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Addressing the climate crisis means transformational change across sectors, geographies, and the entire value chain, writes Zumo’s Environmental and Sustainability Advisor, Kirsteen Harrison. Zumo is a proud partner of WasteAid.

In the run-up to COP26, the climate crisis is dominating boardroom discussions around the globe, and the stakes are high – these are conversations that will determine our collective futures. Meaningful, coordinated commitments to far-reaching cuts in greenhouse gases are required across all sectors and countries, with a halving of greenhouse gas emissions required globally by 2030, and net zero by 2050 at the latest.

This calls for joined up thinking and action. As a technology company with a global outlook and sustainability at our core, at Zumo we recognise the part we have to play in that response – in our own sector and, just as importantly, through partnerships and as part of a collective effort towards decarbonisation that spans across sectors and the different facets of the climate crisis. We believe we have a huge challenge ahead of us, but also an enormous opportunity to play our part in creating a better future for all.

 

Decarbonising the crypto industry

Closest to home, Zumo is one of the early signatories to the Crypto Climate Accord (CCA), and we are working with the CCA to pilot innovative blockchain-based solutions to help drive decarbonisation of the sector. Although the crypto sector has understandably been criticised for the high levels of electricity consumption that some cryptocurrencies (most notably Bitcoin) are responsible for, we as an industry have a relatively straightforward journey ahead of us, compared to many other sectors that also need to reach net zero by mid-century.

This is due to the fact that, in crypto, there is a clear line of sight between the electricity consumed in mining, and the cryptocurrency supply generated as a result of that mining process. Whilst this high electricity consumption has drawn criticism from many, and the crypto sector has much work to do to clean up its act, the fact that mining equipment is not location sensitive means it can be set up where renewable energy sources are abundant. Electricity and mining equipment (similar to computer servers) are the only input and, technologically at least, we can transition to 100% renewable electricity relatively quickly. So, whilst there is much work left to be done, there is already a clear understanding of the impacts and what needs to be done to address these.

 

Embracing the wider picture

The same cannot be said for the waste sector, where the links between the climate crisis and waste are often poorly understood. In recent years, there has been much progress in this area, and WasteAid is at the forefront of communicating this important message and working with communities to develop low-cost solutions. This is one of the principal reasons why the Zumo team chose WasteAid as our charity partner – the climate crisis will not be sufficiently addressed by focussing on renewable energy alone, and we want to have as wide-reaching an impact as possible.

 

Looking beyond energy consumption

People tend to think of climate change as being caused primarily by the use of fossil fuels for energy, although the links between climate change, land use and food production is now better understood by many people. Even so, the links between the climate crisis and waste urgently need more attention – and the inconvenient truth is that we all need to look at what we consume. The Ellen McArthur Foundation estimates that 45% of our carbon footprint comes from the products we consume and use. This includes, for instance, food, clothes and electrical items, but also single use items such as food containers, shampoo bottles and drinks cans – all of which will end up as waste. To respond sufficiently to the climate crisis, we need to address our consumption habits, and by inference, the waste we produce.

 

Is recycling enough?

In the UK, we have a well-developed infrastructure to deal with our waste, and this has historically enabled us to adopt an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach. As long as we segregated our waste for recycling, we could sit in comfort knowing that we have ‘done our bit’. But doing our bit is no longer enough. Transformational change is required in the way we consume, and we need to quickly move to a more circular economy, where items stay in use for longer, are designed for easy repair and disassembly, and where leasing competes with purchase as the ownership model of choice.

In recent years, the UK waste industry has come under increased scrutiny for the carbon emissions associated with waste management practices, which include methane from landfill, and greenhouse gases (principally CO2) from the burning of residual waste to produce energy (energy from waste, or EfW). A clear link between the waste we produce, the way in which it is managed, and the respective greenhouse gas emissions in the UK was established long ago, but these figures were updated earlier in 2021 and show the full extent of this impact.

The Climate Change Committee (CCC), an independent, statutory body, estimates the UK waste sector was responsible for 4% of the UK’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2019. Most of these emissions are due to the landfilling of waste (biodegradable waste decomposes in landfill to produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas). There has been a significant decline in emissions over the past two decades due to reductions in waste being landfilled, but little improvement in the past few years due to a plateau in UK recycling and significant growth in fossil emissions from EfW plants.

The CCC report looks only at the waste management activities themselves and not operational emissions associated with waste treatment, such as electricity usage. The Environmental Services Association (ESA) (the trade body representing the UK waste and resources sector) commissioned further work to inform its net zero strategy, which estimates the total contribution from the waste sector in the UK to be 8% of the UK’s GHG emissions. This includes the transport of waste, and electricity used to process waste. In line with the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, this does not include avoided emissions (i.e. the benefits of recycling as opposed to using virgin materials) and so the real picture is more complex than these figures suggest. In fact, the ESA’s research shows that the emissions avoided by recycling in the UK are three times greater than the emissions from the recycling processes themselves.

 

The need in the developing world

If the total climate contribution of waste management in the UK is as high as 8% of greenhouse gas emissions, what might the potential impact be in developing countries? After all, in developing countries the avoided emissions of recycling are much less significant, as there is not such a well-developed recycling infrastructure in place as there is in the UK.

In many cases, this lack of waste collection and recycling infrastructure means that the only options for getting rid of waste are to dump it – either in illegal dumpsites or watercourses – or to burn it. Often, burning on dumpsites is undertaken to reduce the volume and make way for more waste. All of these options have significant impacts for the climate crisis.

In countries where there may not be proper waste management processes in place, the impacts are more difficult to calculate. There is often little data on the composition of waste (a high percentage of fossil carbon, such as plastics, makes the climate impact much greater), or the fate of this waste (whether burned, dumped on land, or in dumped watercourses, eventually ending up in the ocean). It could be argued that the lack of collection infrastructure or recycling plants reduces energy consumption – there are likely to be less emissions associated with collection vehicles and recycling infrastructure than there are in the UK, for example. However, as we have seen above the avoided emissions due to such infrastructure, where it exists, is significant. In fact, the lack of such infrastructure leads to increased demand on raw materials, which also contributes to the climate crisis.

