Zero Waste vs. Climate Change: Why Waste Reduction Offers a Key Opportunity for Climate Action Through Private Enterprise
As the urgency of the climate crisis grows, pressure is mounting to find easily implementable, affordable solutions that yield fast results. That’s why, as global leaders gather for yet another round of climate negotiations in the COP27 conference this month, waste is expected to be a hot topic (no pun intended). Waste reduction and management, while not glamorous, are increasingly seen as low-hanging fruit as the world seeks climate solutions that can help keep global warming below the 1.5° Celsius target adopted in the Paris Agreement.
One reason for the enthusiasm around the waste sector’s climate potential is that it offers a massive opportunity for innovative business solutions. This potential is garnering attention from governments across the world, which are looking to the ingenuity of private enterprise to support their efforts to fulfill their national commitments to address climate change. For instance Egypt, which is hosting COP27, plans to put forward the 50by2050 Initiative at the event, aimed at treating and recycling 50% of Africa’s waste by 2050. This ambitious plan underscores the importance of tackling waste as an essential part of every government’s climate commitments, and it envisions a key role for private business. As Egyptian Minister of Environment Yasmine Fouad said in describing the initiative, “It is important to have partners in all African countries, but … without the private sector, it will not reach the success desired.”
In this article, I’ll discuss the connection between waste and climate change, and highlight some of the business innovations that are converting this global challenge into an opportunity for positive impact.
The Overlapping Climate Impacts of Waste
Everywhere in the world, the headlines about the waste crisis are unavoidable – microplastics found in human blood, landfills overflowing, contaminated waste sitting in ports with nowhere to go. Even more alarming is the looming prospect of an acceleration of these waste problems, given the growing global population and rampant consumerism. The World Bank estimates that the annual production of municipal solid waste is expected to grow to 3.4 billion tonnes by 2050 – an increase of roughly 70% over the global total in 2018. It’s not hard to see why this is a massive public health, economic and social problem – but it’s also a major climate problem.
Emissions from waste disposal (landfilling, incineration, etc.) make up 20% of methane emissions (a potent greenhouse gas) – but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. At least 70% of global greenhouse emissions come from the materials economy – the industries responsible for the manufacturing, transport and disposal of products. Due to these multiple climate impacts, a recent study by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) shows that “zero waste” systems – waste reduction, separate collection, composting and recycling – are essential to keeping global warming below 1.5°C.
The report finds that better waste management could cut waste sector emissions by an average of 84% (1.4 billion tonnes). This is equivalent to the annual emissions of 300 million cars – which means the impact on emissions would be greater than taking all motor vehicles in the U.S. off the road for a year. But as impressive as this figure is, it’s a very conservative estimate, since a focus on waste reduction would also cut greenhouse gas emissions significantly in other sectors. For example, a reusable bottle avoids the raw material extraction, manufacture, transport and disposal of its single-use counterpart.
The data is clear: To avoid climate collapse, businesses and consumers need to drastically rethink our relationship with stuff.
The Methane Moment – and what it means for Sustainable Business
While last year’s COP conference was largely a disappointment, one particular announcement got everyone sitting up in their seats. U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry announced that over 100 countries had signed onto a “Global Methane Pledge” to reduce global methane emissions by at least 30% from 2020 levels by 2030. Until that announcement, methane was the overshadowed stepsister of C02 – a lesser priority that remained largely on the sidelines of global climate negotiations. But at COP26 the stepsister finally got her moment, and with good reason – methane has over 80 times the warming power of C02, but it only lasts in the environment for a fraction of the time, so cutting methane emissions is the fastest, most impactful way to reduce global warming.
Now that 112 countries have signed onto this commitment, the next question is how they are going to meet that ambitious target. Waste is the third largest contributor of methane emissions, mainly from landfilling organic waste. However, studies show that up to 95% of methane emissions can be avoided through source separation of organic discards, composting, biostabilisation of residual waste, and biologically active cover for landfills.
This provides an excellent opportunity for local entrepreneurs, non-profits and policymakers to come together and build circular economy solutions to landfill methane. Successful examples of these efforts include three key ingredients: a focus on local food systems, centering workers’ rights and protecting human health.
Composting: A Climate Solution That Reduces Poverty and Supports Food Systems
In the city of São Paulo, Brazil, home to over 12 million people, the majority of food waste is landfilled. However, a small group of enterprising local entrepreneurs and governments are building alternative models that have the potential to transform the city’s waste sector and help meet its climate goals.
