CIE-MAP organises event on low carbon construction with UKGBC, Edinburgh Napier University and Landsec

On the 19th April CIE-MAP, Edinburgh Napier University and Landsec, sponsored a UKGBC event on whole life carbon reduction in the built environment. The event, Advancing Net Zero: next steps in holistic carbon reductions, was hosted at the Saint Gobain Innovation Centre in London. The event, aimed at built environment professionals, proved popular with all spaces booked inside 48 hours. The event featured 13 presentations focusing on different aspects of carbon reduction. It provided an ideal opportunity for industry and academia to share best practice on whole life carbon management at a project, organisation and industry level. CIE-MAP researcher Jannik Giesekam presented at the event. Slides from his presentation ‘From Paris to projects: aligning carbon targets in construction’ can be downloaded here. A full write up of the day will appear on the UKGBC website in the coming weeks.

Left to Right: Natalia Ford (UKGBC), Ed Dixon (Landsec), Francesco Pomponi (Edinburgh Napier University), and Jannik Giesekam (CIEMAP).


Decarbonising Industry: Towards a Cleaner Economy

Dr Samuel J.G. Cooper is a Research Associate in the Department of Mechanical EngineeringProfessor Geoffrey P. Hammond is Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bath, and was Founder Director of its Institute for Sustainable Energy and the Environment.

The Climate Change Challenge

Human development is underpinned by energy sources of various kinds that heat, power and transport its citizens in their everyday lives. But, while energy supplies and technologies underscore continued economic development, they also give rise to unwanted side-effects, such as the prospect of global warming due to an enhanced greenhouse effect induced by fossil fuel combustion. The British Government has introduced a bold, legally binding target of reducing the nation’s CO2 emissions overall by 80% before 2050 in comparison to a 1990 baseline in their 2008 Climate Change Act. Achieving this carbon reduction target will require a challenging transition in Britain’s systems for producing, delivering and using energy that is not only low carbon, but also secure and affordable; resolving the so-called energy policy ‘trilemma’.

Reducing industrial energy demand and improving resource efficiency could make a substantial contribution towards the UK Government’s 2050 goal of achieving 80% decarbonisation, whilst simultaneously improving productivity and creating employment opportunities. In this context, the British Government released its Clean Growth Strategy in October 2017, although it has a number of identifiable weaknesses. The associated technology roadmaps exhibit quite large uncertainties, and decarbonisation over the long-term will depend critically on the adoption of a small number of key technologies, alongside the decarbonisation of electricity supply. ‘Circular economy’ interventions have the potential to make significant energy savings that are complementary to other energy efficiency measures. But the task for both industrial and policy decision-makers will still be challenging.

The Importance of Industry in Securing a Clean Economy

Industry in the UK accounts for some 17% of total delivered energy and 20% of CO2 emissions. There are large differences between processes – from highly energy-intensive steel production and petrochemicals processing to low-energy electronics fabrication. The former sector typically employs large quantities of (often high-temperature) process energy, whereas the latter tends to be dominated by energy uses associated with space heating. Around 350 separate combinations of sectors, devices and technologies can be identified; each combination offers quite different prospects for energy efficiency improvements and carbon savings, which are strongly dependent on the specific technological applications. This large variation across industry requires tailored solutions for separate industries.

The British Government’s independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC), established under the 2008 Climate Change Act, has advocated deep cuts in power sector operational emissions through the 2020s, with UK electricity generation being largely decarbonised by 2030-2040. In recommending the Fifth ‘Carbon Budget’ for the period 2028-2032, they proposed a 57% fall in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions below 1990 levels by 2032. However, they viewed industrial decarbonisation as a difficult area in which to secure appropriate savings. There is clearly a need for research aimed at providing better information in support of UK industrial strategy for policymakers, including the potential impact of fuel switching, as well as the identification of difficult sectors and/or processes and areas where investment could be targeted most effectively. GHG emissions are not the only environmental burden that stems from industrial activities. However, ‘carbon footprints’ have become the ‘currency’ of debate in a climate-constrained world.

