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Waste, recycling and the climate emergency

An explanation of the link between waste and the climate emergency, as well as a guide to reduce your impact and what we are doing to reduce waste.

Effectively managing the borough’s waste and recycling is a key element of our Climate Emergency Action Plan to be carbon neutral by 2030. We are working hard to reduce the amount of waste produced, for example by introducing food waste collections, but also to reduce the carbon intensity of treating waste over time.

Recycling our waste is important, however it is becoming increasingly clear that we cannot recycle our way out of the climate crisis. We need to first and foremost reduce our consumption and prevent waste altogether. 

How does our waste have an influence on the climate?

Embodied carbon emissions

The manufacturing of goods generates carbon emissions at all levels of production; starting with the energy used to operate the machinery needed to mine the raw materials, their transportation, the production of goods, to the marketing and sales to get them to the end consumer.
This is what is known as the ‘embodied carbon’ of a product.

Emissions from waste disposal

At the end of their lifespan, any goods not recycled are either sent to landfill or incinerated.  In landfill any biodegradable waste generates methane, which is a greenhouse gas over 21 times more potent than CO. In Lewisham all of our residual waste (find out more on our website about what happens to Lewisham’s recycling) is sent to South East London Combined Heat & Power Energy Recovery Facility (SELCHP) in New Cross.

SELCHP is an Energy from Waste (EfW) plant where both electricity and heat are generated from the waste incineration. Every year SELCHP produces 220,000MWh of electricity, enough to power 48,000 homes and 280,000MWh of heat. Currently 2,500 homes are heated from SELCHP. 

Although the process of incinerating the waste does generate emissions, there is overall a net reduction because of the electricity and heat produced as a by-product, which removes the need to burn fossil fuels elsewhere.  A new pipe is planned to serve the 3,500 homes in the new Convoys Wharf development and the Council are working with consultants to evaluate options for heating even more homes in the future.

How can you reduce your waste and impact?

Reducing waste decreases our impact on the environment and saves money. Always try to follow the waste hierarchy: reduce, reuse, recycle. This means first to reduce the amount you consume and buy, then trying to reuse and repurpose items to give them another life, and lastly to recycle once something has reached the end of its life. 

Buying less, using reusable bags and avoiding single use items can all help, as well as composting either at home or using Lewisham’s food waste collection service, buying second hand items and donating used goods. You can also help by planning meals ahead, making a shopping list and saving all leftovers.

Check out our guide to going zero waste and our resident guide to action on climate change as well as Recycle Now’s guidance on reducing waste. In addition to reducing how much you consume and waste, recycling is also really important.

Recycling conserves resources

When we recycle, used materials are converted into new products, reducing the need to consume natural resources. Recycling helps conserve important raw materials and protects natural habitats for the future.

Recycling saves energy

Using recycled materials in the manufacturing process uses considerably less energy than that required for producing new products from raw materials

Recycling helps protect the environment

Recycling reduces the need for extracting, refining and processing raw materials all of which create substantial air and water pollution. Recycling saves energy and reduces greenhouse gas emissions, which helps to tackle climate change. Current UK recycling is estimated to save more than 18 million tonnes of CO² a year – the equivalent of removing five million cars from our roads. For more information visit the Recycle Now website.

Use your voice

Protecting the environment is of paramount importance for future generations, and so it is critical that political and economic processes reflect changes that need to be made in order to preserve and defend our natural resources.

Policies and business strategies are often shaped by popular demand and democratic elections decide which proposed policies become reality.

That’s why lobbying locally and nationally to incentivise and legislate a shift towards a circular economy is crucial. You can make your voice heard in multiple ways:

  • Join a citizens’ organisation to campaign on a larger scale. Some examples are Greenpeace UK and Friends of the Earth. You can also get involved in individual campaigns such as those run by Keep Britain Tidy or sign petitions that demand greater efforts to prevent and reduce waste as well as increase recycling rates. For further information, The Restart Project Blog also has up to date information on UK progress towards an effective circular economy.
  • Be a role model by doing your best to reduce your waste and telling others about it.
  • Vote with your wallet. If you can, show your support for products and services that prevent and reduce waste, as well as incentivise increased recycling. This sends a message to businesses that there is a demand for eco-friendly and resource efficient products and services. See our zero waste guide for more information.

