Opinion : Getting Waste onto the Climate Agenda

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COP26 is now behind us and we can take a moment to take stock on of what was achieved. WasteAid believes it has led to positive steps but also that there is some way to go before we see awareness translated into financial commitments.

It was fantastic to see the topic of open waste burning, a key contributor of to climate emissions, on the COP agenda for the first time. Links between climate change and waste came through strongly in several side events. In A Wasted Opportunity: Open Burning of Waste Causes a Climate and Health Calamity, WasteAid discussed the health, air -quality and climate- change impacts of open burning, at up to 10% of global climate emissions.

Open burning occurs simply due to the lack of an alternative, and it will not stop until waste management systems are in place. This is WasteAid’s mandate and mission – to help developing countries set up appropriate waste management systems. Zoë Lenkiewicz also described WasteAid’s work in The Gambia to help communities to valorise rather than burn their waste.

The burning of waste was picked up further at an event hosted by Bright Blue and organised by WasteAid, The Burning Issue? Waste, Climate, Health and Development. Dr Suzanne Bartington, Clinical Research Fellow at Birmingham University, painted a stark picture of the impact that burning waste is having on air quality at the Dandora dumpsite in Nairobi, which covers 30 acres and is surrounded by informal settlements with many residents make a living from scavenging waste.

Dr Bartington described how, against an annual limit of 5 mg of particulate matter (PM2.5) a year (WHO guidelines), levels of daily exposure topped 50 mg in the mornings and evenings, consistent with regular waste burning. As well as the devastating health impacts, pollutants are also absorbed into the soil, water courses and our food chain. WHO states that ambient (outdoor) air pollution is estimated to cause seven7 million premature deaths worldwide, with the majority in low-income countries.

How to bring about change?

A key theme was the need for systemic change from all parties involved, from producer right down to consumer. Charles Héaulmé, CEO of Huhtamaki, a global sustainable packaging company based in Finland that funds WasteAid’s Circular Economy Network project in Vietnam, India and South Africa, highlighted the important role of packaging in delivering food safely to billions of people in cities. He outlined Huhtamaki’s commitment to using renewable materials, ensuring packaging is recyclable, and the adoption of digital identities on packaging to aid recycling. Crucially, he also called for greater investment in collection and recycling infrastructure.

The lack of basic waste management systems, with one1 in three3 of the global population not having access to a regular waste collection service, is not going to change without a massive investment. Now waste is moving up the agenda and its links with climate change are becoming clearer, we hope to see greater investment unlocked.

About WasteAid: WasteAid is a nonprofit working with communities and policy makers around the world to implement waste management and recycling programmes.