From Industrial Sectoral Analysis to Strategy

The GHG emissions from UK industry can be split by sector, comprising those from energy use (including GHGs indirectly emitted from electricity use) and process emissions. Industrial sectors with significant process emissions are steel, chemicals, cement, aluminium, glass, ceramics and lime. Information on energy use, emission conversion factors and process emissions can be combined in order to determine the total emissions. This reveals that a number of sectors dominate GHG emissions from the industrial sector, and suggests Pareto-like priorities for decarbonisation: steel (25%), chemicals (19%), cement (8%), food & drink (7%), paper (6%), plastics (6%) and so on. Thus, just six sub-sectors account for 71% of UK emissions. However, the post-2008 economic recession resulted in the ongoing closure of some large plants, particularly aluminium smelters and steel mills. The British Government, led by its Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), released its Clean Growth Strategy (CGS) in October 2017, alongside seven Industrial Decarbonisation and Energy Efficiency Action Plans produced jointly with industrial partners covering different industrial sectors. Thus, the Action Plans contain voluntary commitments to reduce GHG emissions, whilst “maintaining international competitiveness”.

The Minister for Energy and Clean Growth (the Rt Hon Claire Perry MP) regards the CGS as a “march on a decarbonisation pathway” for the UK economy. A novel focus of the strategy is on the notion of growing national income whilst cutting GHG emissions. It is argued that this will improve productivity, create ‘good jobs’ and enhance the earning power of employees at the same time as meeting the climate change and environmental objectives of the UK. The CGS sets out an aim to improve energy productivity by at least 20% over the period to 2030. This will be stimulated, in part, by a Government investment of £162 million in clean growth innovation funding out to 2021 via a new BEIS Energy Innovation Programme, including greenhouse gas removal (GGR) technologies; much of this funding will be earmarked for industrial carbon capture and storage (CCS). Claire Perry also has an ambition to accelerate green finance and regulatory frameworks that will encourage new business models for the UK. BEIS will seek to monitor progress with these interventions via a Clean Growth Inter-Ministerial Group, aided by a new metric – the Emissions Intensity Ratio (EIR), defined in terms of GHG emissions per unit of national income. The Government wants this EIR to fall by 63% between now and 2032. Subsequently, the CGS and associated Action Plans were underpinned by the Government’s Industrial Strategy White Paper published in November 2017, which has as a grand challenge the aim of taking advantage of the “global shift to clean growth” for the benefit of UK industry. The overall emphasis is on improving productivity via the encouragement of innovation, research and development (R&D), and skills training. It envisages a large increase in public investment in R&D, through an Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (initially of £275 million), together with the commercialisation of its outputs.

Weaknesses in the UK ‘Clean Growth Strategy’

The much-delayed publication of the CGS has been generally welcomed by both industry and civil society groups, including organisations in the energy efficiency and carbon reduction field such as the Carbon Trust and Energy Savings Trust. The CCC also welcomed it as representing a move in the right direction. However, they voiced concern over the vagueness of many of the suggested climate change mitigation actions and the potential reliance by the UK Government on what they regard as ‘flexibilities’ in the 2008 Climate Change Act in order to meet the requirements of the Fifth Carbon Budget targets. The CCC view such flexibilities as “banking and borrowing”, whereas they believe that future carbon budgets out to 2032 at least should be met by way of domestic action. They regard banking emissions from the overachievement in emissions reductions under the Second and Third Carbon Budgets as a retrograde step. It could put at risk the UK commitment to achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement, which includes a much greater challenge of moving towards 1.5°C global warming than the 2°C target in place when the CCC originally recommended their Fifth Carbon Budget goals. It would also undermine investor confidence in the development of innovative technologies, such as CCS or carbon capture and utilisation (CCU). Indeed many antagonists, not just those in the CCS community, have expressed disappointment at the rather modest ongoing support promised for GGR technologies. There is a clear need to explore whether CCU can be taken beyond a few niche products.

