Circular economy offers climate change mitigation opportunities

A report that recommends EU member states rethink their funding of waste management systems was presented at a low-carbon economy conference in Brussels on Tuesday (12 January).

Speaking on behalf of Eunomia Research & Consulting at ‘The Potential of the Waste Sector to a Low Carbon Economy’, held at the European Committee of the Regions by the Association of Cities and Regions for Recycling, Chairman Dominic Hogg recommended measures such as the withdrawal of funding for energy production from residual waste in addition to renewable energy production methods, which utilise harvested biomass.

His presentation was based on the ‘The Potential Contribution of Waste Management to a Low Carbon Economy’ report, which was commissioned by the organisers of the conference, the Association of Cities and Regions for Recycling and sustainable Resource management (ACR+), Zero Waste Europe and Zero Waste France.

The conference was aimed at discussing how the EU could develop into a low-carbon economy and promoted low-carbon solutions to issues of material resources. It also highlighted the importance of waste management in the fight against climate change.

"Stretching the definition of renewable"

According to the European Environment Agency, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced from waste make up only three per cent of total emissions, leading to the incorrect belief that changes in the waste sector won’t make much difference to combating climate change.

However, studies produced for the agency have shown that increasing the development of waste management strategies has the potential to reduce GHG emissions by the equivalent of 150-200 million tonnes of CO2.

The Eunomia report, which was published in October, supports this argument and to highlight the importance of the waste sector, it recommends 11 changes to waste management that will aid in the reduction of GHG emissions.

Instead of quantifying how much waste is sent to landfill, it is recommended that the amount of residual waste produced be measured as an indicator of waste management performance. Low levels of landfilling could mean high rates of recycling or alternatively high levels of incineration, which is misleading in terms of overall waste production.

Putting in place complete bans on landfilling are advised against, as they are not enforceable and require the presence of correct infrastructure to dispose of the increased levels of residual waste.  Instead Eunomia believes that recycling and reuse should be encouraged.  

The report also states that additional thought should be put into which waste management strategies receive funding. It highlights the problem of so-called renewable methods, which do not adhere to the proper definition of renewable.  These include facilities that produce energy from the incineration of waste, which is a ‘resource’, which is gradually being reduced so it cannot truly be called renewable.

In reference to this method the report states that ‘it is stretching the definition of ‘renewable’ beyond what is credible to argue that residual waste could be a source of ‘renewable’ energy’.

In addition, methods that use harvested biomass to produce renewable energy should not be funded. The report suggests that only food waste or ‘leaked’ waste from other systems should be used for energy generation. All other methods should not receive subsidies as this would encourage the use of land, which could be use to grow food, for the production of energy.

In general, the need to focus more on funding ‘upper tiers of the waste hierarchy’ was highlighted, including recycling, reuse, remanufacturing and prevention.  This is preferable rather than providing funding to incinerate residual waste.

‘Circular economy must be perceived as a driver’

Other presentations were given at the low-carbon economy conference, which hosted 130 participants, were given by representatives from Zero Waste Europe and ACR+. 

Representatives from two cities, Porto and Brussels, also spoke to highlight key roles played by local authorities in developing low carbon economies in their respective cities. 

Intermunicipal Waste Management of Greater Porto (LIPOR), the company in charge of the management, recovery and treatment of municipal solid waste (MSW), outlined its low-carbon ‘2M’ strategy, ‘Less waste, less carbon’.

This strategy is a voluntary one designed to gain information on the production of GHGs and create solutions to reduce waste and carbon emissions. Between 2006 and 2014, this strategy led to a reduction of 16 per cent in GHG emissions with a total reduction of 20 per cent being forecast by 2020. Their carbon footprint was also reduced during this time 16.3 per cent, the equivalent of 65,493 tonnes of CO2

LIPOR has also taken part in an environmental school project, ‘low-carbon schools’, which has motivated school children to get involved to reduce GHG emissions.

This is in line with its new ‘3M’ strategy, ‘less, waste, less carbon, more climate’. As part of this strategy it will ‘disseminate good practice, promote innovation and knowledge’.

Following the presentations, there was a discussion with a panel consisting of Julio Garcia Burgues and Tom Van Ierland of the EU Commission and Claire Roumet of Energy Cities which concluded that ‘closer cooperation’ was needed between the related fields of energy, climate and circular economy.

Céline Fremault, Minister of Environment of the Region of Brussels Capital Region said: “Circular economy must be perceived as a driver which can stimulate sustainable production and consumption and through this ease the transition to a low carbon economy.”

Presentations from the ‘The Potential of the Waste Sector to a Low Carbon Economy’ event can be found at the ACR+ website.