What is climate change?

Climate change is a change in the average weather conditions, like rainfall and temperature, in a region over a long period of time. In comparison, weather is what you see outside your window right now.

The climate is controlled by gases in the atmosphere which help to trap the sun’s heat to keep us warm, these are called greenhouse gases. Without these gases, the Earth’s average temperature would be around -18°C instead of the current 15 °C.

Climate change can happen through natural processes, but we now know that humans have caused the most recent changes by burning oil, gas and coal in our homes, factories, and transport. These are known as fossil fuels, as they were made from the remains of plants and animals thousands of years ago, and they will eventually run out.

When fossil fuels burn, they release gases, mainly carbon dioxide (CO2) which is a greenhouse gas. The more greenhouses gases in the atmosphere, the more heat is trapped and the warmer the planet gets. The Earth’s average temperature has risen by 1.2 degrees Celsius since 1750.

What are the impacts of climate change?

The increased warming of the Earth’s atmosphere by greenhouse gases is causing sea levels to rise, oceans to warm up and rainfall patterns to change. Around the world, and even in the UK, seasons are changing too, meaning that flowers are blooming earlier than before.

Ultimately, the effects will be different depending on where you live in the world. What we do know however, is that weather events will be more difficult to predict.

How does climate change link to waste?

When we make ‘stuff’ we use up the earth’s materials such as oil, wood, water, and metal. These materials are then converted into items such as plastic bottles, clothes, tables, and toys by using energy made from fossil fuels in the production and manufacturing process. Even more greenhouse gases are produced in the distribution of ‘stuff’ in transport such as trains, plains, lorries, and cars.

Once we are done using our ‘stuff’, we either repair it, donate it, repurpose it, recycle it or throw it away.

If we recycled everything (like nature does, in a circular way – see our page on the Circular Economy) then we would need less energy to make new stuff.  The more stuff we use, make and throw away, the more dangerous and damaging greenhouse gases are emitted.

How does waste in Devon impact climate change?

In Devon we’re lucky as our rubbish won’t end up in landfill, it goes to make energy in our EfW plants in Exeter and Plymouth, which means less methane is produced. In comparison, many other places around the UK black bin bag rubbish is still sent to landfill.

Additionally, Devon has an impressive recycling rate compared to the rest of the UK, with the average households across the Devon County area at 56%, Torbay at 41% and Plymouth City Council at 35%.

However, 9% of greenhouse gas emissions in Devon still come from waste disposal activity and total household waste collected in Devon in 2018/19 was 519 kt. In addition, 41% of what ends up in household black bins in Devon is recyclable. We therefore need to continue to increase how much we recycle.


For example, when natural materials such as food, card, paper, or fabrics like cotton or wool end up in a low-oxygen environment, like a landfill site, it decomposes to produce another greenhouse gas called methane (CH4).

A sixth of all food in the UK is wasted somewhere along the process. This could be “wonky” vegetables not meeting supermarket standards, or those last chips on your plate that you couldn’t finish. A lot of this then goes in the bin in the UK.

Methane is a much bigger contributor to global warming than CO2 and climate change as it is really good at insulating the Earth. In many cases, methane from large landfill sites is captured to produce electricity.

Find out how to reduce, reuse and recycle different materials here.

Plastic production

Every year more and more plastic is made, 95% of this is made from crude oil. This drives a cycle of needing more and more oil, leading to more being used for fuel and so being burnt in vehicles. Plastic is also transported around the world to make more and more stuff. Much plastic ends up in landfill, where it will stay for ever, but some is burnt, releasing carbon dioxide into the air.

Find out how to reduce, reuse and recycle plastic here.

What can we do?

Reduce – We all need to create waste in the first place. Think before you buy! Challenge yourself, your friends or your family to see how long you can go without anything something new! (except for food and hygiene products of course)

Reuse – There are many ways to reuse items to get more use out of them. Why not use old shoes with holes in as bird nest boxes or turn scrap paper into pads to make shopping lists. What reuse ideas can you come up with?

Recycle – Our kerbside recycling is really good at collecting and recycling materials so they can be turned into new stuff. Check you know the details of your local collection. Wash out plastic tubs and glass bottles so they can be recycled easily.

Climate change quiz

There are loads of amazing resources available from the BBC, WWF, STEM, National Geographic Kids, and BBC Bitesize.

Also try our climate change quiz to test your knowledge:

Created on By Millie Green
Climate action now sign

Climate Change Quiz

Test your knowledge with our climate change quiz!

1 / 6

Which of these statements best describes climate change?

Snow on a tree

2 / 6

Which of these are fossil fuels? (select all correct answers)

Image of energy sources

3 / 6

Which greenhouse gas is released from landfill sites?

Sky view town and energy plant

4 / 6

What happens to waste and rubbish specifically in Devon?

Image of a landfill site

5 / 6

What are the impacts of climate change? (Select all correct answers)Satellite image of the earth

6 / 6

What actions can you take to reduce your contribution to climate change? (Select all correct answers)

Climate strike sign saying you decide

Your score is

The average score is 41%