Technological Options for Industrial Decarbonisation

There is significant potential to secure efficiency gains in UK industry, including gains associated with the use of heat and with improvements in processing. A series of studies (see here, here and here) at the University of Bath found that currently-available technologies are likely to lead to further, short-term energy and GHG emissions savings in industry, but that the prospects for the commercial exploitation of innovative (so-called ‘disruptive’) technologies by mid-21st century are far more speculative. There are a number of non-technological barriers to the take-up of such technologies going forward. Consequently, the transition pathways to a low-carbon future in UK industry by 2050 will exhibit large uncertainties. But the attainment of significant falls in GHG emissions over this period will depend critically on the adoption of a limited number of key technologies, for example:

  • Energy efficiency and heat recovery techniques [including combined heat and power (CHP) plants (particularly biomass-CHP), and industrial heat pumps]
  • Fuel switching, principally to biomass or bioenergy [but potentially to hydrogen (H2)]
  • Carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCU/CCS) – although the CCS and CCU research communities in the UK have quite divergent views on the potential economics and take-up of these technologies.
  • Decarbonisation of electricity supply, facilitating, for example, low-carbon electrification of heating for both industrial buildings and processes.

The suitability of these measures depends on the nature of the industrial sector concerned. Energy efficiency measures often have a relatively short payback period. Significant potential exists for reusing this surplus (or waste) heat from industrial processes, particularly at low temperatures via the utilisation of heat exchangers. Such heat could also be converted to electricity by employing innovative technologies, like organic Rankine cycle devices. These technologies exist in commercial applications, but are not well established; support for their development and installation is therefore required in order to increase their use. CHP plants are an important and available option at a large, industrial scale. Take-up is already encouraging in many industrial sub-sectors. In contrast, heat pumps are technologies which, at both a small (domestic) and industrial scale, have been slow to take off. Bioenergy systems are largely available technologies, limited mainly by restrictions on indigenous, sustainable biomass and biogenic waste resources, delivery and social factors. Sustainable bioenergy is a renewable resource that is often low-carbon and potentially gives rise to ‘carbon sinks’ or ‘negative emissions’ when coupled to CCS facilities. Bioenergy CCS is likely to have a potentially important role in securing the 1.5℃ global warming target under the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. It will require continuing research, development and demonstration as it is typically regarded as an unproven technology at the present time. The potential for generating a modern ‘bioeconomy’ is recognised in industrial sectors such as chemicals and the paper products industry. However, virtually no bioenergy is currently used in the chemicals sector, except for the production of bio-hydrogen. There are substantial prospects for producing high-value chemicals from biomass feedstock in state-of-the-art biorefineries. They will yield substitutes to many of the chemicals and plastics presently based on fossil fuel feedstocks.

Many industrialists view CCS/CCU as being costly technologies that will probably continue to be prohibitively expensive out to 2050. Possible exceptions to that are sectors with large processing facilities, such as chemicals and steel plants. The clustering of GHG networks between electricity generators and industrial process plants, together with their coupling to offshore storage facilities, is an important requirement for the practical adoption of CCS (and possibly CCU) in the UK and elsewhere. This requires ongoing research, development and demonstration as part of a collaborative programme with the manufacturing and processing sectors, and electricity and gas supply utilities. Nevertheless, all steam crackers and ammonia plants are situated within potential UK CCS cluster regions. Pipeline technology for building a CO2 transport network is ready to be rolled out, and the UK already has preliminary plans for at least two large GHG transport ‘hubs’ that will eventually be centrally located amongst a cluster of CCS power stations and industrial sites. The cost of capture from ammonia is also very low, because of the purity of its process CO2 emissions. In addition to these options, there is scope in some industrial sectors (such as pulp and paper) for the adoption of Demand-side flexibility techniques, whereby levels of electricity demand are increased, reduced or shifted, and on-site energy storage then enables the optimisation of electricity usage. This also has major advantages in the context of an energy infrastructure designed to meet occasional peak demands.

Towards a ‘Circular Economy’

Circular economy (CE) interventions – sometimes termed ‘value chain collaboration’ by BEIS – seek to reorganise products and services to improve resource-use efficiency by designing out waste and recycling and reusing materials, thereby minimising their negative side-effects. Arguably, measures of this type will reduce the use of resources required in order to satisfy consumption sufficiently to achieve sustainable development goals and mitigate climate change. Such strategies slow throughput of materials across the economy. The approach has achieved prominence via the European Commission’s Circular Economy Package. It has also been championed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, who present it more broadly in terms of expanding the ‘waste hierarchy’, ‘circling longer’, or enabling cascaded use. The Foundation claims that these approaches increase employment, more effectively capture value, mitigate exposure to supply chain and market risks, and better develop customer relationships. Such approaches can be viewed as an alternative to the conventional linear ‘take-make-consume-dispose’ economic model.

