Achieving carbon net-zero and how recycling helps
Carbon neutrality, or being in a state of net-zero carbon emissions, is the gold standard of environmentally aware businesses and organisations. Not only is it something that’s a great ethical goal for companies, but it’s also something that many consumers look for when they’re searching for brands to buy from. Environmental credentials are also something employees look for companies they want to work for as well, making a net-zero target a valuable addition to your business goals.
Net-zero is not something that can generally be achieved overnight, and there are different ways of doing it. In this article, we look at what it really means for businesses, how you can work towards net-zero carbon emissions, and how recycling can contribute to carbon neutrality.
What does it mean to achieve carbon net-zero?
Carbon emissions are the key culprit in rising temperatures, and the latest IPPC (Integrated pollution prevention and control) report shows that we need to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels to prevent more environmental disasters. The two ways to do that are by lowering the carbon emissions we put into the atmosphere and removing existing emissions from the atmosphere.
The term ‘carbon’, when we’re referring to greenhouse gases, doesn’t just refer to carbon dioxide. It also includes methane, nitrous oxide, F-gas and water vapour, collectively referred to as carbon. CO2 accounts for around 76% of that, but they all result from daily activities of different businesses and individuals.
Net-zero refers to the balance between the amount of carbon/greenhouse gases a business produces and the amount it removes from the atmosphere to the point where they neutralise one another. When the two level each other out, you reach net zero. As a country, the UK was amongst the first major economies to set a target for being net-zero by 2025, setting out policies and proposals for decarbonising all sectors of the UK economy in October 2021.
“The science could not be clearer: by the middle of this century the world has to reduce emissions to as close to zero as possible, with the small amount of remaining emissions absorbed through natural carbon sinks like forests, and new technologies like carbon capture. If we can achieve this, global emissions of greenhouse gases will be ‘net zero’.”
What are business carbon emissions?
All businesses and individuals engage in activities that release carbon emissions into the atmosphere on a daily basis.
The primary sources of carbon emissions are:
- Electricity and heat (31%)
- Agriculture (11%)
- Transportation (15%)
- Forestry (6%)
- Manufacturing (12%)
In everyday terms, we see this in the form of using electricity, driving our cars, turning on the heating, and methane emissions from cattle or food waste. Our contribution spans turning on the lights in the office to the journeys that staff have to take to work, the sandwiches we eat at lunch and their provenance, as well as the investments we make in stocks and shares.
What are the business benefits of carbon neutrality?
Lots of businesses have historically put off environmental responsibilities, seeing the time and resource required for behavioural and process changes to be a financial luxury instead of a collective responsibility. While some organisations will face an upfront cost to put processes in place, the business benefits of aiming for carbon neutrality can actually be seen directly and relatively quickly when they’re done well.
- More often than not you can reduce or eliminate expenses for the changes through government discounts and rebates. The government has pledged almost £5 billion of funding to help UK businesses go greener as part of net-zero plans.
- Done well, carbon neutrality can reduce the ongoing running costs of your business by limiting waste both literally and financially, especially if you adopt reuse and recycle policies as part of your programme. McKinsey found that businesses focusing on environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals can reduce costs significantly, affecting operating profits by as much as 60%. The Guardian also reported that CFOs in large businesses considered “that straightforward energy efficiency projects – like heating and lighting upgrades, energy saving policies and staff training – would deliver an internal rate of return (IRR) of 20%.”
- Furthermore, given the appeal of environmental responsibility to consumers, Unilever has previously reported that their most sustainable brands grew 46% faster than the rest of the business.
- Increasingly, consumers and employees are far more mindful of who they buy from and who they work for. In a period of time where we have a significant skills shortage as well as rising living costs and more discerning consumer spending, achieving net-zero is a good way to attract both customers and employees. In fact, a report by Deloitte showed that millennial’s (who will account for 75% of the global workforce by 2025), and Gen Zs, would rather accept a lower salary than work for a company that is not environmentally responsible. Nearly 40% of millennial’s have chosen a job because of company sustainability, and 64% of Gen Zs would pay more to purchase a sustainable product.
- Investors are also looking to invest in environmentally responsible organisations. EY released a report that showed the world’s largest shareholders are focusing on companies with strong ESG policies.
