Sustainability Climate Change

A global revamp of waste management could significantly reduce emissions: report

“Zero waste strategies are the easiest way to rapidly and cheaply bring down emissions, while building climate resilience, creating jobs, and promoting thriving local economies.”

Story at a glance

  • A new report from the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives found transitioning countries to zero-waste pathways can significantly reduce emissions.

  • Better waste management strategies include increased composting and greater investment in recycling.

  • According to authors, past initiatives aimed at combating climate change have largely ignored waste industry reforms. 

Broad adoption of composting, recycling, and production cuts could help reduce waste-related emissions by 84 percent, according to a new report from the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), an anti-waste nonprofit.

Introducing zero-waste systems in cities around the world is also one of the quickest and most affordable ways of keeping the Earth from reaching the 1.5 degree celsius benchmark warming set by the Paris Agreement, authors wrote. 

Globally, the waste sector accounts for 20 percent of the world’s methane emissions — a greenhouse gas that drives at least a quarter of current global warming and is more than 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide when it comes to trapping heat in the atmosphere.

To estimate the benefits of zero waste systems, GAIA worked with local researchers to collect city-specific data from eight cities around the world: Bandung, Indonesia; Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania; Detroit, USA; eThekwini, South Africa; Lviv, Ukraine; São Paulo, Brazil; Seoul, South Korea; and Temuco, Chile. 

Models showed that cities like Detroit, São Paulo and Seoul could even reach net-negative emissions by 2030, or greater emissions reductions than waste’s carbon footprint, if they adopt the zero-waste policies. 

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When focusing on organic (plant or animal) waste and easy-to-recycle materials like glass and paper, the report found scaled-up shifts in waste management could lead to a global reduction of 1.4 billion tonnes of greenhouse gasses and 42 million tonnes in methane emissions, amounting to 13 percent of the total. The cuts to greenhouse gas emissions are equivalent to removing all U.S. motor vehicles from the road for a year.

Apart from the reductions seen in the waste industry, a focus on less waste could significantly drive down emissions from other sectors like the manufacture, transport and use of goods. 

For food and plastic in particular, using less of the resource in the first place can play a major role. Currently, plastic production is doubling every two decades, while the majority of plastic produced is not recyclable, the report reads. Implementing bans on single-use plastic and cutting down on food waste are two areas for improvement. 

“Better waste management is a climate change solution staring us in the face,” said study co-author Neil Tangri in a press release. “It doesn’t require flashy or expensive new technology – it’s just about paying more attention to what we produce and consume, and how we deal with it when it is no longer needed.”

Although some have proposed the solution of landfill methane capture to help offset emissions from excessive waste, the process can be challenging and relies on a host of variable factors including the weather.

Another waste management option, incineration, emits greenhouse gasses and soot that can be damaging to human health and the environment. 

“Previous climate talks have largely overlooked the potential of reforms to the waste sector, particularly for reducing methane, which over 100 countries have now pledged to do,” added Mariel Vilella, Director of GAIA’s Global Climate Program.

“Zero waste strategies are the easiest way to rapidly and cheaply bring down emissions, while building climate resilience, creating jobs, and promoting thriving local economies.” 

In November, the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 27) is scheduled to convene. GAIA hopes initiatives like prioritizing food waste reduction and single-use plastic bans will be discussed. Additional actions countries can take include introducing separate collection and treatment of organic waste, and investing in efficient waste management and recycling systems, among others. 

These initiatives could have far-reaching effects as zero-waste pathways can also help reduce flooding, stymie disease transmission and improve soil health. Improperly managed waste can clog drainage systems, while uncollected plastic can host disease vectors.

Not only is composting good for soil health, but healthier soil can help prevent loss of food crops and mudslides.