I received an enquiry recently from a business asking if it was possible to calculate the CO2 they were saving by diverting waste from landfill. I thought I would post my response here in case other businesses find it useful. Also, it would be great to hear from anyone who disagrees with my response.
Although not impossible, it is not easy to determine the amount of CO2 saved by diverting waste from landfill in individual cases. A large number of different factors are involved to arrive at such a figure. For a start sending waste to landfill doesn’t necessarily generate any additional CO2 at all beyond transporting it there, provided the waste is inactive and not biodegradable. This is why the landfill tax for inactive waste is so much less than other, potentially biodegradable wastes. Also, the greenhouse gas produced by “biomass” in landfill is actually methane, a gas many times more dangerous than CO2, which is why it is so important to minimise the amount produced. The type of landfill site the waste ends up at will also play its part. Many landfill sites now capture the methane produced and convert it to energy which would otherwise have come from burning fossil fuels. Modern landfill sites are also generally underground, so the methane is effectively trapped.
Obviously if you can actually reduce the amount of waste your business generates, then you can avoid some of the complications mentioned above. But even then, it isn’t a simple job to know how much CO2 you have saved because it depends on the waste streams involved. For example if you recycle one tonne of plastic then you save roughly 2 tonnes of CO2e (equivalent) compared to incineration. But do you know if your plastic is being incinerated? I found a statistic suggesting that recycling 180 sheets of paper will save 1kg/2.2lbs of CO2 compared to sending it to landfill. Equally if you buy recycled paper in the first place, you save roughly .5kg of CO2 per 180 sheets. So clearly savings can be made, but the difficulty is in calculating them.
If you look to reuse your waste, either on your own business premises or through a reuse service (such as one from our reuse and recycling directory – http://www.wasteawarebusiness.org.uk/brd.asp) then you help to avoid the use of virgin raw material. However the CO2 involved in producing raw materials from virgin produce very much depends on the material in question, where it was sourced from and the production process used to make it. Some manufacturers are much more environmentally conscious than others. How do you calculate the CO2 involved in the transportation of the goods for example?
If you have diverted waste from landfill by recycling your waste then you would have to consider the CO2 involved in the recycling process which, although lower than the amount of CO2 involved with making materials from scratch, still uses energy and requires transportation.
So, to sum up, it may be easier for you to consider the tonnage of waste diverted as a benchmark. Certainly the tonnage figure is used by business support organisations like Envirowise, NISP etc to show how much their programmes have achieved each year. They do not look at CO2 in detail, perhaps due to the complexity of it.
In saying all this, other bodies have produced statistics showing the CO2 used when recycling. One such report can be found here: http://www.wrap.org.uk/wrap_corporate/news/shipping_our_plastic.html. WRAP also mention CO2 in their own annual figures.
WRAP Scotland can be reached on 0808 100 2040 should you wish to discuss this with them.
You might also consider using the Carbon trust’s business CO2 calculator (http://www.carbontrust.co.uk/solutions/carbonfootprinting/footprintcalculators.htm) although as far as I’m aware this doesn’t include a waste element.
For interest here is some other WRAP research:
* The 8.6 million tonnes of paper the UK recycled here and abroad last year has saved the equivalent of 11 million tonnes of CO2 emissions. This is equivalent to taking 3.6 million cars off the road.
* Selling the UK’s used plastic bottles and paper for recycling in China actually saves carbon emissions. Shipping these materials more than 10,000 miles produces less CO2 than sending them to landfill at home and using brand new materials. (2008 CO2 Impact of Export Report).
* More energy is saved by recycling plastics than is gained by burning them. Recycling saves 2 tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions per tonne of plastic in comparison to incineration. (2008 Life Cycle Analysis of Management Options for Mixed Waste Plastics).
* In 83% of circumstances, recycling paper, card, glass, plastics and metals was preferable to any other waste management option. Recycling these items is currently estimated to save over 18 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent green house gas emissions. (2006 Environmental Benefits of Recycling, and Waste for England 2007).