There is also an often overlooked but hugely significant difference in waste practices which means that the climate impact of waste practices in countries with little or no waste infrastructure are far more significant than many people realise. In the UK and other developed countries, when residual waste is burned, energy is produced from waste facilities. These are subject to strict emissions limits and, as such, are fitted with robust abatement equipment to remove pollutants. Particulates (dust) are removed along with other pollutants such as NOx (Nitrogen Oxide), SO2 (Sulfur Dioxide) and HCl (Hydrogen Chloride). With the open burning of waste there is no such abatement and toxic chemicals are released into the air. As well as being a health hazard for local communities, this releases particulates (soot, or black carbon), which is a significant contributor to the climate crisis.

Black carbon is the black smoke that is given off by a fire. When a fire burns relatively clean (for example, dry wood), there is less black smoke, but when plastics and tyres are burned, for example, the black smoke is significant. When waste is burned on a large scale, and the feedstock is uncontrolled, black carbon becomes significant in its contribution to climate change.

Black carbon stays in the atmosphere for a matter of days (compared to CO2, which stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years), but can do significant damage in the time it remains airborne. The contribution to warming is 100 to 2,000 times more than that of CO2 on a 100-year timescale. The Global Waste Management Outlook estimates that around 10-15% of global greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced through improved waste management.

 

Why waste management matters

Climate resilience is particularly important when considering waste management. Poor waste management practices lead to discarded rubbish, blocking drains and waterways and leading to increased risk of flooding as weather patterns become more severe. Diverting food waste to use as compost regenerates degraded soils, improving water retention, and decreasing reliance on artificial irrigation.

Poor waste management practices in lower to middle income countries have long been associated with poor health outcomes, pollution, and lower standards of living. The links between waste management practices and climate change are slowly entering into the public consciousness, and the climate resilience of the countries that are likely to be most impacted by climate change may be compromised by poor waste practices.

 

Making the connections

Circling back to where we started, with cryptocurrencies and the crypto industry, although on the face of it blockchain technology and waste management may appear far apart, in reality they are both about empowering communities and creating sustainable livelihoods, at scale.

Blockchain and cryptocurrencies have the potential to be revolutionary in democratising finance, providing financial solutions to the world’s unbanked and reducing the cost of remittances to the world’s poorest countries. A borderless technology, cryptocurrency has the potential to help the poorest people in the world – and these are exactly the people who suffer the effects of poor waste management.

The link can be still more direct. While blockchain technology is only in its infancy, already we are seeing the emergence of blockchain applications that aim to tackle the waste management problem directly, leveraging blockchain technology as a tamper-proof record of provenance, a mode of incentivisation for environmentally friendly behaviours, and a high-tech way to provide the ledger of accountability for the world’s waste. It is just one strand of a range of emerging applications of ‘blockchain for good’, and how the technology could be applied to address world problems from poverty and hunger to education and governance.

Ultimately, whatever the angle we approach it from, whichever sector we happen to be in, what we agree on is that the climate crisis requires urgent action. For our part, we are proud to support WasteAid and raise awareness in this crucial area. As we approach the launch of our own Net Zero Strategy, we at Zumo will continue to work with the Crypto Climate Accord to ensure the crypto sector acts as an example to other sectors by showcasing what industry-wide decarbonisation looks like. And we will continue to work with partners wherever we can to ensure we are keeping sight of the bigger picture. The journey to a cleaner, more sustainable world is a journey we need to take together.

 

About the author

Kirsteen is Environmental & Sustainability Advisor to the Board at Zumo. She is a freelance environmental consultant with experience in many sectors including crypto, waste management, logistics and finance. Kirsteen is currently leading the development of net zero strategies at Zumo and several other companies. She is a stubborn optimist with a fierce conviction that businesses should be a force for good.

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In 2015 at the COP21, almost all nations signed the Paris Agreement, an international treaty that commits us to jointly combat global warming. This treaty was welcomed as a breakthrough and brought with it hope that the agreed temperature goal to limit the increase of global warming to well below 2 degree Celsius will allow us, and all ecosystems, to co-exist on our planet in worthwhile living conditions and within the known temperature variations that prevailed in Earth’s history.

The issues arising from “Business-as-usual and a linear economy”

During the last decades, numerous researchers and publications have emphasized that without the needed switch from a linear to a circular economy, it may be impossible to establish sustainable lifestyles. Likewise, we may fail to halt global warming as an ongoing and threatening process caused by human action.

Urbanization, population growth, economic development, industrialization and lifestyle changes are all continuously advancing processes. All of these factors trigger steadily increasing resource consumption and waste generation and related environmental impacts. Moreover, our existing business practices with prevailing, short-term-oriented economic goals hinder our change towards more sustainable production and consumption.

For instance, design and life span of common products do not aim at long-lasting and reusable products as envisioned within the context of a circular economy, but foremost target short- to mid-term replacement to secure market share and business operations. Sooner or later, this causes additional waste generation.

The World Bank estimates the current global domestic waste generation to be around 2 Billion tonnes, increasing to 3.4 Billion tonnes in 2050 if we do not introduce the needed changes. In this context it is relevant that the majority of collected waste is organic in nature, often more than 50%.

This becomes especially visible in fast growing urban areas where biowaste management within ‘the backyard’ is no longer possible for most residents, and needs sophisticated logistics for collection, treatment and disposal. As much as “waste avoidance, reuse and recycling” are the desirable alternatives to disposal, they remain theory in many low- and middle countries where waste collection alone absorbs a major part of available resources. In addition, formal operations are often hindered by uncoordinated waste recovery activities performed by the informal sector. Moreover, expertise and capacities to enhance waste management systems are low in most municipalities in developing countries.

