Waste Recycling Emissions

The challenges of greenhouse gas accounting in the UK’s waste and recycling sector 

24 May 2023


The challenges of greenhouse gas accounting in the UK’s waste and recycling sector 

The waste and recycling sector is making progress on the journey to net zero but there are specific issues to navigate when in comes to collecting, analysing and reporting emissions in the sector. Ricardo waste expert, Steve Brown, explores these challenges in this blog.


In 2020, waste management accounted for 4% of UK’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Despite its relatively low contribution when compared to other sectors, such as agriculture and transport, the emissions associated with waste management are playing a significant role in the UK’s journey to net zero. The sector has already achieved an emissions reduction of 73% since 1990, mainly due to actions taken to reduce landfilling, and has strong links with other industries, such as energy and transport.

Waste management companies have seen an increase in market and policy-related pressures in the recent years. Following the Paris Agreement and the 2019 Climate Change Act, the Environmental Services Association (ESA), the industry body for the waste and recycling sector, commissioned Ricardo to establish the baseline greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of the sector and set out a pathway to reach net zero by 2040. 

The publication of the ESA Net Zero Strategy in June 2021 resulted in most large companies in the sector committing to achieve net zero status by 2040.  The market is moving forward with local authorities declaring climate emergencies and the publication of the Procurement Policy Note (PPN) 06/21, which requires organisations procuring goods and/or services with an anticipated contract value above £5 million per annum to have a published Carbon Reduction Plan. This plan, amongst other requirements, details the organisation’s GHG emissions and confirms its commitment to achieving net zero by 2050. These developments have made GHG emissions a key criteria in procurement. 

Ricardo’s experience working on decarbonisation projects with waste and recycling organisations has brought to surface some of the challenges the sector faces when attempting to quantify their emissions. 

Avoided emissions

Avoided emissions arise when an activity leads to emissions not being released that would otherwise have occurred. In the case of the waste and recycling sector, materials that are diverted for reuse or recycling can offset the need to make new products from virgin materials, and so can be assigned a credit for the emissions avoided by not making those new products. 

For example, the generation of electricity in an Energy from Waste facility avoids the need for generation of electricity from other sources, such as coal and natural gas. Similarly, the recycling of aluminium avoids the need to extract and process aluminium ore.  

The sector contributes to avoided emissions across the supply chains of other industries, to such an extent, that, were avoided emissions included in (i.e., deducted from) the sector’s carbon footprint, the GHG emissions balance would have a negative value. 

This significant benefit, which the sector cannot claim credits for, has been the subject of debate as the lack of framework on accounting of GHG emissions can discourage companies from fully utilising materials and energy as in many cases that results in an increase of their scope 1 and 2 emissions leaving them further away from their net zero targets. 

Data collection and reporting

When it comes to GHG emissions reporting, waste management companies face two challenges. First, they must collect data which may not be readily available or disaggregated enough to allocate it to specific processes. Secondly, the most frequently used emission factors related to recycling are published as one aggregated value per material, which does not allow reporting in scopes. Consequently, a recycling firm who wishes to exclude a part of the factor which is already accounted for in their footprint is bound to some degree of double counting. 

Local authorities need to estimate the emissions associated with their waste management contracts. However, due to the information agreements with their contractors, detailed data, such as fuel and electricity consumption and the destinations of collected waste, may not be allowed to be shared.  Consequently, the assessment of the total emissions associated with the collection and treatment of waste, from the point of generation at households and businesses to final fate, is usually incomplete.

Address these challenges

The challenge on avoided emissions requires agreement across the sector on the approach to be followed. As a next step, pressure could be applied to the government to explore how a framework on the accounting of avoided emissions could be developed, to incorporate avoided emissions in the GHG emissions reporting standards.

As far as data is concerned, Ricardo can help businesses identify the data required for the assessments and undertake life cycle assessments to break down emissions factors. Moreover, data collected from the various databases available can be used to fill in any data gaps.

Support for the waste sector

Ricardo has completed many carbon footprints for the operations of waste management companies, usually accompanied with mitigation measures to achieve net zero emissions, procurement exercises (which included GHG emissions in the evaluation criteria) for both bidders and local authorities, and GHG emissions assessments for councils and their waste management contracts and strategies. 

The outcomes of these projects helped our clients to:

  • Keep up with their competition
  • Understand the concept of GHG emissions and how they associate with them
  • Understand their current position
  • Start thinking about their next steps to reduce emissions 

Our long experience working with the waste sector means we can help organisations overcome challenges associated with carbon accounting through our technical expertise, bespoke tools and breadth of capabilities. 

Our dedicated Waste and Resource Management and Carbon Management teams, work with other Ricardo technical specialists in areas such as carbon capture, utilisation and storage and sustainable transport, to find effective and efficient solutions that help organisations progress their journey to net zero. 

For any questions or to find out how we can support you organisation with decarbonisation get in touch

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