According to a new report released last week by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), the introduction of “zero waste” systems in cities around the world would be one of the quickest and most affordable way to reduce global heating and stay below 1.5°C of warming.
The report found that the global waste sector accounted for 3.3% of global greenhouse gas emissions and a fifth of global methane emissions, and by introducing better waste management policies such as waste separation, recycling and composting, these emissions could be cut by over 1.4 billion tonnes.
This is equivalent to the annual emissions of 300 million cars or removing all motor vehicles in the United States off the road for a year.
But this figure underestimates the potential impact of waste management reforms. At least 70% of global emissions come from the manufacture, transport, use and disposal of goods, and a focus on waste reduction could significantly reduce the emissions in these sectors too.
For example, manufacturing something from recycled aluminium uses 96% less energy than starting with raw materials.
The potential for zero-waste policies to reduce methane emissions is also critical. Methane is over 80 times as potent as CO2 but lasts only a short time in the atmosphere. Reforming the waste sector could cut global methane emissions by 13% globally. This would bring enormous climate benefits within the next few decades and ‘buy time’ to cut other emissions.
Co-author of the report, Dr Neil Tangri of GAIA, said that “better waste management is a climate change solution staring us in the face. 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.”
Mariel Vilella, director of GAIA’s Global Climate Program said that past climate talks had overlooked the significance that reforms in the waste sector would have on reducing global emissions.
“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,” said Vilella.
“As we prepare for another round of UN climate negotiations, we have a unique opportunity to put waste firmly on the agenda. Without concrete commitment from global leaders to zero-waste, we will not be able to meet the 1.5° C climate target.”
GAIA’s report modelled potential emissions reductions from eight cities around the world. They found that on average, these cities could cut waste sector emissions by almost 84% by introducing zero waste policies, with some, such as São Paulo and Detroit, able to reach net-negative emissions by 2030.
“GAIA’s report scientifically demonstrates that zero waste can actually get São Paulo to net-negative emissions from the waste sector while promoting new jobs, providing a decent dignified livelihood to waste pickers and compost to support local agro-ecological farmers, groups who have been historically marginalised,” said Victor H Argentino de M Vieira of Brazil-based organisation Instituto Pólis.
The report also maps out how zero waste systems could help cities adapt to the escalating climate crisis, preventing both flooding and droughts, strengthening soil and agriculture, reducing disease transmission and generating employment opportunities.
Despite these benefits, more than a quarter of countries’ current climate plans neglect the waste sector.
Waste management will be one of the critical topics tackled at the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 27) in November, where host nation Egypt plans to put forward the Africa Waste 50 Initiative, aimed at treating and recycling 50% of the waste produced in Africa by 2050.