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To carbon targets, and beyond!

This article was written by Environmental Analyst, Ramy Salmedeeb, and outlines reasons for going beyond recycling and design out waste as well as highlighting the key role of the resources and waste management sector in fighting climate change.

Weight-based targets are the bedrock of numerous key policies that have been instrumental in the evolution of the resources and waste management sector.  Since 2011, the amount of waste generated in Scotland dropped by 4.4%, with 10.7% more waste being diverted from landfill leading to a 7.5% increase in the recycling rate. 

Beyond weight-based targets

The resources and waste management sector has undoubtedly benefitted from the adoption of weight-based targets. Nevertheless, as the number of countries declaring a global climate emergency increases, there is growing interest to move from weight-based to impact-based targets and contribute to combatting climate change. 

The current focus of impact-based accounting is on the carbon footprint of waste. Scotland is a pioneer in this with the release of Zero Waste Scotland’s ground-breaking Scottish Carbon Metric (SCM) tool created in collaboration with the Scottish Government in 2011 to provide an alternative to weight-based waste measurements. In 2017, the SCM was integrated into Scotland’s official reporting on household waste data statistics for the first time. 

Embracing impact-based accounting

Food waste and textiles are just two examples highlighting the importance of considering waste generated from a whole lifecycle perspective, not only waste management activities. Producing food waste emits six times its own weight in carbon emissions; textiles create 22 times their weight.  

Including these embodied emissions draws attention to the significant impacts of producing materials in the first place. Decision-makers can then develop policies and guidance that are more aligned with the waste hierarchy, promoting prevention and supporting the transition from high- to low-carbon materials. 

As countries ramp up their efforts to reach net zero targets and achieve a green Covid-19 recovery, we believe that whole lifecycle impact assessment should be expanded to consider the overall environmental cost of waste generation. 

There cannot be a sole focus on carbon reduction, or we risk shifting the problem to other potential areas of damage, such as land use change or water and resource depletion. There is a need to go beyond carbon and quantify other key environmental indicators to ensure damage is not simply becoming a burden elsewhere. 

Zero Waste Scotland has embarked on a journey to go beyond carbon to cover other important environmental indicators. Designed in partnership with Edinburgh Napier University and Cambridge Architectural Research Ltd, the new Scottish Waste Environmental Footprint Tool (SWEFT) will provide decision makers with additional insights into the overall environmental cost of waste and materials. The first output of this ambitious project is a review study that looked at different environmental indicators that will help us to understand the overall environmental impacts of waste and materials and, consequently, act more in line with our strategic goals. 

So what's next?

One of the key strategic outcomes of our corporate plan focuses on responsible consumption, where Zero Waste Scotland can have the greatest impact in tackling climate change and reduce our demand for raw materials and energy in a world with finite resources. Looking beyond carbon is deemed to be essential in any post-Covid recovery plans as it provides invaluable insights into true environmental cost of materials and waste. 

Read the full article, along with examples of the types of insights SWEFT provides, here: Chartered Institute of Waste Management.


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