Consequently, urban areas develop as centers of resources consumption and Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions and emerge as ‘hot spots’ responsible for increasing climate impacts. In fact, cities generate around 70% of all anthropogenic GHG emissions at present.

How can a circular economy help raise ambitions of climate action?

A circular economy as a means to support climate action is becoming increasingly important, as the urgency to raise ambition for climate mitigation grows. While current climate action pledges are not sufficient to meet agreed goals and targets, the concept of a circular economy could help to bridge this ambition gap.

This concept thereby goes beyond the idea of shifting energy supply from fossil fuels to renewable energy, in fact: Virtually all product cycles need to become more efficient and closed in order to reach climate neutrality.

This restructuring of our economy would offer considerable advantages beyond climate mitigation: it would lessen the pressure on natural resources, create jobs through innovation, assist to protect biodiversity and increase urban quality of life as well. Even though there are ample sector- and product-specific studies that quantify the mitigation potential of circular economy measures, little has been published on their potential to help raise the ambition level of Nationally Determined Contributions that have to be prepared and submitted by all countries as regulated with the Paris Agreement every 5 years.

In any way, a transformation is also needed at municipal level from designing services in a “post-consumer manner” towards interventions that address the entire value chain from ‘raw material extraction to product design, distribution and use’ by implementing the so-called ‘cradle-to-cradle concept’ as introduced be Braungart & Mc Donough in 1990.

Under the Paris Agreement, the objective of limiting global warming to well below 2°C by the end of the 21st century became the benchmark for global climate mitigation ambition. Nationally Determined Contributions represent the parties’ national climate goals for mitigation and adaptation and are subject to regular review and update, with the aim of steadily increasing the ambition level in each cycle. Literature such as the Circularity Gap report underline the need for circular economy action to close the gap between current climate pledges and needed ambition. The huge potential of circular economy is obvious, since at present only around 9% of all resources we use could be accounted ‘as circular’.

To increase global efforts for the needed switch from a linear to a circular economy, it is important to fully understand the importance and contributions of individual sectors for accomplishing development and climate goals, how sectoral policies and measures can be prioritized, and how the ambition level and contributions can be raised over time.

To conclude, the concept of a circular economy is in the unique position to generate numerous benefits for resources management, for sustainable development and for climate mitigation. However, this can only be realized with effective coordination to connect the various sectors on the ground in order to realize additional mitigation potentials and co-benefits.

This again points towards the relevance to build capacity among local actors and especially city governments, to better understand and integrate a circular economy into their development plans and operations, and also to better integrate towns and cities into the future planning and design of measures that could raise ambition for Nationally Determined Contributions.

 

About the Author
Dr. Johannes Paul is geologist and environmental engineer with 30 years professional experience in water and waste management. He has worked for various public, private sector and academic institutions in Germany, EU, Canada and Asia from 1988 on. Since July 2017 he acts on behalf of GIZ as senior advisor for the global sector project “Concepts for sustainable Waste Management and Circular Economy” at the Division of Climate, Environment and Infrastructure in Eschborn, Germany. Focus of his work are various research and development projects that relate to environmental policy, circular economy and integrated waste management. Current activities address urban waste management, climate mitigation in the waste sector, marine pollution through plastic and packaging waste, related SDGs and capacity building for waste management in low- and middle-income countries. In his private capacity he supports the Working Group Climate Change & Waste Management of the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), since 2019 as elected Vice-Chair of the working group.

From 2000 until 2017 Dr. Paul has lived and worked in the Philippines and Sri Lanka with various short-term assignments in Bangladesh, Indonesia, India and Thailand. During this time, he also acted from 2004-2012 as team leader of the GIZ waste management program in the Philippines. Relevant outcomes of this program were a National Strategy on Solid Waste Management (SWM), the development of a waste management course for graduate students and professionals and innovative best practices for municipal solid waste management in the Philippines. From 2014 until June 2017 he supported the International Water Management Institute in Colombo, Sri Lanka as senior researcher with focus on waste management and resources recovery in South Asia. In his ex-officio capacity Dr. Paul acted as lecturer and co-supervisor of graduate students for several universities in Germany, The Netherlands, Philippines and Sri Lanka. Dr. Paul has authored / co-authored more than 100 publications for scientific journals and international conferences, most of them related to waste and water management (www.researchgate.net).

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It is not enough to manufacture recyclable products, collectively we have to build the systems to recycle all waste and focus on reducing our carbon footprint now. Real change requires collective action, writes Charles Héaulmé, President and CEO of Huhtamaki.

Sometimes it’s useful to step back and start at the beginning so we can recalibrate our collective response in line with the realities that face today. So, that’s what I’m going to do in the case of waste. The dictionary definition of waste is “unwanted or unusable material, substances, or by-products.” Of course, what that definition doesn’t tell us is at what point a material, substance or by-product becomes unwanted or unusable. Given our increasingly depleted natural resources and focus on reducing our carbon footprint we, at Huhtamaki, believe that waste is a valuable secondary resource. Our focus on circularity aims to keep materials, substances and by-products in the economy, generating value, for as long as possible. More than ever, there is also need for the world to cut its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by reducing its carbon footprint. Taken together, increased circularity and carbon reduction provide our framework for action.

 

Food packaging already contributes to low carbon circularity – but there is still more that must be done

An unacceptable 30% of all food produced is currently lost or wasted. According to the latest research from WWF, this accounts for 10% of GHGs, globally. By extending shelf-life and protecting food’s characteristics, packaging keeps food safe and tasty, so keeping it both usable and wanted. And, as packaging itself typically accounts for just 5 percent of the food chain’s carbon footprint, its importance in maintaining food’s value is clear. In fact, research has shown that the environmental benefit of preventing food waste is typically 5 to 10 times higher than the environmental burden of packaging.