The implications of CE interventions have recently been studied by the University of Bath research team in collaboration with partners at the University of Leeds. They collated evidence on specific quantifiable approaches, and then calculated their combined overall supply chain impacts via input-output analysis. Several potential CE interventions were examined in a global context, across the EU-27 and in the UK. They were found to have similar overall potential to save energy as industrial energy efficiency measures. Some CE approaches improve business-to-business interactions, whilst others ensure that the needs of consumers are met with less resources. CE interventions may be characterised as ‘getting more out’ and ‘putting less in’. Examples of the former include reducing material content of products via optimised designs or stronger materials, reducing losses of materials through improved manufacturing processes with better material production yields, and enhanced recycling. Techniques for ‘getting more out’ were found to have greater potential in the UK than those associated with ‘putting less in’.

Securing a Decarbonisation Pathway for Industry

A number of options and priorities for industrial decarbonisation and improved resource efficiency in the UK have been articulated. But the task for both industrial and policy decision-makers will be challenging. The aspirations highlighted in the UK Government’s recent CGS need to be clarified and more clearly elaborated. In order to achieve its commitments under the 2015 Paris Agreement, the UK Government should not rely on accounting ‘flexibilities’ (what the CCC regard as “banking and borrowing”) or reliance on international carbon credits. The joint industry-government Action Plans and forthcoming Sector Deals will have to be delivered in partnership. The technology roadmaps to 2050 exhibit quite large uncertainties, and the attainment of significant falls in GHG emissions over the long-term will depends critically on the adoption of a small number of key technologies (highlighted above), alongside the decarbonisation of the electricity supply. Clearly a range of policy instruments are required in order to implement the CGS and its associated opportunities. They will need further articulation over the coming months and years. Thus, a credible range of measures for decarbonising the economy, and industry in particular, need to be established – putting the ‘meat on the bones’ of the framework set out in the strategy. The potential of CE interventions to achieve additional, significant savings should be recognised and policies designed to encourage their uptake.

This blog post is part of the Future Policy Challenges series, a new series of IPR Blogs with a focus on science, technology and innovation that highlights some of the crucial issues policymakers may face in the coming years. Subscribe to the IPR blog to get the latest blog posts, or to keep up to date with our activities, connect with us on TwitterFacebook or LinkedIn. You can also follow the hashtag #FuturePolicyChallenges for more on this series.

Read the original post here.

Jannik Giesekam presents at Ecobuild 2018 and International Energy Agency Expert Dialogue

On the 8th March CIEMAP researcher Jannik Giesekam presented at the Ecobuild conference in London. His presentation was part of a main conference session entitled: Sustainability report for the UK built environment – doing well or could do better? The session was chaired by Julie Hirigoyen, chief executive of UKGBC. Other speakers included Adrian Gault (Chief Economist at the Committee on Climate Change), Bill Dunster (ZEDfactory), Louise Clarke (Berkeley Group) and Stephanie Wray (President of CIEEM). The session was inspired by a recent UKGBC project gathering indicators of sustainability in the UK built environment, to which CIEMAP contributed. Jannik’s conference presentation highlighted current progress in carbon reduction and the changing use of resources in the sector. His slides can be downloaded here.

On the 9th March Jannik also presented at an Expert Dialogue on Material Trends in Buildings Construction arranged by the IEA. The dialogue brought together 35 experts and key stakeholders from across the globe at the Saint Gobain headquarters in Paris. The dialogue was in support of a new IEA project studying the demand of key materials in the context of 2°C ambitions, and the potential for increased material efficiency. All presentations from the day can be downloaded here.

Poorest households hit hardest by UK climate change levy despite using least energy

John Barrett, University of Leeds and Anne Owen, University of Leeds

The UK is one of the leading countries in addressing climate change. As well as signing international agreements, the country has its own target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% from 1990 levels by 2050. And as part of the effort to meet that target, the government has added a levy to business and household energy bills. The average household energy bill is around £1,030 a year and the levy costs an average of £132 (2016 figures).

The good news is that the levy is working. About 20% of the levy is spent on improving the efficiency of homes. This is done by funding schemes such as the Energy Company Obligation, which provides insulation and other energy-saving measures to low-income households. The average household energy bill would be £490 higher without these improvements. The money is also spent on research to improve renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, and help bring down their cost.

