Blog 31 Aug 2023 

How innovation is reducing the emissions of the UK’s foundation industries

The foundation industries account for 2.5% of UK GDP, however, they are the UK’s biggest polluter. Here’s how we’re making them more sustainable.

Katharina Roettger

Katharina Roettger

Principal Scientist

The foundation industries account for 2.5% of UK GDP and employ 250,000 people, however, they are the UK’s biggest polluter. Here’s how we’re working to make everything from glass to ceramics more sustainable.

Foundation industries, a term used to describe the glass, cement, paper, metals, ceramics and chemicals sectors. After all, the products from these industries are so indispensable that they blend seamlessly into our everyday lives.

However, their impact on people and the economy is far from invisible. The foundation industries produce 75% of the materials we see around us: the cement and metal in our houses, the glass in our computers and mobile phones and the cardboard packaging around our food and drink. 

Collectively, these sectors account for 2.5% of UK GDP and they employ 250,000 people, disproportionately in regions where high-quality, well-paid jobs can be harder to find. As the UK government has noted, these international competitive industries are vital for the country’s manufacturing and construction sectors.

Unfortunately, their impact on the environment is also large, since they tend to use a great deal of natural resources and produce large amounts of waste. Every year, the foundation industries emit 50 million tonnes of CO2, which translates to 10% of the total CO2 emitted in the UK. That makes them the country’s biggest industrial polluters.

If the UK is to honour its commitment to meet net-zero targets by 2050, the foundation industries will need to be decarbonised, and fast. 

Decarbonising the foundation industries

Thankfully, some of these industries have already taken significant strides towards reducing their emissions. Take the example of glass. 

People are increasingly aware of the environmental consequences of plastic packaging, with 86% of British consumers saying they prefer products with as little plastic packaging as possible. But glass bottles actually have a higher environmental footprint than plastic versions. As a result, efforts to make the production of glass more sustainable have been ongoing. 

Innovations in the UK glass industry have seen a 50% increase in the energy efficiency of glass furnaces in the past 40 years, and recent projects like the Glass Futures Global Centre of Excellence in St Helens are carrying out research that could help decarbonise the glass-making process. 

More can and must be done, though. 

That’s why CPI has joined forces with other leaders in innovation, research and technology to form the Foundation Industries Sustainability Consortium (FISC). The goal is to develop innovative, low-carbon, resource-efficient solutions that will transform the foundation industries, which would allow the UK to capitalise on all the benefits these sectors bring whilst meeting its net-zero commitments. 

The first project is called EconoMISER, which stands for Economic Materials Innovation for the Sustainable and Efficient Use of Resources. It starts from the recognition that decarbonizing the foundation industries will require specialist facilities and investment to develop effective technological solutions at a commercially viable scale.

To achieve that, the £19.5 million project will upgrade five facilities across the UK by providing key infrastructure to demonstrate low-carbon technologies at scale. These technologies include low-carbon alternative fuels to heat raw materials, industrial symbiosis, a process that uses one company’s waste to meet another’s energy needs, and innovations such as the development of sustainable polymers.

A greener, more sustainable future

The UK cannot fulfil the CO2 reduction targets of the Paris Climate Agreement without also drastically reducing the emissions produced by the foundation industries.

The work being carried out as part of the EconoMISER project will help ensure these vital sectors remain global powerhouses, but with a greener, more sustainable footprint. 

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