Designing Council waste services on a threatened planet (Part 1 - The power of defining services)

Front line decisions

There is an array of methods that Councils can apply to improve the carbon performance of their services and the impact upon the planet, and one that can have the most far reaching impact, is that of waste management. This two part set of blogs sets out some key areas: this, the first, is the power of defining services.

Councils have limited control over what wastes they are given. They are the ‘third leg’ in the relay race of the resource management chain, twenty years ago they, and their contractors, were effectively the last runner, the finish line being disposal. But in this century the sector has upped its pace, separating wastes into usable resources to conserve embodied energy, materials and carbon – to pass this back into the supply chain, to allow the ‘race’ to start again. It is a fascinating ‘everyday’ example of front line sustainability. A public sector driven service which is immediately challenged by issues of environmental, economic and social priority, sometimes competing, sometimes complementary, often fluid.

At the current time the fluidity of this sea of sustainability issues feels heightened, reflected in both top down and bottom up influences. Central Governments are showing real steel in the resource management measures they are proposing and legislating, but there is a lack of clarity on their final guise and deliverability. Individual environmental concern, and a sobering social derailment experienced in this Pandemic feels as though it will intensify some messages about recovering in a more sustainable, less frenetic, more caring way. Environmental and social concerns may become stronger, in the context of a more constrained economic climate…

The Threatened Planet

When Councils formally recognise the climate emergency we face, there is immediate attention on scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions, the impacts of buildings and direct activities, such as fuel use from company vehicles. Scope 3 emissions, including those from waste management and contracted out services can vastly outweigh those from scope 1 and 2 from Council services because they entail embodied carbon and resources discarded from every individual, every day across the entire Council area. These scope 3 activities are not only within the influence of the local authority, but their management is also specified by them, and yield great opportunity - sometimes won, sometimes missed.

In consideration of municipal waste management services, decisions and plans can be ‘locked in’ for five years, eight years or up to twenty five years depending on the service or infrastructure procured. In just one area, the carbon intensity of energy from the grid, Government is regularly revising its forecasts down, as the decarbonisation exceeds expectations. In other words, the growth in the amount of renewables and the consequent reduction in high carbon electricity is improving at phenomenal rates. The carbon intensity will halve or even reduce to a quarter of its current levels by the end of some waste management contracts that are let today. That is a critical factor of environmental decision making – an acceptable climate choice now, may be a poor one later.

If we also throw in the technological innovation happening across the sector, from in-service electric RCVs, to Materials Recycling Facilities beset with robotic sorters, to app based comms, materials science, carbon capture and IoT development - it is an intriguing moment, and a chance to influence at an environmental level through opportunities now and preparedness for the changes to come.

System and Services Design

The environmental impact of wastes, often managed by the private sector, is increasingly being evaluated by Councils in their decision making, but often at a level that doesn’t reflect the growing importance of carbon in particular. To prioritise global environmental impacts further would represent a ‘bottom up’ approach where Councils can reflect the growing interest of their residents and the environmental imperative, and show leadership ahead of Government policy. The environmental cost of carbon will be increasingly monetised as we target net zero and if contracts don’t allow for that change, clients could pay for it via change of legislation provisions. In our view, service design, procurement mechanisms and consequent service delivery should be founded on a recognition of the magnitude of their impacts, and need to be responsive to the changing environment across a contract period.

Whilst we may not know the guise, we can see the direction of travel and it is accelerating, new players, notably product and packaging producer organisations will also enter the market exacting their influences in the next five years. Business as usual is unlikely for most of us after this pandemic, but in the selection of how to manage our wastes and resources, and their impact upon the planet, we can be clear that it both requires further change, and a mechanism of flexibility and incentivisation to drive positive outcomes across any contracted period or service configuration.

Frith Resource Management model options, environmental impacts, consider technologies, advise on procurement, markets, cost and performance. See call 01746 552423 or email

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