- It takes time to work towards carbon net zero, and for all the immediate benefits, it’s only a matter of time until recommended actions become legal obligations for businesses. Starting sooner rather than delaying the inevitable will give your business time to adapt rather than having to rush.
How can your business work towards carbon neutrality?
How net-zero is achieved can become a slightly slippery topic. For example, practices like carbon offsetting – paying for others to reduce emissions – have often been criticised/considered greenwashing. For companies that truly want to make a difference it’s about adopting best practice approaches.
Best practice for net-zero is a process that takes time to achieve if you want to do it well and in a way that benefits rather than disrupts your business. It is about your daily actions (from your manufacturing processes to your office waste bins), but it’s also about the whole chain of responsibility – who you source from, how waste and recycling is managed when it leaves you, how your staff get to work and so forth.
To help everyone understand and address different levels of carbon emissions, the Green House Gas Protocol of 2001 broke them down into areas called Scope 1, Scope 2 and Scope 3.
Scope 1: Direct Green House Gas (GHG) emissions
These are the carbon emissions that you produce directly from things like your boiler, furnaces and the vehicles that you yourself use. This is the easiest area for companies to measure through things like energy bills, and to consequently influence through direct purchases.
Scope 2: Indirect carbon emissions
These are carbon emissions that are being produced on your behalf, from the electricity and energy that you buy to power your office building or factory. Again, this is an area that can generally be measured through bills and can be controlled with good planning. For example, sourcing renewable energy and transitioning to electric vehicles.
Scope 3: Associated carbon emissions
These are the emissions that you are indirectly responsible for up and down your organisation’s value chain. For example, those of your suppliers and those from your own products when they’re used by or disposed of by your customers. This accounts for about 70% of the carbon footprint of most businesses, but at the same time it is harder for organisations to control. Addressing this involves ingenuity and proactive behaviours, ranging from collaboration with suppliers to influencing the recycling practices of customers.
The Carbon Trust offers support by breaking Scope 3 down into the following areas and addressing them one by one:
- Purchased goods and services
- Business travel (in a vehicle not owned by the business)
- Employee commuting
- Waste disposal
- Use of sold products
- Transportation and distribution (up- and downstream)
- Leased assets and franchises
How does recycling contribute to being carbon net-zero?
Recycling is not only a legal obligation for businesses in the UK, it also assists in the journey towards net-zero as well. For the price of including multi-compartment indoor recycling bins and outdoor recycling bins amongst your office waste bins, it seems like an excellent return on investment. Here are just a few ways in which investing in recycling and the right recycling bins and systems will contribute towards carbon neutrality.
Indoor (and outdoor) recycling bins mean less extraction of raw materials
Government required practices including policies of reduce, reuse, recycle and recover (in that order) all help to address the volume of carbon emissions from businesses by reducing energy consumption up and down the supply chain. The fewer new products made from virgin/raw (and limited) materials, the less extracting and mining that occurs.
Get a drink can recycling machine for reduced energy consumption
Recycling helps to reduce energy consumption. We have already mentioned less need for minding raw materials. However, this also applies in other ways too. For example, water recycling in manufacturing firms creates a closed-loop water supply. It reduces a company’s dependency on freshwater resources, improves energy efficiency, eliminates the need for extraction and cuts the amount of methane and other gases being released from wastewater treatment works. In another example, using recycled aluminium scraps to make aluminium cans takes 95% less energy than making them from the raw material – bauxite ore. All you have to do is use a drink can recycling machine at work.
Food waste recycling bins means less waste in landfill
The purpose of recycling is to minimise the amount of waste that goes to landfill. When waste breaks down in landfill it releases gases into the environment that contribute to climate change. For example, food waste decaying in landfill instead of proper food waste recycling bins releases methane. When it’s recycled it’s put through an anaerobic digestion process and the methane is collected and used to generate electricity.
Recycling through simple, cost-effective actions like installing indoor recycling bins and outdoor recycling bins amongst your office waste bins is a simple and effective step towards addressing all three scopes in the journey towards net-zero. It’s something that you can action quickly with the right support, making a significant difference to the environmental efforts of your organisation as well as the culture it creates internally, amongst consumers and suppliers.