But is this really a fair way to raise the money? Our new research shows that the poorest households not only are hit hardest by the levy but also receive less money back in the form of home improvements than they contribute in the first place.

To study the levy, we divided the UK into “income deciles”, ten groups each representing 10% of the population, divided from the lowest to the highest income. We then looked at how much energy use they were responsible for, both directly through their electricity, gas and fuel use, and from the other goods, services and infrastructure they use. The levy is only raised on a limited number of these “energy service demands”, namely home heat and power. So if your overall energy demand is higher for heat and power and lower for other services, you’ll pay a proportionally higher amount of the energy policy costs.

Energy demand by income decile (group 1 lowest income, group 10 highest) and energy service.
University of Leeds, Author provided

We found that, in a year, the richest households each consumed on average the same amount of energy that would be produced by 12.7 tonnes of oil, compared to 3.3 tonnes for the poorest households. But the poorest spent a much greater proportion of their income (10%) on energy than the richest (3%). And the energy used for heating and powering their homes – the part that their climate change levy bill is measured on – represented a much greater proportion of their overall energy use.

This means that adding the climate change levy to household energy bills hits the poorest households hardest. Energy bills account for a much greater share of their household income and more of their energy use is charged. In fact, the levy only affects a quarter of the total energy consumption of the richest households, compared to 53% for the poorest households. As a result, the richest homes use nearly four times more total energy than the poorest but only pay 1.8 times more towards energy policy costs.

One argument for the climate change levy is that poorer households benefit more because part of it is used to improve the efficiency of their homes. But we estimate that the poorest 10% of households currently pay £271m a year towards the levy, while the costs of the Carbon Savings Communities and Affordable Warmth schemes, which are designed to help the poorest homes, come to just £220m a year.

Fairer alternatives

We also compared the system of adding a levy to household bills to two other ways of funding energy policy. The first was adding a levy to the energy bills of businesses (including energy suppliers), at least some of which would be passed on to households who buy their goods and services. The second was paying for the policy with money raised from income tax.

The proportions of household income required to meet the cost of three ways of funding energy policy.
University of Leeds, Author provided

We found that the household levy is the most regressive system. Costs are placed purely on household bills, with the richest households paying 0.16% of their income compared to the poorest paying 1.5% (over nine times more).

Adding a levy to business bills is an improvement. Under this system, the richest homes pay 0.19% of their household income and the poorest pay 1.05% (still nearly six times more).

But funding energy policy from income tax would mean that the lowest income households wouldn’t contribute at all and the richest households would pay 0.5% of their income. Compared to a household levy, this approach would reduce costs for 70% of UK households, while the richest 30% would see an increase. The lowest income group would save £102 a year, at an additional cost of £410 for the richest households – which, at less than £8 a week, would make a relatively small difference to their lives.

The ConversationOur analysis shows that the more you earn, the greater your energy demand, yet this is not reflected in current energy levy policy. It’s important to make sure that the costs associated with low carbon transitions are met by the households that cause the problem and those who can afford it, instead of hurting poorer households. We see it as essential that climate policies are compatible with social justice. Our research demonstrates it is clearly possible to design a system that is both fair and effective.

John Barrett, Professor of Energy and Climate Policy, University of Leeds and Anne Owen, Research Fellow in Sustainable Consumption, University of Leeds

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Four tough actions that would help fight the global plastic crisis

Christine Cole, Nottingham Trent University

The environmental impact of plastic is finally receiving the attention it deserves. This is partly down to the BBC’s Blue Planet II highlighting the problem of ocean plastics. But it’s also because the Chinese government has recently imposed quality restrictions on the import of recyclable materials, in an attempt to address domestic concerns over pollution and public health.

Beijing’s move in effect closes down the export of recyclable plastics, paper and other materials from the world’s richest countries. The UK, rest of Europe, US, Australia and others have for a long time been dependent on China to take the poor quality materials that they collect and do not have the infrastructure or capacity to use themselves. Until more recycling plants are built to deal with it domestically, the UK faces a build-up of plastic waste.

Other countries in Asia will continue to accept some of the lower quality materials, but this is a temporary fix at best. Sending plastic to India, Vietnam or Cambodia instead of China may limit the amount that has to be stored, placed in landfill or burnt in the UK, but it does nothing to reduce the overall amount of plastic.

