Waste, low-carbon aviation and soils

No time to waste …

Responsible consumption and production is a key part of the low-carbon journey – which is why household bin collections will change soon. Recycled waste also has curious connections with ‘clean’ aviation. But the soils beneath our feet are a threatened carbon store.

At the thin end of the wedge, the cost of single-use plastic bags rose in May from 5p to 10p … and all businesses must now charge the levy.

More widely, the Government is consulting on plans for a major recycling boost covering plastic, paper, card, metals, food and garden waste. The aim is to reduce incineration and landfill … plus emissions of CO2 and the powerful greenhouse gas (GHG) methane.

The triple-goals will be to increase recycling rates, decrease plastic pollution and tackle litter. However, this could feed directly into sustainable air transport, as explained later.

Stop press: diary dates!

Before considering waste developments in detail, two June diary dates are important.

The first is an invitation to attend the Chamber Low Carbon Virtual Expo on 2 and 3 June where we will explain how we can help you to reduce emissions, use renewable energy, join the circular economy, and market new low-carbon technologies.

To register, please go to https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/chamber-low-carbon-virtual-expo-2021-tickets-140045697451 where the full agenda can be seen.

The second is for 11am on 29 June when the rearranged conversation between Chamber CEO Miranda Barker and Chair of the Environment agency Emma Howard Boyd will take place.

Registration is at https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/a-conversation-with-emma-howard-boyd-chair-of-the-environment-agency-tickets-155915358033.

Double waste consultation

Whitehall is currently consulting on proposed changes to household and business recycling (https://consult.defra.gov.uk/waste-and-recycling/consistency-in-household-and-business-recycling/). This gives businesses an opportunity before 4 July to input and influence the final plans.

This follows a March consultation (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/landmark-reforms-to-boost-recycling-and-fight-plastic-pollution) on landmark reforms to boost recycling, tackle plastic pollution and reduce litter.

That consultation covers Extended Producer Responsibilities for packaging (https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/packaging-and-packaging-waste-introducing-extended-producer-responsibility) and puts the full cost of packaging waste management onto companies as an incentive to minimise material use and use sustainable materials.

Consumers will also be incentivised to help via a new Deposit Return Scheme for the “empties” that encourages the recycling of glass bottles and metal cans.

How waste changes will work

A major shake-up of domestic bin collections in England is designed to make it easier for millions of householders to recycle while reducing taxpayer costs. The goal is also to make collections more consistent en route to eliminating all avoidable waste by 2050.

Under the latest proposals, households will have separate food waste collections from 2023. There may also be statutory guidance on minimum service standards, subject to affordability and value-for-money.

Ordinary residential waste should be collected at least once a fortnight, although in urban areas with less space more frequent collections will be encouraged. Households could also save £100 million annual through free green garden waste collections.

The changes are designed to support 2018 Resources and Waste Strategy goals to recycle at least 65% of all municipal waste by 2035 – with a maximum of 10% going to landfill (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/resources-and-waste-strategy-for-england).

Flights of low-carbon fancy?

The UK’s new commitment to a 78% GHG emissions cut by 2035 will for the first time include aviation and shipping. Before Covid-19, aviation represented 3% of global emissions.

To avoid unfair pressures on other key parts of the economy, air and sea travel and transport must become a lot cleaner. The alternative is to minimise their use.

This ties in with a less consumer-orientated global lifestyle, but will make big demands on internet-based shopping where goods from the far side of the world are ordered at the click of a mouse.

Straight and level

One argument is that aviation can never be truly green … electric long-haul flights from, say, London to Singapore are not feasible with foreseeable technology.

But significant steps are being taken towards sustainable aviation which is where recycled household organic waste becomes important.

Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) made from domestic and municipal waste will even help to keep RAF Typhoons, F35s and Wildcat helicopters flying on a diet of recycled banana skins, potato peelings, hydrogenated fat and oils, alcohols, sugars, wood and kitchen waste, biomass and algae.

That is one part of the battle. Another is a new generation of lighter materials, efficient engines, and more streamlined aerodynamic profiles that reduce drag.

Post-pandemic flight

The challenge for the hard-Covid-hit UK aviation industry is to cut its 36 million tonne annual carbon footprint to net-zero while also carrying 100 million more passengers annually.

Several factors could make a difference. Air transport is currently vital for international commerce. However, a recent YouTube survey found some 66% of former business users expect to fly less than before the pandemic (https://docs.cdn.yougov.com/c9qjhkrrpk/Marketing%20data%20tables%20-%20GSCC.pdf).


November’s crucial COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow is expected to be an in-person event. But flying to Scotland may not be an option if the UK follows the recent French precedent of banning short-haul flights with a rail journey alternative of is less than 250-miles.

How will future aviation work?

The net-zero by 2050 challenge is that while modern aircraft are 70% quieter and 80% more fuel-efficient than their 1960s predecessors, flight fundamentals have not changed.

A new generation of biofuel and electric turbo-generator-driven planes are beginning take off; by 2030, short-haul flights could be 10% to 15% more efficient.

But trans-world electric flights are still well beyond the limits of existing technology. Which is awkward given that 66% of pre-pandemic aviation emissions come from flights of 1,000-miles-plus.

Sustainable fuel production

SAF development advances are being made in the US, Canada and potentially in Lincolnshire where Velocys has been granted planning permission to build the UK’s first waste-to-jet-fuel plant (https://www.velocys.com/2020/06/12/nelc-formal-planning-permission-notice-issued/).

SAF, which is part of the circular economy, could potentially cut emission by 165% compared to fossil-fuel alternatives – by reducing direct aircraft emissions and also cutting landfill releases.

