little ingenuity, can be given more positive value.”

The UK government has a number of policy levers designed to pull plastics (and food) out of the residual waste and into recycling. It has also just committed to recycle 65% of municipal waste (which is household waste and waste similar to it, so therefore includes a lot of foodservice waste) by 2035 – bringing the country in line with the EU’s circular economy package. What happens to the other 35% (which could be as much as 30m tonnes) is going to be hotly debated in the coming months. The big waste contractors are already pushing for more EfW and zero waste to landfill targets could play into their hands.

Others, including the likes of ZWE, are calling for more investment in advanced material recovery biological treatment. MRBT reportedly has a lower carbon footprint than incineration and is much cheaper. Basically, it involves removing any recyclables from residual waste and then landfilling the “inert” waste that’s left, which creates “little to no landfill gas”. Assessed alongside other treatments, including EfW, in a Wrap report in 2012, MRBT came out with “the greatest environmental benefits”.

Incinerators had a smaller environmental benefit and only when producing electricity and capturing heat. That doesn’t happen very often in the UK: of the 60 plants here, 50 produce electricity but don’t capture the heat generated by the process, making them less efficient than the ones on the continent. The primary challenge, according to the Policy Connect report, is location – finding a site where the heat can be used by neighbouring businesses or homes. This is something Defra has recognised as an issue. “We need to guard against a proliferation of inefficient EfWs,” said Tom Murray, the department’s deputy head of resources and waste, during a recent webinar.

The environmental impact of EfW also depends on the composition of the waste. For example, if it is 50/50 paper versus plastic, landfill will be by far the better option from an emissions perspective. Have companies evaluated this prior to deciding whether to burn rather than bury all their residual waste?  And where does this leave zero waste to landfill as a green achievement, especially in a sector like foodservice that uses huge volumes of hard-to-recycle single-use plastics?

The term “zero waste to landfill” infers a significant environmental achievement, but it’s actually a commercially-driven decision. Burning a tonne of waste is 21% cheaper than burying it, according to the 2019 Wrap gate fees report. This also explains why zero waste to landfill is now the standard offer of a great many commercial waste collectors.

So, is zero waste to landfill really that big a deal? It is after all impossible to infer anything about the level or even the presence of waste reduction and recycling within many of the businesses boasting that they’re no longer burying waste. Greene King, for example, says that there has been a 42% reduction in the number of general waste bins across its estate in five years. This suggests progress in terms of waste reduction but the group offered no context for this, either in its annual reports or in response to emails sent by Footprint.

“They are clearly doing quite a bit to get their general waste down and recycling up, but it would be interesting to see their waste levels per pound spent as a KPI and their recycling rate of course,” says one experienced environmental consultant who has worked with hospitality businesses to reduce their resource intensity.

“In essence, the term zero waste to landfill is at best unhelpful and at worst cynically and purposefully misleading greenwashing of what is first and foremost, a pounds and pence business decision,” says the policy expert. “To be fair to them, Greene King does take the time to describe recycling figures in its efforts which suggests it falls within the former camp [but] there is no doubt it is an effective marketing phrase and I am sure many businesses have taken it up without understanding the issues.”

Targets to divert rubbish from landfill were designed to inspire businesses to think about their waste, but too little attention has been paid to where it ends up instead. In a country where the ambition is truly circular thinking zero waste to landfill also seems dated. In 2020, is a more fitting commitment “zero waste to landfill and incineration”?

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