We cannot simply rely on the actions of concerned individuals. What’s needed goes beyond reusing plastic water bottles, stopping using plastic drinking straws and taking reusable bags to the supermarket.

Here are a few suggestions:

Recycle quality – not just quantity

1940s poster: ‘[there are] ENOUGH BOTTLES to meet easily all demands … if these bottles are kept busily working’

Recycling targets tend to focus on quantity, but the quality of materials collected is just as important. Recycling “quality” refers to how clean and well sorted individual materials are. Poorly sorted materials are referred to as “contaminated”, and it is this that China will no longer accept. (If you want to avoid contaminating your recycling collection, check out these top tips).

If the UK improved the quality of the material collected for recycling, it could still be sent to China. This would require a nationwide collection system for materials suitable to be used again (recycled). This may take the form of reworked household collections, comprehensive collections from business premises, or a revival of the “deposit and return” schemes that once covered glass bottles and today could also include plastic bottles, drinks cans or coffee cups.

Stop collecting stuff for the sake of it

Recycling collections from households are often criticised for being inconsistent and confusing. It is important to remember that local authorities do not themselves “recycle”. They collect waste and, separately, materials like glass bottles or cardboard boxes which are suitable for recycling.

After they have been collected these separated materials become secondary raw materials, which are only truly recycled when they are actually made into something else. Local authorities collect the materials that can be reprocessed into something else.

If the infrastructure to sort certain items or materials does not exist locally (as with some crisp packets, polystyrene take away boxes or coffee cups) it is only sensible for those items not to be collected. So stop collecting things for the sake of it, put in place the facilities to deal with a wider range of materials or ban the difficult to recycle materials.

Boost demand for recycled plastic

Countries like the UK need to develop their own demand for recycled material. This means supporting manufacturers to develop technology that can use it where possible.

Alternatively, the government could impose mandatory recycled content for various plastic products. Coca Cola, for instance, recently announced that by 2020 its bottles will contain 50% recycled material. This is a step in the right direction, but why only 50%? If this target was increased the sheer scale of production means there would be a huge impact.

Coca Cola makes more than 100 billion single-use plastic bottles a year, according to Greenpeace.
AS photo studio / shutterstock

Producers must be held responsible

Increase producer responsibility for the plastic products they place on the UK market. Existing arrangements could be reformed so that they encourage recyclability to be built in at the design stage, while incentivising the maximum use of recycled content. Regulations could tax or ban the use of non-recyclable products or those that use particularly difficult materials, and they could ban some single use plastic products (France has already done this). A 25p charge has recently been suggested to control the use of non-recycleable or hard to recycle coffee cups in the UK, which may reflect the success the 5p carrier bag charge had in reducing the number of single use plastic bags used by shoppers.

Pringles containers and Lucozade bottles have recently been highlighted as problems. The combination of multiple materials used to make them mean they are difficult to recycle without specialist techniques not available in most UK processing plants. Black plastic used for ready meal containers is also difficult to recycle and creates the kind of contamination problems the Chinese are trying to avoid. Why is this material still being used if it is recognised to be a problem and there are economic alternatives?

Let’s take advantage of the current mood. While there is a public focus on plastics, people should learn more about their purchasing decisions and recycling actions. On a larger scale, it is at times of crisis or failure that policy makers become open to new ideas, or old ones recycled. This is one such failure which offers a real opportunity to wake up and improve our environmental impact.

Christine Cole, Research Fellow, Architecture, Design and the Built Environment, Nottingham Trent University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

China bans foreign waste – but what will happen to the world’s recycling?

Christine Cole, Nottingham Trent University

The dominant position that China holds in global manufacturing means that for many years China has also been the largest global importer of many types of recyclable materials. Last year, Chinese manufacturers imported 7.3m metric tonnes of waste plastics from developed countries including the UK, the EU, the US and Japan.

However, in July 2017, China announced big changes in the quality control placed on imported materials, notifying the World Trade Organisation that it will ban imports of 24 categories of recyclables and solid waste by the end of the year. This campaign against yang laji or “foreign garbage” applies to plastic, textiles and mixed paper and will result in China taking a lot less material as it replaces imported materials with recycled material collected in its own domestic market, from its growing middle-class and Western-influenced consumers.