The evidence therefore is strong that packaging helps limit the carbon impact of the food system and improve its circularity. Packaging also helps move food from where it is produced to where people live; it enables portion control; it facilitates affordability; and it provides numerous social and economic benefits along the way, such as increased food choice and innovation. This is why we believe that packaging forms an integral part of our food systems. This is why we believe that the value of packaging for the environment is much higher than its impact.

Food packaging

Food packaging

Today, food packaging comes in many different forms and is made from many different materials – paper and fibre, plastic, metal, glass. All play a role to be fit for purpose and provide the safety and functionality for the food it holds and protects.

We believe that food safety is absolutely non-negotiable when it comes to food packaging, and that we should make positive choices in the selection of packaging materials to ensure fit for purpose packaging. For us, being material positive supports how we play our part in delivering systems which are both circular and low carbon.

Let’s take lightweight flexible packaging as an example. Over the last twenty years manufacturers and retailers have sought to reduce carbon footprints by replacing more traditional, heavier materials such as glass and metal with lightweight plastic and paper-based packaging, which helps reduce the emissions related to transport. In many countries such packaging also enables smaller, more affordable portions to be sold.

While the materials used in packaging have a direct and quantifiable impact on the carbon footprint of the packaging itself, this is not the full story as a recent system-based Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) conducted by the engineering and consulting company Ramboll highlights. This LCA assessed the use of different types of tableware within Quick Service Restaurants (QSRs) in Europe. Examining the full lifecycle, the LCA was conducted to ISO standards and independently certified by TÜV Germany. It found that in six out of nine categories, including climate change and freshwater usage, single-use paper products caused less environmental impact than reusable tableware.

The differences for climate change impacts between the paper-based and reusable tableware were significant. The study found that reusable systems generated 2.8 times as many CO2-e emissions as the single-use paper-based items used for dine-in meals over the course of a year – hampering societies’ goal to achieve net zero. This is because the cleaning phase, driven by washing and drying, accounted for 83% of the total aggregated impact of reusable tableware.

For freshwater consumption, the differences were also stark, with reusable systems requiring 3.4 times as much water as the paper-based items. Given water stress is increasing in many parts of the world, these findings raise important questions.

But – and here is the challenge – how do we stop packaging itself becoming waste that creates its own problems?

 

Avoiding packaging waste through systemic change

Why does the packaging that surrounds a product become waste? At its simplest, the reason is that there are failings in the systems which collect, sort and recycle packaging materials. In many countries those systems may not yet even exist, which leads to more acute issues of pollution.

Huhtamaki’s position is very clear – waste is a valuable secondary material. Packaging and the systems which enable material recovery must become sustainable. That doesn’t mean a one-size–fits-all approach. To us, innovation across the value chain is key in ensuring packaging materials aren’t wasted, and the resource they represent is reused.

However, what delivers the best environmental outcome in Europe may not result in the most sustainable outcome in other geographies depending on local factors. Take the Reppie fit-for-purpose Energy from Waste (EfW) plant built in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, which is designed to incinerate roughly 80% of its rubbish and supply 30% of Addis Ababa’s household energy needs. Given the availability of energy is a major constraint in emerging economies, the use of materials in this way is far better than the alternatives of landfill or outdoor burning. In the words of sustainability experts from the University of West of Scotland, “instead of seeing EfW as a competitor to recycling, it should be seen as an ally as intended in the waste hierarchy”.

Huhtamaki is committed to working collectively to foster innovation to find ways of driving systemic change and innovation. For example, through our work with WasteAid we have supported the delivery of education and training on waste management and circular systems in South Africa, Vietnam and India. WasteAid’s objective is to fast-track and amplify local solutions that create value and reduce waste and pollution.

person recycling waste

We also supported the development and piloting of a river waste collector, invented by the Finnish cleantech start-up RiverRecycle. The collector is an integral part of RiverRecycle’s solution to solve marine waste, one of the biggest global challenges of today. With Huhtamaki’s support, a prototype waste collector was built and tested in Finland. This was then transported to and assembled in Mumbai, where it is now operational and where it will be collecting waste from the Mithi River for the next 12 months.

Huhtamaki wants to see a real push for systemic change towards low carbon circularity that goes beyond individual companies, bringing value chains together for the planet. Achieving this will require hard work but by creating appropriate national and international collaborative platforms to drive solutions we believe success is achievable. Collaboration is needed across the value chain, involving stakeholders from industry, civil society and government.

In our view, there are five areas where collaboration can make a real difference, but it is important that solutions are not one-size-fits all but are appropriate to local conditions. We believe in:

  • Prioritising renewable resources
  • Building infrastructures for collection and recycling
  • Innovating to unlock sustainability and harnessing digitalisation particularly in the collection-recycling infrastructure
  • Incentivisation and partnership to establish this innovation, and finally;
  • Supporting the consumer and changing consumer behaviour, e.g. through environmentally focused education of kids at schools around the world.

By working across the value chain, we see innovation and partnerships as the way forward to building a material-positive system for fit-for-purpose food packaging, where the materials which provide access to safe, affordable foods and help prevent food waste, then continue their journey through a low carbon circular economy by being recycled in ways that maximize their value to both the planet and people.

 

About the author

Charles Héaulmé, President and CEO, Huhtamaki. Charles Héaulmé has been President and CEO of Huhtamaki since 2019. He joined Huhtamaki from Tetra Pak, where he held various business and finance leadership roles in different geographies since 1999. Prior to this he also held financial controlling roles in Bosch Braking Systems Division and served as a senior auditor in KPMG.

Interview with Charles Héaulmé, President and CEO of Huhtamaki

 

  • Huhtamaki’s roadmap to 2030 for improving global waste and recycling infrastructure;
  • Innovations at Huhtamaki to make packaging more sustainable and recyclable; and
  • How Huhtamaki is balancing shareholder value with the need to meet sustainability and climate goals.

