Waste sector critical to combat climate change

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Since the beginning of this week, global leaders and experts from different fields gather in Glasgow for the COP26 to discuss the mechanisms and commitments needed to fight climate change and achieve net-zero worldwide as well as to accelerate actions to achieve the goals set in the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Seeing that a multi-perspective approach is needed, the event fosters collaboration across multiple sectors such as transport, finance, and energy. But one sector is missing at the main conference: the waste sector. ISWA will be in Glasgow representing the waste and resource management sector. Alas, only at side events.

Waste sector "overlooked" at COP26

The waste and resource management sector has been "overlooked and left with no seat at the table," commented Adam Read, president of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM). Despite it being an integral component in meeting global targets. "Whilst we welcome the recent publication of the UK government's net-zero strategy and recognize COP26 is a fantastic opportunity to get global, coordinated action on climate change, the fact resources and waste has to all intents and purposes been left off the agenda has me completely stumped”, he said in a statement.

The impact of waste management very often is only seen concerning methane emissions from dumpsites as well as black carbon from open burning waste. In a recent blog post on the ISWA website David C Wilson, Visiting Professor in Waste and Resource Management at Imperial College London, also criticized the exclusion of waste management in talks about mitigating global heating and made a pledge for “prioritizing actions at COP26 and beyond to improve waste and resource management and move towards the circular economy.”

Contributions to combat climate change

Waste and resource management can contribute to combatting climate change in at least four ways, so Prof Wilson. It is an important source of methane through the decomposition of organic materials in uncontrolled or controlled landfill sites and black carbon from the open burning of waste. But furthermore, it also has carbon benefits by enabling savings in other economic sectors, through recycling and recovery and waste prevention. So far, due to the IPCC's accounting conventions, 3-5% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) was attributed 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,” Wilson writes. “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.”

These levels of carbon mitigation were achieved not only by methane control and diverting wastes from landfills but also through recycling and diverting organic materials to composting and anaerobic digestion and avoiding food waste. David Wilson: "Using the UK as an example, a recent industry report suggests that sorting and recycling alone helped avoid 45 MtCO₂eq emissions in 2018, while a WRAP report shows that food waste accounts for 36 Mt. So, both the avoided emissions across the economy of producing virgin materials displaced by recycling and the carbon cost of producing food that we throw each exceed the 33 MT total emissions in 2018 from the end-of-pipe waste sector.”

Necessity to drive innovations

Tim Stedman, CEO of plastic recycling innovation company Agilyx also promotes the industry’s importance. “The sector is absolutely critical. And not only in terms of pollution but also in facing climate change.” He champions a holistic approach and a circular economy. “We have to look at it differently: Waste plastic is above ground hydrocarbon. We need to be jealously guarding the carbon in our hands. And that means focusing on how to provide the best circular solutions,” said Stedman. “Today less than 10 percent of the plastic waste is recycled, largely by mechanical recycling. But it has its limitations. It's basically downcycling. It cannot deal with contaminations, and the products are not fit for the pharmaceutical or food industry. But all plastic waste that can be mechanically recycled should be mechanically recycled. For the other materials, we need to use and develop chemical recycling.

Companies need to innovate. We have to be able to take risks, to try new things. Not all might work, but we have to try."

Waste sector needs better reputation

Also, the waste sector might need a better reputation: "At a marine conservation conference, a couple of years back a marine biology professor talking about marine litter said: "Actually, these are all waste management topics. But you try to get a celebrity to show up at a waste management conference." And it's true. Many celebrities come to marine conservation conferences, to COP26. I don't want to pick on them because they are purely an indication of where the broader population focuses. People don't like to focus on trash.”

So, probably the industry needs to find ways to present itself better.

It might be in promoting the necessity of adequate waste management for everyone. In the Global North people seem to take working waste management for granted. But at least one-third of the World's population doesn't have access to a collection service. The results are open burnings of waste, 'wild' dumping, or communal dumpsites. This does not only affect global warming but also public health. "A sound waste management system is a global human right as we at the ISWA are convinced,” ISWA president Carlos Silva Filho recently stated at the Ecomondo Expo in Rimini, Italy. “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 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,” also Prof Wilson is convinced. And he also sees another card, the waste and resource management sector may play: “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 and recovery of wastes and from waste prevention.”