The impact of this will be far-reaching. China is the dominant market for recycled plastic. There are concerns that much of the waste that China currently imports, especially the lower grade materials, will have nowhere else to go.

This applies equally to other countries including the EU27, where 87% of the recycled plastic collected was exported directly, or indirectly (via Hong Kong), to China. Japan and the US also rely on China to buy their recycled plastic. Last year, the US exported 1.42m tons of scrap plastics, worth an estimated US$495m to China.

Plastic problems

So what will happen to the plastic these countries collect through household recycling systems once the Chinese refuse to accept it? What are the alternatives?

Plastics collected for recycling could go to energy recovery (incineration). They are, after all, a fossil-fuel based material and burn extremely well – so on a positive note, they could generate electricity and improve energy self-sufficiency.

They could also go to landfill (not ideal) – imagine the press headlines. Alternatively, materials could be stored until new markets are found. This also brings problems, however – there have been hundreds of fires at sites where recyclable materials are stored.

Time to change our relationship with plastic?

While it is a reliable material, taking many forms from cling film (surround wrap) to flexible packaging to rigid materials used in electronic items, the problems caused by plastic, most notably litter and ocean plastics, are receiving increasing attention.

One way forward might be to limit its functions. Many disposable items are made from plastic. Some of them are disposable by necessity for hygiene purposes – for instance, blood bags and other medical items – but many others are disposable for convenience.

Looking at the consumer side of things, there are ways of cutting back on plastic. Limiting the use of plastic bags through financial disincentives is one initiative that has shown results and brought about changes in consumer behaviour. In France, some disposable plastic items are banned and in the Britain, leading pub chain Wetherspoons has banned disposable, one-use plastic drinking straws.

Deposit and return schemes for plastic bottles (and drink cans) could also incentivise behaviour. Micro-beads, widely used in cosmetics as exfoliants, are now a target as the damage they do becomes increasingly apparent and the UK government has announced plans to ban their use in some products.

This follows similar actions announced by the US and Canada, with several EU nations, South Korea and New Zealand also planning to implement bans.

Many local authorities collect recycling that is jumbled together. But a major side effect of this type of collection is that while it is convenient for the householder, there are high contamination levels which leads to reduced material quality. This will mean it is either sold for lower prices into a limited market, will need to be reprocessed through sorting plants, or will be incinerated or put in landfill. But changes to recycling collections and reprocessing to improve the quality of materials could be expensive.

Alternatively, recycled plastic could be used to provide chemicals to the petrochemical sector, fuels to the transport and aviation sectors, food packaging and many other applications.

The ConversationThe problems we are now facing are caused by China’s global dominance in manufacturing and the way many countries have relied on one market to solve their waste and recycling problems. The current situation offers us an opportunity to find new solutions to our waste problem, increase the proportion of recycled plastic in our own manufactured products, improve the quality of recovered materials and to use recycled material in new ways.

Christine Cole, Research Fellow, Architecture, Design and the Built Environment, Nottingham Trent University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

CIE-MAP win global waste management award

Members of the CIEMAP team based at Nottingham Trent University were runners up in the ISWA global waste management publication award.

The International Solid Waste Association Publication Award was created to honour the author(s) of publications deemed to have made an exceptional contribution to the field of solid waste management. An international panel of judges chose three publications.

The CIEMAP researchers Christine Cole, Alex Gnanapragasam and Tim Cooper came second in a strong field with their paper ‘Towards a circular economy: exploring routes to reuse for discarded electrical and electronic equipment‘ (Science Direct, 2017, Elsevier).

The paper looks at ways old electrical equipment can be utilised more effectively via repair, reuse or recycling to reduce the carbon footprint of the items. The alternative is transporting the discarded equipment to the landfill at high cost to the economy and the environment.

Read more on the team’s work in their blog on The Conversation website.

Read more about the ISWA publication award.