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Article contributed by David C Wilson, Visiting Professor in Waste and Resource Management at Imperial College London and Patron of WasteAid.

 

I want to talk about how much the waste and resources sector can contribute to mitigating global heating; and to make the case for prioritising actions at COP26 and beyond to improve waste and resource management and move towards the circular economy.

 

Waste and resource management and climate change

Municipal solid waste management is an essential utility service, but is not often recognised as such; in the Global North we take our clean cities for granted, unless there is a disruption to the regular waste (garbage) collection service. However, for at least a third of the World’s population, there is no waste collection service[i] and people need to self-manage their own solid waste; by open burning, ‘wild’ dumping on land or into water, or at a communal dumpsite. Even when waste is collected, it often goes to an uncontrolled municipal dumpsite, which may be continuously on fire.

In the Global North, universal collection dates to the 19th Century, and upgrading standards for land disposal and incineration dates to the 1970s. Much progress has been made since in diverting waste from landfill, increasing recycling rates and preventing waste. End-of-pipe ‘waste management’ has become more integrated ‘waste and resource management’, with the aspiration of a truly circular economy[ii].

Waste and resource management can contribute to combatting climate change in at least four ways. It is (1) an important source of methane through the decomposition of organic materials in uncontrolled or controlled landfill sites; and (2) of black carbon from open burning of waste. Both methane and black carbon are among so called short-lived climate forcers (SLCFs), which have much greater global heating potentials than carbon dioxide, and decay more quickly in the atmosphere, which means that reductions in emissions will have a greater short-term impact on climate mitigation than comparable reductions in carbon dioxide. But moving from end-of-pipe waste management towards resource management and the circular economy also has carbon benefits by enabling savings in other economic sectors, through (3) recycling and recovery and (4) waste prevention.

 

Perception versus reality

The waste sector is often perceived in the climate community as having only a small (albeit important) contribution to make. This arises from the accounting conventions used to avoid any possibility of double counting; IPCC use a 2-D matrix with sectors of the economy on one axis and individual countries on the other. ‘Waste management’ is defined as one of the 10 or so sectors; IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report (AR5)[iii] attributed 3-5% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (carbon dioxide equivalent – CO₂eq) to the waste sector in 2010.

More than 90% of this contribution came from methane, which is just one of the four contributions enumerated above. But even there, the estimate is low. In the Global North, actions to collect and control methane emissions from landfill date back to the 1970s, well before the 1990 baseline date used for carbon accounting. Taking figures for the UK as an example, the waste sector accounted for 90 million tonnes (Mt) CO₂eq in 1990, out of the UK total of 890Mt; which had reduced by 2010 to 41 Mt out of a total of 690 Mt; and by 2018 to 33 Mt out of a total of 530 Mt[iv]. So by 2010, the waste sector’s emissions had been reduced by 55% from their 1990 baseline; the sector’s contribution to the total UK emissions had declined from 10% to 6%; and the sector had provided around 25% of the UK’s total emissions cuts over 20 years.

 

Methane gas collection at the former Payatas controlled landfill in Quezon City_Photo_Solid Waste Association of the Philippines

Methane gas collection at the former Payatas controlled landfill in Quezon City. Photo: Solid Waste Association of the Philippines

 

These impressive levels of carbon mitigation between 1990 – 2010 were achieved both by further methane control and by diverting wastes from landfill, through recycling dry materials, diverting organics to anaerobic digestion and composting, and reducing food waste at source (e.g. through WRAP’s Love Food Hate Waste campaign[v]). But the carbon benefits of recycling and waste prevention go way beyond reducing direct methane emissions from the waste sector. Again using the UK as an example, a recent industry report suggests that sorting and recycling alone helped avoid 45 MtCO₂eq emissions in 2018[vi];  while a WRAP report shows that food waste accounts for 36 Mt[vii]. So, both the avoided emissions across the economy of producing virgin materials displaced by recycling (contribution (3) above), and the carbon cost of producing food that we throw away (just one part of contribution (4)), each exceed the 33 MT total emissions in 2018 from the end-of-pipe waste sector.

Focusing on low- and middle-income countries (LMICs)

Turning attention now to the Global South, a major priority to protect public health is to bring wastes under control, by increasing the proportion of municipal solid waste collected to 95+% and by phasing out uncontrolled disposal and open burning (SDG indicator 11.6.1[viii]). Both local and global environmental benefits are huge – one estimate is that the mass of plastics reaching the oceans each year could be cut at least in half[ix]. The global climate benefits are also large, although reported GHG emissions could potentially increase in the short term. One reason is that waste data are traditionally poor; as management improves, so will measurement, thus increasing the reported figures. A second is that, as wastes are brought under control, the potential for methane emissions from anaerobic decomposition in landfill will increase. One result is that in many low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), the narrow waste sector could easily exceed the 1990 UK contribution of 10% to total emissions. Another is that, as waste generation rates per capita continue to increase in LMICs and stabilise or decline in high-income countries[x], the IPCC’s measured global contribution from the waste sector would increase over time if mitigation actions were not taken.

Retail shop in Pakistan selling used plastic bottles_Photo_Mansoor Ali
Retail shop in Pakistan selling used plastic bottles. Photo: Mansoor Ali

 

All of this neglects contribution (2) above, that of black carbon emissions from the open burning of waste. A lack of data kept this out of any quantitative assessment by the IPCC up to AR5 in 2013. Research since then by Natalia Reyna, my student at Imperial College London, estimated that black carbon emissions from open burning of waste could contribute between 2-10% of global CO₂eq emissions[xi]. The recent IPCC AR6[xii] does at least now include this as a source, although its estimate of 9% of black carbon emissions due to open burning of waste falls below the 10% threshold above which waste management would have made it into the high-level reports as a significant source. Nonetheless, addressing the scandal of one third of the world’s population without access to basic solid waste services, by extending waste collection and controlled recovery and disposal to all (achieving 95+% on SDG indicator 11.6.1), would effectively eliminate open burning, and provide a substantial short-term ‘win’ in terms of climate mitigation. That is a low hanging fruit which must be harvested.