If the Velocys project goes ahead, it could turn 600,000 tonnes of household waste annually – including difficult-to-recycle plastics – into low-carbon aviation and road fuel.

These will cut GHG emissions by 70%, soot and particulates that cause contrails by 90%, and produce almost no sulphur dioxide.


The RAF could use up to 50% SAF, according to the MOD; aviation currently accounts for some two-thirds of defence sector fuel use.

Meanwhile, US aviation consumes some 21 billion gallons of jet fuel annually. Without change, global aviation will release 43 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide by 2050.

However, Boeing expects to deliver commercial aircraft that use 100% biofuel by 2030. Airbus is looking at hydrogen fuel cells, hydrogen combustion, modified gas turbine engines and cryogenic hydrogen storage; the world’s first commercial hydrogen flight is expected in 2026.

Rolls Royce is said to be considering small airborne nuclear reactors to produce hydrogen in flight.


Faradair in Cambridgeshire has a different flight path. Its 18-seat bioelectric hybrid aircraft (Beha) is currently based on existing technology but could eventually be carbon neutral.

Electric motors are used for take-offs and landings, but a turbo-generator powered by biofuel in level flight – with a boost from solar panels to help recharge the batteries for landing.

Bulk carbon storage beneath our feet

Soils are our friends with the potential to store twice the volume of carbon the atmosphere can hold. But rural and urban soils are under attack.

Sustainable farming and built-environment construction methods are needed. Soils are also crucial for water storage and distribution as storms and drought become more frequent and intense.

Working on our behalf

At the heart of the matter are vast microscopic communities that construct voids in soils which allow gases and liquids free passage. They also create, share and store nutrients, process pollution, support the carbon and nitrogen cycles, and detoxify pollution,

The local residents include macrofauna  – moles, mice, rabbits, centipedes, woodlice, snails and slugs; shorter-than-2mm-long mesofauna – springtails (mainly detritivores and microbivores), mites (small arachnids), and tardigrades (often called water bears or moss piglets), plus microfauna (bacteria, fungi and algae). Worms, of course, are top of the heap.

Destructive farming

Intense-farming breaks up these minute structures; compaction and more hardstanding in expanding cities is sealing off valuable ground. Acidification, salinization (salt), desertification, deforestation and pollution are also degrading soils worldwide.

It used to be thought that ploughing and aerating soils was good and increased water retention. But we now know that it allows in oxygen which microbes convert to CO₂.

No-till farming – with seeds put into holes drilled in undisturbed ground – is now seen as more beneficial. Especially when linked to an end of the bulk spreading of nitrogen and phosphate fertilisers which can cause ‘eutrophication’ algae and plant pollution in vulnerable wetlands.

Dash for the trees

However, livestock, crops and trees can work better together. Researchers are also studying how ‘silvopasture’ linking shade-tree planting with improved plant growing conditions and biodiversity support can also increase carbon storage, flood control and drought-resilience (https://www.innovativefarmers.org/news/2021/february/18/twelve-year-field-lab-into-the-benefits-of-silvopasture-launched/).

Modern farming relies on predictable weather conditions. The new aim of projects in Devon and the West Country is to plant trees surrounded and protected by foraging plants for livestock. Once established, trees provide shelter and stable conditions for soils, animals, plants, crops and wildlife.

Better urban systems

In parallel, new urban strategies are being developed where soil quality is important in schemes like SUDS (sustainable drainage systems) that replicate natural water management networks.

These store, clean and return water to local environments slowly via carefully-profiles landscape features rather than channelling heavy flood waters quickly to sea through overloaded rivers.

International action

A major hurdle is that relatively little is known about soils. What is known is that since the Industrial Revolution some 135 gigatons of soil have been lost globally from farmland according to 2019 “World Food Prize” winner, Professor Rattan Lal.

In the same period, circa 77 billion tonnes of CO2 have been released from UK soils. It is also estimated that from 1978 to 2008, UK soils emitted 10% of the carbon they were storing.

Good agricultural soils are made up of roughly 50% solids, 25% air and 25% water. It can take a century to create 5mm which can be destroyed in seconds.

However, a number of high-level initiative are homing in on the problem.

Soil and life are mutually-dependent

In April, the UN’s first “Global Symposium on Soil Biodiversity (GSOBI21)” considered the future of soil ‘hanging in the balance’ (http://www.fao.org/about/meetings/soil-biodiversity-symposium/en/).

It include Charles E. Kellogg’s 1938 quotation that “Essentially, all life depends on the soil … There can be no life without soil and no soil without life; they have evolved together.”

This followed the UN’s ‘bleak’ 2017 “The Global Land Outlook (GLO)” study with findings that a third of Earth’s land is severely degraded with 24 billion tonnes of fertile soil lost annually to intensive farming (https://www.unccd.int/actions/global-land-outlook-glo).

High human cost

The UN estimates that land degradation is damaging the wellbeing of 40% of the Earth’s human population and increasing the risks for migration and conflict.

A key lesson is that sub-soil biodiversity is essential for land surface biodiversity, but the requirements of the two differ and need to be better understood.

Another key reference is “State of knowledge of soil biodiversity – Status, challenges and potentialities. Summary for policy makers” (http://www.fao.org/documents/card/en/c/CB1929EN) which looks at the importance of biodiversity for food security and nutrition.

More optimistically, the EU’s biodiversity strategy for 2030 aims to protect nature and reverse ecosystem degradation (https://ec.europa.eu/environment/strategy/biodiversity-strategy-2030_en).

The key lesson seems to be don’t treat soil like dirt, it is far more than mere muck!