What is Lewisham Council doing to reduce the impact of its waste?

Below is a summary of the waste and recycling related actions that the council has already carried out, our plans for the future and our asks at a national level.

What we have done

Following a waste audit of our main corporate sites in January 2020 we rolled out improved waste and recycling facilities and added food waste collection.  This will contribute towards us achieving a carbon neutral corporate estate. In addition, we are currently trialling a food waste collection for flats and are investigating the possibility of rolling this out to schools and businesses as well. 

Single use plastic cups were also removed from corporate sites in 2019 and as well as plastic single-use umbrella sleeves.

Lewisham Homes have overseen waste operation carbon reductions through the allocation of 50% of the waste storage area to recycling, the provision of skips to facilitate the moving process, as well as new recycling facilities in corporate offices.

Both Ashmede School and New Woodlands School received off site construction new school buildings, reducing waste, carbon admissions and noise pollution.

Lewisham’s municipal waste is disposed of at SELCHP, the Energy Recovery Facility. We collect 85,000 tonnes of waste a year, which is incinerated instead of going to landfill, a volume of waste annually the size of SELCHP itself.

A new Reduction and Recycling Plan was agreed at Mayor and Cabinet in December 2019.

Our planning policies mean we expect major development proposals to be net zero-waste and they will be required to submit a Circular Economy Statement, as part of the Sustainable Design Statement.

We rolled out an initial successful pilot to minimise contamination of waste on an individual estate.

Our future actions

We aim to publish an annual ‘Corporate Use of Resources’ statement setting out performance in relation to corporate carbon emissions, energy consumption, water, waste & recycling, paper use, staff travel, procurement, IT (information technology) and other environmental indicators. 

We have plans to trial food waste collection for select school classrooms in 2021 to assess the potential to roll out for all school kitchens. We will also review and identify opportunities for further reductions in waste from schools.

A sustainable working protocol for Lewisham Homes employees will be developed to include a sustainable staff travel policy, recycling and office etiquette.  There will also be a ban on single-use plastic except where there’s a specific health and safety reason.

We will increase climate change resilience through improvements to local green infrastructure and other adaptive measures.  Where appropriate and safe to do so, we will reduce the amount of green waste from parks transported to recycling centres by managing waste in the park it was generated in, e.g. use dead leaves as mulch on shrub beds.

The possibility of opening a re-use shop within the borough will be investigated. A full project plan will be created with an aim to divert waste from incineration or recycling and encourage the reuse of items as directed by the waste hierarchy.

We will identify and develop proposals to make Lewisham’s Reduction and Recycling Strategy a fully carbon neutral strategy on waste.

Our asks of others

Post-Brexit, the UK is now at risk of lower environmental standards. The Government must use the planned Environmental Bill to guarantee a minimum commitment to EU standards particularly on air quality, biodiversity, water conservation and waste and the circular economy. Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (- DEFRA)

The focus of the Environment Bill should reflect the holistic nature of the environment and not just existing Government Departmental responsibilities. Climate change and carbon needs to be reflected alongside air quality, waste, water and biodiversity.  (- DEFRA)

The UK needs a new radical approach to the waste industry based on principles that properly account for the full value of resources including the cost of disposal. This should include:

  • New targets for the waste industry that focus on waste prevention;
  • Introduction of the Extended Producer Responsibility so that the producer pays for waste materials and packaging including batteries, textiles, food;
  • Introduce deposit return schemes and a tax on plastic;
  • Products, food and other goods should be labelled with quantified information on carbon intensity of manufacture and transport;
  • Incentives for weekly food waste collections at a local level. (- HM Treasury /DEFRA)

To see the above in context, please see our Climate Emergency Action Plan.