 

Dumpsite on fire in Mexico_Photo_Natalia Reyna-Bensusan
Dumpsite on fire in Mexico. Photo: Natalia Reyna-Bensusan
Waste and resource management as a priority for climate mitigation

When I started working as an international waste management consultant in the 1970s, the sector had indeed the narrow, end-of-pipe focus implied by the necessary accounting conventions adopted by the IPCC. Over the last 25 years, the sector has worked hard to move, first to a broader focus on waste and resource management, and now towards the aspiration of a truly circular economy. As a member and Past President of the UK professional body, CIWM, I am no longer a Chartered Waste Manager but rather a Chartered Resource and Waste Manager; our new purpose is ‘to move the world beyond waste’[xiii]. But the perception in the climate community, and among policy and decision makers, is still based on the official IPCC numbers, which show that the narrow end-of-pipe waste sector was a relatively small contributor to global GHG emissions in 2010, and thus not a priority for investment when it comes to mitigation.

My key message is that this perception is wrong. We need to find ways to convey the bigger picture – that the emissions from the waste and resource management sector itself are far outweighed by its potential for enabling much larger savings across multiple other sectors of the economy, BOTH from recycling & recovery of wastes, and from waste prevention.

How big could that contribution be? Given the notoriously poor data on waste and resource management, the best we can do is rough estimates[xiv]. Conservative estimates for each of the three contributing segments: direct emissions from waste management, focused mainly on methane from land disposal and black carbon from open burning; indirect savings in other sectors from recycling and recovery; and indirect savings from waste prevention; would give a range for each of 5-10% or more.

Adding the three segments together adds further to the uncertainty; but whether that figure is 15%, 20% or even higher is frankly immaterial – the point is that we have high confidence that the overall contribution is large, and needs to be recognised, and integrated into the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), if we are to have a chance of limiting global heating to 1.5°C or 2.0°C.

In summary, we need to put better waste and resource management firmly on the agenda at COP26 and beyond.

 

About the author

David Wilson has been an international waste and resource management consultant for more than 40 years, and a Visiting Professor at Imperial College London for the last 20. He has been lead author for seminal publications including UN Habitat’s Solid Waste Management in the World’s Cities (2009) and UNEP & ISWA’s Global Waste Management Outlook (2015). He was the 2017-18 President of CIWM, the UK professional body for resources and waste, and is a Patron of WasteAid.

 

 

 

 

 

References

[i] UNEP and ISWA, 2015. Global Waste Management Outlook. Eds: D. C. Wilson & A. Carpintero-Rogero. https://www.unenvironment.org/resources/report/global-waste-management-outlook

[ii] Andrew Whiteman, Mike Webster and David C Wilson, 2021. The nine development bands – A conceptual framework and global theory for waste and development. Waste Management & Research, 39(10), 1218-1236. Open access: https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0734242X211035926

[iii] IPCC, 2013. 5th Assessment Report (AR5). https://www.ipcc.ch/assessment-report/ar5/

[iv] The Committee on Climate Change, 2020. The Sixth Carbon Budget. Waste. https://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Sector-summary-Waste.pdf

[v] WRAP. Love Food Hate Waste. https://www.lovefoodhatewaste.com/

[vi] ESA, 2021. A net-zero greenhouse gas emissions strategy for the UK recycling and waste sector. https://www.esauk.org/download_file/view/1160/194

[vii] WRAP, 2021. UK food systems GHG emissions. https://wrap.org.uk/resources/report/uk-food-system-ghg-emissions

[viii] UN-Habitat, 2021. Waste Wise Cities Tool: Step-by-Step Guide to Assess a City’s MSWM Performance through SDG indicator 11.6.1 Monitoring. Prepared by UN Habitat, Wasteaware, EAWAG and University of Leeds. https://unhabitat.org/wwc-tool

[ix] CIWM and WasteAid, 2018. From the Land to the Sea – How better solid waste management can improve the lives of the world’s poorest and halve the quantity of plastic entering the oceans. https://wasteaid.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/From-the-Land-to-the-Sea.pdf

[x] Silpa Kaza, Siddarth Shrikanth, and Sarur Chaudhary, 2021. More growth, less waste. World Bank Urban Development Series. https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/urbandevelopment/publication/more-growth-less-garbage

[xi] Natalia Reyna-Bensusan, David C.Wilson, Pamela M. Davy, Gary W.Fuller, Geoff D.Fowler and Stephen R. Smith, 2019. Experimental measurements of black carbon emission factors to estimate the global impact of uncontrolled burning of waste, 2019. Atmospheric Environment, 213, 629-639.

[xii] IPCC, 2021. 6th Assessment report (AR6). https://www.ipcc.ch/assessment-report/ar6/

[xiii] CIWM, 2021. Leading the Way to a World Beyond Waste. Our Strategy 2022-2027. https://www.ciwm.co.uk/ciwm/ciwm-strategy.aspx

[xiv] Wilson, D. C., Reyna-Bensusan, N. & Pfaff-Simoneit, W., 2015. Topic Sheet 1: Waste and Climate. In: UNEP & ISWA, Global Waste Management Outlook, op. cit., pp. 12-15.

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A thought piece from Sandra Mazo-Nix, United Nation’s Climate and Clean Air Coalition, on the why national governments and the international community should give more attention to waste management as a climate and air pollution issue.

What is the role of waste management to mitigate climate change and improve air quality?

