Christian M. 5 min read

The environmental impact of commercial waste

Poor waste management issues such as fly-tipping and waterway pollution frequently appear in the news as a reminder that the UK has a long way to go in reducing the environmental impact of the waste industry.

In the meantime, local councils are grappling with unprecedented volumes of electronic waste, businesses and institutions are navigating rapidly changing regulations, and there is increasing political pressure to halt the exportation of waste.

This article explores the most pressing environmental impacts caused by commercial waste in the UK.

💡 Key takeaways:

  • Reducing emissions: Waste management is the only UK sector that has consistently reduced its emissions since 1990.
  • Electronic waste: The digital revolution is generating unprecedented volumes of electronic waste, challenging existing waste management infrastructure.
  • Waste exports: Embarrassingly, the UK exports 60% of its plastic waste abroad to countries less equipped to deal with it.

What are the environmental impacts of UK commercial waste?

The environmental impacts of commercial waste collections in the UK are varied and significant. While the UK might not be as notorious as some developing countries for waste management issues, it still faces several environmental challenges.

Here are seven key environmental impacts of the UK waste industry:

1. Greenhouse gas emissions

While the waste management industry itself generates carbon emissions, landfill sites and incinerators are the most significant contributors.

Landfill methane emissions

Landfill sites in the UK are major sources of methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas. This is due to the ongoing disposal of organic waste from homes and businesses alike. Measures like the Landfill Tax have been instrumental in reducing the amount of organic waste in landfills, yet emissions persist.

💡 In 2021, 6.8 million tonnes of methane-producing biodegradable municipal waste were disposed in UK landfills, of which 5.3 million tonnes were disposed of in England.

Incinerator emissions

The UK focuses heavily on energy recovery as a waste avoidance strategy (i.e. burning waste to generate power). While plants like the Runcorn Energy-from-Waste facility process significant volumes of unavoidable waste, the energy recovery process emits large quantities of carbon dioxide and other pollutants.

💡 According to official statistics, the UK waste management sector has reduced its emissions by 74% since 1990, the most of any sector. It’s also the only sector that didn’t experience an increase in emissions after COVID restrictions eased.

Source: UK Gov Statistics – Updated 2023

2. Fly-tipping

Although fly-tipping does not constitute a significant problem in terms of waste volume, it has gained notoriety due to extensive media coverage and its direct impact on communities. Incidents occur nationwide, causing disruptions to traffic on rural roads and damaging local ecosystems and landscapes.

3. Food waste in sewage systems

Businesses in urban areas, such as London, Manchester and Birmingham have been found to contribute to sewer blockages and overflows by improperly disposing of commercial food waste and grease, affecting sewage treatment processes.

However, there have been significant reductions in this issue over the past decade, largely attributable to new legislation enacted in each of the devolved nations.

Notably, Scotland has successfully reduced the amount of food waste being disposed of via sewerage by heavily regulating businesses like restaurants, pubs and cafes.

4. Electronic and battery waste

Electronic and battery waste is the fastest-growing waste stream in the UK, and unfortunately, there remains significant ignorance and negligence regarding its appropriate disposal. Instances of illegal dumping of commercial electronic waste in landfills highlight the ongoing challenges in e-waste management and the associated risks of soil and water contamination due to toxic substances.

Moreover, electronic waste contains scarce resources such as metals and semiconductors that could be reused or recycled, thus contributing to resource scarcity.

💡 Resource Depletion: Not preventing waste inevitably leads to resource depletion. New glass bottles require the extraction of sand, aluminium cans depend on mineral ore, and new plastics are derived from fossil fuels. Recycling these materials from waste can obviate the need for such extractive activities.

5. The export of waste

The UK exports a whopping 60% of its plastic waste abroad, primarily to developing countries. These nations often have lower environmental standards and less stringent compliance measures, with countries like Malaysia and Turkey being notable destinations.

