Insider Media Ask The Expert – End of Life Waste Planning Can Cut Emissions the COP28 Climate Summit Cannot Curb

4 December 2023 By 0

Conal Kearney, Director of Air Quality at Enzygo, talks about end-of-life waste planning.

Human-made emissions are a problem internationally and locally. On a world scale, carbon and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) are pushing global warming and climate change ever higher. On our own doorsteps, they create pollution and health hazards.

But are common links:

  • Globally, this is about making international efforts to overturn the current rapidly accelerating warming trend by cutting carbon and its sister gases in line with the 2050 net-zero emissions target in which we humans do not cause atmospheric GHG levels to rise any further.
  • Locally, where ‘clean’ renewable energy sources can replace ‘dirty’ fossil-fuels. We can examine a further hierarchy of end-of-life (EOL) options to minimise GHG impacts.

The limited progress made in curbing runaway GHG emissions made by the world soon to be reported at the December 2023 UN COP28 climate summit means that it is now more important than ever to look for millions of local EOL-type solutions.

ALL EMISSION CUTS GREAT AND SMALL

Let’s look at some alternative scenarios where careful forward planning not only of new processes but also supply chains is opening up new EOL opportunities to reduce GHG emissions.

Enzygo’s starting point is to consider GHG assessments specific to individual projects, processes and site circumstances. Our aim is to reduce local pollution while making modest but positive contributions to net-zero targets that are significant when copied millions of times around the globe.

The other local advantage we provide is support for project managers and site operators to meet their legally-binding air quality, emissions and pollution monitoring responsibilities.

A NEW HIERARCHY FOR CARBON REMOVAL

And it is here that the end-of-life (EOL) management of waste is providing us with more sustainable alternatives for dealing with GHGs.

It is widely known that landfill is an undesirable form of waste disposal when innovative technologies in a circular economy are able to make one process’s waste another’s feedstock, and both raw material consumption and ‘useless’ waste are minimised.

However, an unfortunate side effect of landfill – and other forms of disposal and even recycling and reuse without special care – is that the decomposition of certain waste products can lead to the release of carbon not just as CObut also the much more potent greenhouse gas of methane.

We need to avoid this carefully by following other waste control routes.

EXPORTING CARBON PROBLEMS IS NO SOLUTION AND NOT NECESSARY

One of the less desirable and definitely unsustainable solutions for waste disposal is the increasing trend to export waste material, with the immediate negative effects of higher transport emissions.

Taking the short-cut of shipping European waste that will only become landfill in such far-flung places as China doesn’t help us in the long-run. As we are rapidly discovering, we share one relatively small planet where there is no safe place from destructive impacts.

In other words, you can export, but you can’t hide! Fortunately, there are better options.

ENERGY-FROM-WASTE … A REPLACEMENT FOR FOSSIL-FUELS

This more valuable use of waste is a better interim solution that avoids landfill-related methane emissions. The downside is the instant release of more CO2; the upside is that electrical energy produced can be used in the grid. The gain is replacing fossil-fuel energy – gas, oil and coal.

An additional environmental benefit of energy-from-waste (EfW) facilities – also known as waste-to-energy (WtE) – is that further GHG savings can be made when the process heat created is exported to neighbourhood businesses and communities via local heat-networks.

EOL CARBON REDUCTIONS … CARBON CAPTURE AND STORAGE (CCS)

However, in the big picture even when these relatively small steps multiplied over countless sites and operations do help us to cut fossil-fuel use, they still don’t take us to net-zero.

The full answer with EfW and WtE facilities is that carbon capture and storage technologies may be needed on the site. However, I must add an air quality man’s warning here that this can actually increase some pollutants!

The upshot here is that CCS is generally positive for both climate change and air quality but potential increases in other nasties such as amines, may need to be addressed.

OTHER INNOVATIVE EOL WASTE OPTIONS

However EfW and WtE facilities alone are not the end of the low-carbon and low-emissions waste story.

At present, circa 46% of waste plastics are incinerated in the UK. However, plastics that cannot be separated out and recycled mechanically can go instead through pyrolysis which is a more pollutant-controlled heat process than incineration.

Pyrolysis can produce an energy feedstock that not only avoids the undesirable incineration of plastics but also very usefully replaces fossil-fuels in the plastic manufacturing process in the first instance.

But this leading-edge thinking and planning does require a joined-up supply chain approach – with supporting planning policies – to be economically viable and positive from a climate change standpoint.

My main message here is ‘watch this space’. Meanwhile, I am happy to discuss new challenges, technical developments and opportunities at any time. Please feel free to contact me directly.

And this is where I think we can help at Enzygo through our air quality services and experience in air quality assessment, modelling, monitoring, habitat impact, management and mitigation plans, plus expert witness services.