Improving waste management is critical to global efforts to reduce air pollution and the threat of climate change. Specifically, by reducing short-lived climate pollutants (SLCP) like methane and black carbon, which both contribute to dangerous air pollution and are many times more powerful that carbon dioxide at warming the planet. Improved waste management also delivers local environmental, economic, and health benefits.

The sources of methane and black carbon can be found throughout the supply chain providing multiple points where emissions reductions can occur. Methane emissions, for example, can be reduced from farm to table by improving farming practices, transportation, distribution, retail practices, and how waste is managed in the home. Likewise, black carbon can be mitigated by eliminating the use of high-emitting diesel vehicles, preventing landfill fires, and eradicating open-burning of waste.

Atmospheric methane concentrations are increasing at the fastest rate since systematic measurements began. Increasing volumes of organic waste in dumps and landfills is contributing to this. Globally, about 44 per cent of municipal solid waste is food and green waste; other sources of organic waste like paper, cardboard, and wood account for another 23 per cent. The problem is even higher in middle- and low-income countries where the generation of food and green waste is 53 per cent and 57 per cent, respectively. Municipal solid waste is now the third largest source of anthropogenic methane emissions, or 20 per cent of all human-caused methane emissions.

Stopping or diverting organic waste from reaching dumps and landfills can help prevent methane emissions. Reducing the amount of organic waste in landfills, particularly food waste, means reconsidering the food supply chain and actions like distributing surplus food to vulnerable communities. Eliminating wasteful food consumption patterns is also necessary and requires a big shift in human behaviour. Steps to tackle organic waste would solve a large part of the waste problem and contribute to the management of other types of waste.

The proper management of organic waste highlights how a circular economy can function. Instead of just winding up in landfill, organics can be turned into valuable bio-based products like organic fertilisers and biogas. The circularity of organic materials has been proven and is feasible globally. Optimising composting and bio-digesting can reduce dependence on chemical fertilisers, help restore soil fertility and improve soil water retention, and improve nutrient transport to plants.

Approximately 55 per cent of waste is disposed in open landfills and dumps around the world. Methane emissions from these sites must be prevented. One way to do this is by installing gas collection systems. Unfortunately, only 7.7 per cent of landfills globally have landfill gas systems. Installing gas systems is imperative in all countries that still use landfills. These systems collect and burn biogas generated by the organic waste, thus eliminating methane emissions. The inclusion of a landfill gas system starts ideally at the planning phase of the waste management for any city or region. Installing a landfill gas system after the landfill has been established can be challenging for most municipalities in low- and middle-income countries if the costs to retrofit the landfill and to install the landfill gas system have not been included in the waste management budget. Likewise, care should be given to the operations of the landfill since this impacts the efficiency of the landfill gas system. The conditions of the landfill, like daily and/or intermediate covers, slopes, fire control, compaction, final capping, planned filling operations and the existence of a leachate collection and removal system, all impact the landfill gas generation, the amount of methane in the landfill gas, and the collection efficiency of the landfill gas system.

40 per cent of waste worldwide is burned, making the waste sector responsible for five per cent of global anthropogenic black carbon emissions. The open burning of waste and landfill fires also significantly contributes to local and regional air pollution.

For many cities, the growing waste burden is becoming increasingly difficult to manage. Ineffective municipal waste management often leads to uncontrolled dumping, open burning, plastic waste in the oceans, water contamination, poor public health, and missed economic and development opportunities. There is much that needs to be done by everyone to improve waste management.

What is the role of governments?

Even though the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report says that three to five per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the waste sector, the sector’s potential to reduce these emissions have been historically underrated. This is because accounting methodologies tend to only look at the disposal aspect of waste management. This has led to national governments not prioritising the waste sector in their mitigation efforts, not recognising waste as part of the climate problem, and not creating frameworks to enable better waste management systems in cities and throughout the country.

Air pollution is another clear area where the connection with waste management is often overlooked. There is great potential to make significant improvements by preventing waste generation, improving waste collection to reduce open burning, improving the operations of landfill and landfill gas systems, and closing open dumps.

National governments can play an important role in increasing emissions reductions in the waste sector. More must be done to engage them in mitigation activities and help build political support that can advance enhanced action, including at the sub-national and local levels.

A governance framework is needed to mitigate methane and black carbon from the waste sector. For example, cities trying to minimise and add value to organic waste need to have policy measures and enabling national legislation that allow the implementation of organic waste projects. This includes passing regulations and laws that prevent and divert organic waste, and policies that incentivise bio-based products and valuable organic waste byproducts like compost, digestate, and biogas. Institutional frameworks need to be assessed to ensure that national strategies and international commitments are not disconnected from municipal efforts to meet improved waste management standards.

How can the international community assist?

Organic waste is the largest component of waste in many countries. Even in high-income countries where food and green waste makes up a smaller percentage of waste, there is still a large amount of paper, cardboard, and wood. Tackling organic waste requires the collaboration of everyone. The world needs a clearly formulated joint vision to value and prevent organic waste. This includes having ambitious global goals that are measurable, time-bound, and achievable.

The international community needs to continue helping cities and countries improve organic waste management and prevent the open burning of waste. For example, the international scientific community needs to provide guidance on feasible solutions to treat organic waste and assess the effectiveness of existing and proposed measures. Scientists also need to improve estimates of black carbon emission factors and the global impact of uncontrolled waste burning. The latest knowledge, information, and solutions should be available and shared on accessible platforms.

The international community must also provide aid to countries to develop national strategies, with targets, reporting, and monitoring mechanisms. The aid should include technical and operational assistance to implement those strategies. The international community should help develop specific measures and protocols for addressing sector-specific challenges, and tailoring them to be applied by region, degree of development, and locality.

Furthermore, a finance mechanism is needed to mobilise and channel public and private funds to countries, municipalities, and other stakeholders to create the enabling conditions necessary to implement national action plans, strategies, local waste management systems, and projects.