While UK waste exports reduce the local environmental impact of waste in the UK, they exacerbate the problem in regions less equipped to manage it, effectively creating a zero-sum issue.

Source: DEFRA ‘Price of Plastics’ Report 2022

6. Water pollution from commercial waste

A 2022 House of Commons Committee report found that no river in England is free from chemical contamination, and only 14% of UK rivers are classified as having “good” ecological status. The report identified agricultural runoff and the release of untreated sewage as primary contributors to river pollution.

Source: Loughborough University News

💡Multi-disciplinary issue: While this is ultimately a commercial waste mismanagement issue, it is actually within the jurisdiction of agriculture and water authorities.

7. Other environmental impacts

The environmental impacts of waste are diverse and extensive. These include:

  • the visual pollution from commercial litter,
  • carbon emissions from the entire waste management supply chain,
  • biodiversity loss resulting from expanding landfill sites or new recycling centres,
  • the adverse effects on human health associated with swimming in contaminated waters.

Why are we so bad at waste management?

If every business and public institution in the UK strictly adhered to waste regulations, the environmental impact of waste would be minimal. Ideally, the waste hierarchy would be rigorously followed, akin to cars obeying a red traffic light, and every council would possess the necessary infrastructure to support this. However, the gap between the ideal and the actual situation is significant.

This discrepancy is largely due to cultural attitudes– office conversations are never centred around who failed to put a glass bottle in a commercial recycling bin! Unfortunately, waste management seldom garners media attention due to its lack of appeal compared to reality shows.

💡 Times are Changing: The UK aims to align regulations with real-world practices by 2050. By then, the country expects virtually zero waste (besides the unavoidable!) and carbon neutrality.

Environmental impacts of commercial waste – FAQs

Our business waste experts answer commonly asked questions on the environmental impact of commercial waste in the UK.

What is commercial waste?

Commercial waste encompasses any waste, including recyclables, produced from business activities. Specifically, this includes:

This implies that waste originating from business operations conducted within a residential property is classified as commercial waste and must be disposed of separately from household waste.

How much commercial waste does the UK generate?

In 2020 the UK generated 40 million tonnes of commercial and industrial waste. Of this total, 84% was generated in England, with the remaining 16% coming from Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

Source:  UK Gov Waste Statistics

How can my business reduce the environmental impact of its waste?

Your business can significantly reduce its environmental impact simply by adhering to its waste duty of care. This is crucial, as a large proportion of UK businesses are currently not compliant with these regulations.

Beyond this, the best advice is to follow the waste hierarchy, which is considered the most effective strategy for preventing commercial waste and, consequently, reducing its environmental impact.

A business waste audit is the perfect way to assess the effectiveness of your business waste management.

What sectors have the largest waste environmental impact?

Each sector affects different aspects of the environment in varying degrees. Here’s an overview of the environmental impacts per sector:

Manufacturing: Produces large volumes of waste, which can sometimes be hazardous. Hazardous waste can have a high impact in low quantities, especially when polluting soil and water.

Construction: Generates a substantial amount of waste, including concrete, wood, metals, and potentially hazardous materials like asbestos. The sheer volume and the difficulty of recycling certain materials contribute to its high environmental impact.

Healthcare: Despite lower volumes, hospital and dental clinic waste includes biohazardous materials, chemical waste, and pharmaceuticals, which can lead to serious environmental and health risks if not handled appropriately.

Agriculture: Agricultural waste, including pesticides, fertilizers, and animal waste, can have a significant impact on soil and water quality if not managed properly.

Hospitality: This food and beverage sector contributes significantly to food waste, which can lead to methane emissions when decomposing in landfills. Additionally, the use of single-use plastics and other non-biodegradable materials adds to environmental concerns.

Retail: Packaging waste, particularly plastic waste, is a major environmental concern in the retail sector. Additionally, food waste and the disposal of unsold products add to their environmental impact.

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