These businesses – which include local restaurateurs, farmers and waste management companies (with support from their government partners) – each play key roles in a project designed to boost local agriculture, improve public health and build climate resilience. São Paulo runs five composting sites that provide compost to public gardens in the city and organic farms surrounding it, which produce pesticide-free food for several of its most popular restaurants and food delivery services. These composting facilities can process up to 15,000 tons of waste per year that would otherwise have ended up in a landfill. This approach illustrates what a closed-loop food system looks like on a local scale: Food waste goes into the compost sites, which produce compost for the local farms that provide food to the restaurants and delivery services, which generate food waste that is composted for use by the farms, continuing the cycle.
Soil with compost amendments also has the ability to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, making composting a doubly powerful climate solution. And in addition to climate mitigation, there are a myriad of documented agricultural benefits of composting. Compost has been proven to increase the yield of crops by creating healthier soil that is more resilient to droughts and floods – an increasing climate threat, particularly in the Global South. This will help stabilize food systems and keep farmers in business.
However, these five composting sites only cover 0.3% of São Paulo’s total organic waste. Meanwhile, the waste pickers and waste picker collectives that collect and recycle São Paulo’s discarded items are largely underpaid and unrecognized by the city for the work that they do. The Polis Institute, a locally based organization advocating for zero waste and defending waste pickers’ rights, posits that São Paulo could solve its waste problems by investing in more separate collection of organic waste for composting – an approach that has the potential to support waste pickers and local family farms. Coupled with the integration of waste pickers into the city’s recycling system, this could have an astonishing impact on thousands of lives in the informal waste sector – and also on the broader waste sector’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Data from GAIA’s recent report supports these assertions: By analyzing São Paulo’s current and projected waste disposal levels, researchers were able to project the greenhouse gas emissions that the city’s waste sector would save if it were to adopt modest zero waste systems like separate collection and composting. The analysis found that the city could reduce waste by 55% by 2030, and cut its waste sector’s own greenhouse gas emissions by 105%, making waste a net-negative sector. GAIA researchers also project that if São Paulo were to recover 80% of the recyclable and organic material in its waste stream, the city could create over 36,700 new jobs.
Waste Management Approaches that Stink
Pretty much the worst way to handle waste from a climate perspective is to burn it. Burning waste in incinerators emits more climate pollution than coal-fired power plants – the burning of one tonne of municipal waste releases nearly 1.1 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, along with a toxic cocktail of chemicals like heavy metals, particulate matter, dioxins and nitrous oxide. These toxics have been linked to a number of health impacts, including respiratory disease, cancers, high blood pressure and decreased kidney function.
For years, companies and even some development organizations have promoted waste incinerators to governments in the Global South, despite waste-burning’s well documented toll on the environment and human health. But fortunately, the tide is finally turning on waste incineration. In 2019, the European Investment Bank, one of the largest providers of climate finance, excluded waste incineration from its Circular Economy Guide, and the E.U. Cohesion Fund halted all funding for waste incineration that same year. This is a significant shift given several European agencies’ role in incentivizing incineration projects in the Global South, under the mistaken belief that incineration is a viable solution both in the E.U. and abroad.
As incineration has become an increasingly discredited form of waste management, cities and businesses are stepping up to the challenge of reducing waste. In Europe alone, nearly 400 municipalities have committed to zero waste, and across Europe and Asia cities are modeling zero waste solutions that reduce waste by up to 80%. Innovative reuse and refill companies are also sprouting up all over the world, and they are gaining particular traction in Global South communities by reclaiming traditional systems of sustainable packaging that single-use plastic has only recently usurped.
Businesses’ Role in Transitioning to a Liveable Climate
While climate change is the most pressing threat facing our planet, it is not the only one. Economic inequality, racial and gender injustice, and the impact of COVID (and future potential pandemics) are just some of the societal stressors that both exacerbate, and are amplified by, the climate crisis. As a result, solutions to climate change must also address other interconnected challenges in order to be successful.
Zero waste strategies are being recognized as an accessible climate solution that can also support the efforts of vulnerable populations like women, waste pickers and communities in climate change-impacted areas – particularly in the Global South – to find dignified livelihoods, adapt to a changing climate and build local economic resilience. And businesses can be uniquely effective in advancing these overlapping goals in emerging economies, through their combination of nimbleness and innovation, responsiveness to local communities, and scalability. As we approach the upcoming COP27 conference, private enterprise has a key role to play in proving that the transition to a less wasteful, cooler world can also spur a new age of innovation in the business sector.
Photo courtesy of Steve Evans.