CIE-MAP Evaluates the Potential for Industrial Energy Demand Reduction and Decarbonisation in the Chemicals Sector

Chemicals are a complex collection of many diverse and interacting sub-sectors covering a wide range of feedstocks, processes and products. It can be characterised as being heterogeneous; embracing a diverse range of products (including advanced materials, cleaning fluids, composites, dyes, paints, pharmaceuticals, plastics, and surfactants). Physical outputs are moved around on an international scale within or between major companies that are truly multi-national. The industry is also highly focused on private R&D and protective of information, meaning that data availability is particularly poor. This high technology sector takes full advantage to modern developments in electronics and information and communications technology (ICT), such as for the automatic control of chemical process plants and automation in the use of analytical instruments. The scale of operation of chemical firms range from quite small plants (of a few tonnes per year) in the fine chemicals area, where high purity is required, to giant ones in the petrochemical sector. Batch production is employed by SMEs where small quantities of chemicals (up to around 100 tonnes per annum) are required. In contrast, continuous plants are typically used in cases where a single output, or related group of products, are demanded with plants of several thousands to millions of tonnes per year. They often produce intermediates which are converted via downstream processing into a wide range of products, such as benzene, toluene and xylenes (BTX), ethylene, phenol, and PVC from petrochemical refineries or via ammonia plants. Overall, the chemicals sector gives rise to the highest industrial energy consumption; mainly due to low temperature heat processes (30%), electrical motors (19%), drying/separation processes (16%), and high temperature heat processes (11%). It accounts for some 19% of GHG emissions from UK industry – the second largest sector after steel.

This strategically important sector for the UK has been studied by CIE-MAP researchers at the University of Bath (Geoff Hammond and Jonathan Norman, along with former PHD student Paul Griffin)*. They employed a Pareto-like approach in order to evaluate the opportunities and challenges of industrial energy demand reduction and decarbonisation in the chemicals industry [see the Sankey energy flow diagram below]. Sub-sectors that use a large amount of energy were prioritised via bottom-up studies, and emissions from those that could not easily be treated in this way were estimated via ‘cross-cutting’ technologies. The improvement potential of various technological interventions were identified, and currently-available best practice technologies were found to the potential for further, short-term energy and CO2 emissions savings in chemicals processing. But the prospects for the commercial exploitation of innovative technologies by mid-21st century are far more speculative. A set of industrial decarbonisation ‘technology roadmaps’ out to the 2050 were also developed, based on various alternative scenarios. These illustrated possible low-carbon transition pathways that represent future projections which match short-term (say out to 2035) and long-term (2050) targets with specific technological solutions so as to meet the key energy and carbon saving goals. These roadmaps help identify the steps needed to be taken by industrialists, policy makers and other stakeholders in order to ensure the emissions reduction from the UK chemicals industry. The attainment of significant falls in carbon emissions over the period to mid-Century will depends critically on the adoption of a small number of key technologies [e.g., carbon capture and storage (CCS), energy efficiency techniques, and bioenergy], alongside a decarbonisation of the electricity supply.


* Griffin, P.W., G.P. Hammond and J.B. Norman, 2017. ‘Industrial energy use and carbon emissions reduction in the chemicals sector: A UK perspective’, Applied Energy: available online 12th August [DOI: 10.1016/j.apenergy.2017.08.010].

Research Video: Industrial Energy, Materials and Products


Here is a short video with contributions from members of the team talking about their research into Industrial Energy, Materials and Products.

The two and a half minute video features various members of the centre describing their work and their overall mission to look at the entire life-cycle of products used in the UK.

The centre as a whole aims to pinpoint areas where energy reductions are possible through changes in design, materials, industrial processes, consumer behaviour and product longevity.

Alex Rodrigues and Kyungeun Sung participated in CIED Summer School

Alex Rodrigues and Kyungeun Sung participated in The Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand (CIED)’s first Summer School on Accelerating Innovation to Reduce Energy Demand. The Summer School took place between 10th and 12th of July 2017 at the University of Sussex, Brighton, UK. Twenty eight doctoral, postdoc and early career researchers from multidisciplinary backgrounds including Alex and Kyungeun attended the Summer School to learn and discuss about socio-technical approaches, governance, policy mixes, and roles of users and intermediaries for accelerating low carbon innovations (or sustainability transitions).

The speakers included Prof. Frank Geels, Dr. Paula Kivimaa, Dr. Karoline Rogge, Prof. Johan Schot and Prof. Benjamin Sovacool.

To read the blog about the Summer School, please click here.

To view the list of presentations, please click here.

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