Finally, it is important to remember and focus on the multiple benefits that come from preventing organic waste and open burning. These practices not only lead to overall improvements in waste management but also achieve climate mitigation, improved air quality, and health, economic and development benefits.

Improving waste management is a recognised strategic area of intervention for cities to contribute to the global delivery of the Paris Agreement targets and is directly related to several of the Sustainable Development Goals, including the progress towards no poverty, zero hunger, clean water and sanitation, clean energy, infrastructure innovation, reduced inequality, sustainable cities, responsible consumption, climate action, and several others.

 

About the Author

Sandra Mazo-Nix has a Bachelor of Science in Engineering Management from the National University of Colombia, and a Master of Science in Environmental Science and Policy from George Mason University (Virginia, United States). As part of her graduating thesis for her bachelor degree, Ms. Mazo-Nix conducted a research project to evaluate the feasibility of a recycling program at a bottling plant in Medellín, Colombia. Ms. Mazo-Nix joined Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) as the Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Initiative coordinator in January 2016.

Ms. Mazo-Nix has over 14 years of experience focusing on environmental policy issues, solid waste management, and the mitigation of climate change. She has also worked on projects related to landfill gas generation and recovery modeling and reporting, landfill gas utilization cost analyses and electricity market research. The Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) has certified her as Recycling Systems Manager and Composting Programs Manager.

Sandra Mazo-Nix has been the coordinator for the work on the municipal solid waste (MSW) sector of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) since January 2016. Ms. Mazo-Nix has over 14 years of experience focusing on environmental policy issues, solid waste management, and the mitigation of climate change. She has a Bachelor of Science in Engineering Management from the National University of Colombia, and a Master of Science in Environmental Science and Policy from George Mason University (Virginia, United States).

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In Ghana, waste segregation is the job of informal waste collectors, as is the case for most lower- to middle-income countries. Founder and Executive Director of Environment360, Cordie Aziz, shares how the Circular Innovation Hub seeks to strengthen the plastics value chain by developing a market for local recycled plastics and improving the livelihoods of local women waste workers.

The need for circular innovation in Ghana
WHO estimates that each year in Ghana, 4.8 million tonnes of waste is generated. Local municipalities note that 20% of this figure is plastic waste. However, the United Nation’s COMTRADE has found that Ghana’s import of plastics and articles was worth a total of $499.85 million during 2019. Meanwhile, the Ghana Environmental Protection Agency has acknowledged that 97% of imported plastic ends up as waste, and a report from the Ghana Plastic Action Partnership notes that plastic recycling rates in the country are only at 5%.

In Ghana, like most developing countries, waste segregation is the job informal waste collectors, also known as waste pickers. WIEGO has noted that in the capital of Ghana, Accra, there are between 3,000-5,000 waste pickers. A recent study published by the World Economic Forum has acknowledged that women make up the majority of community waste pickers. Despite their collection efforts and knowledge, very few have the ability to move up the economic chain; lack of access to technology, transportation and finance are among the top reasons women waste pickers are stuck at the bottom of the value chain.

Launching the Circular Innovation Hub in Ghana
In September 2021, Environment360, with funding from the Australian Direct Aid Programme, launched the Circular Innovation Hub in Dodowa (a town in the Greater Accra Region of Ghana). The Circular Innovation Hub seeks to strengthen the plastic value chain by developing a market for local recycled plastics, while also taking women waste pickers from collectors to small scale recyclers.

To achieve this goal, the Circular Innovation Hub identifies local businesses and works with them to determine products within their value chain that can be made with recycled plastics. Businesses that partner with the hub are committed to creating and prototyping a product that moves directly into their product line, once all tests are successfully conducted.

In addition to partnering with local businesses, the Circular Innovation Hub identifies and trains women waste pickers to manufacture the products created for the local businesses. It does this in three steps. The first step is an “Empower Up n Around” training programme that helps women defy traditional gender roles and teaches them basic design principles. After graduating from this section, women enter a one-year “Tech-Know” training programme, which teaches them how to operate and service a modular recycling technology. Upon successful completion of the “Tech-Know” programme, women are given the opportunity to own their own modular open source recycling technology and create products for the companies that the hub has an existing relationship with.

The Circular Innovation Hub graduated its first seven women from the “Empower Up N Around” training on 16 September, 2021. The class worked with a Kumasi-based company, Bamboo Bikes, to design the grips of handlebars. The chosen handlebar design will move into field testing in October.

Ultimately, the hub seeks to train and move 100 women waste pickers into machine ownership over the next five years. It is projected that more than 60 tonnes of plastic will be recycled into products for local businesses in Ghana and 1,000 jobs created.

This project is an important first step to achieving circularity in the Ghana market and reducing the amount of plastic that is imported into the country, while also increasing recycling rates. The Circular Innovation Hub is also one of the few technology-driven solutions being implemented in Ghana to help address the plastic waste issue. The modular design of the machine makes it easily adaptable in both rural and urban communities, and the ability to create new products for the market is never-ending. It is envisioned that this project will be easily replicated amongst all African countries and can help spur the green economy and make plastic collection more attractive to youth as a viable employment opportunity.

To find out more about the Circular innovation Hub, visit the Environment360 website or email info@environment360gh.org.

 

About the author

Cordie Aziz founded Environment360 in December of 2014, to support the creation of circular economies that have economic and environmental impact. During the past six years, she has become an expert in supporting informal sector plastic waste collectors, also known as waste pickers. Ms. Aziz was a pivotal force in the creation of the Ghana Recycling Initiative by Private Enterprise (GRIPE). She is one of the original founders of the Plastic Recyclers and Aggregators Association of Ghana (PRAAG); she served as President of the organisation until June 2021. She is passionate about working with all stakeholders along the value chain to create an inclusive waste management system that create jobs for youth and women. In the organisation’s newest venture, the Circular Innovation Hub, Ms. Aziz seeks to move women waste pickers from collectors to innovators using an open source modular recycling technology.

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