The overall aim of the project is to carry out a macro-level investigation of the source and scale of energy and greenhouse gas benefits and impacts associated with the management of waste streams arising in the UK.
The research will shed light on the energy and greenhouse gas impacts and benefits of the UK’s waste management activities. These impacts and benefits will be reported according to activity (ie recycling, landfill etc.), as well as by waste stream. The results will illuminate key waste streams and activities where impacts are incurred and where the principal benefits in terms of recovered or offset energy, either directly, or through the recovery of secondary materials occur. A wide range of actors will be provided with data that will help prioritise changing waste management practice in accordance with the sustainability objectives of reducing net energy impacts or greenhouse gas emissions.
The information produced by the research would thus be valuable to government itself in informing policy, for example in the review of Waste Strategy 2000, in responding to the demands of the Kyoto Protocol, and in prioritising further research, potentially in later stages of this research programme. It will also be of benefit to regional authorities, in preparing strategies for the future management of wastes, and Regional Spatial Strategy, to local authorities considering environmental benefits as part of the preparation of local development frameworks for waste and waste management strategies, and to the waste management industry, in reporting on its own performance and in setting targets for improvement. The research will be presented in a manner that will facilitate extraction of data, for example for the baseline and environmental performance aspects of Strategic Environment Assessments.
The findings of the project will be prepared as a fully-referenced report, and in the form of tables of data that can easily be extracted to inform readers of the impacts and benefits associated with specific waste streams on a unit basis.
There are over 170 million tonnes of wastes produced annually in the UK. The sources and composition of these wastes varies considerably, and there is a wide range of activities that may be employed in managing them, from collection and transport, through treatment, recycling and recovery, to final disposal. In disposal to landfill, the route favoured over the long term in the UK, biodegradable materials can be broken down to form a mixture of gases including methane. Whilst diversion of biodegradable wastes to other treatment methods avoids methane generation, and may have further benefits in terms of recycling and recovery, these other routes also have energy and greenhouse gas consequences of their own, in terms of electricity and fuel consumption. As methane in landfill gas can also be captured and used (at appropriate concentrations), the relative benefits of different waste management routes are uncertain.
This project will undertake a macro-level investigation of the energy and greenhouse gas benefits and impacts associated with the various management routes for the range of waste streams arising in the UK. The research will examine the scale of benefits and impacts resulting from different processes, and identify the most significant wastes and management routes, as well as indicating opportunities for improvement, both in terms of energy recovery or offset consumption, and in terms of avoided greenhouse gas emissions.
The research is important to Defra given the significance of both energy and climate change in driving waste policy. These issues are important for the impending revision of the national Waste Strategy, the continued justification of the landfill tax and the emphasis placed on recycling and recovery. Clarity on the energy and greenhouse gas impacts of management routes for non-municipal waste streams will be valuable as the debate moves from the diversion of municipal wastes from landfill in response to the implementation of the Landfill Directive, to other waste streams with different composition, but with more significant arisings. Beyond waste policy per se, the research is of significance in relation to energy policy and the importance of climate change and the challenging targets of the Kyoto Protocol.
There is a general understanding that landfill of biodegradable wastes is a poor choice in terms of energy and climate change because little value is recovered from the wastes, and because of the potential for the release of methane from landfill sites. Whilst landfill gas modelling is still uncertain, it is a field where there has been considerable research and where there is confidence about the range of values for methane production and release. This project proposes to build upon that research through employing the most up to date model for estimating landfill gas emissions developed in the UK.
However, the energy and greenhouse gas consequences of the alternatives to landfill, for both biodegradable and other waste streams, are much less well understood, and the relative benefits of different routes, for different wastes, have seldom been explored in detail and reported in a single, comparative, study. Moreover, the implications of pre-treatment of wastes prior to landfill, and the disposal of wastes with a low biodegradable content, have not been examined in terms of the net impact on energy balance and greenhouse gas emissions.
The research will investigate these issues through collation of the best available data on waste arisings and composition, drawing on the results of the Environment Agency’s latest survey (to be published shortly), the use of the most up to date landfill gas model, GasSim, and assembling data on the energy and greenhouse gas benefits and impacts of other activities in the waste management life cycle. The project will report in a thorough and flexible document that will draw conclusions on the scale of impacts and benefits and the key sources, indicate the most significant opportunities for improvement regarding energy balance and climate change, and provide a sourcebook to improve understanding and to inform those making waste management decisions and to contribute to further research.