Introducing zero waste systems in cities around the world would be one of the quickest ways to reduce global heating, finds a new report. The waste sector accounts for 3.3% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and a fifth of global methane emissions.
Better waste management could cut total emissions from the waste sector by more than 1.4 billion tonnes. That would be equivalent to the annual emissions of 300 million cars – or taking all motor vehicles in the U.S. 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.
Potential for zero waste
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.
Report co-author Dr. Neil Tangri at GAIA, said: “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.”
“Previous climate talks have largely overlooked the potential of reforms to the waste sector, particularly for reducing methane, which over 100 countries have now pledged to do. 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,” stated co-author Mariel Vilella, Director of GAIA’s Global Climate Program.
Missing the target
“As we prepare for another round of UN climate negotiations, we have a unique opportunity to put waste firmly on the agenda. Without a concrete commitment from global leaders to zero waste, we will not be able to meet the 1.5° C climate target.”
GAIA’s report modeled 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 marginalized,” stated Victor H. Argentino de M. Vieira of Brazil-based organization Instituto Pólis. “What are our leaders waiting for? The time is now to prevent waste and reduce poverty in São Paulo.”
The report also maps out how zero waste systems could help cities adapt to the escalating climate crisis, preventing flooding and droughts, strengthening soil and agriculture, reducing disease transmission, and generating employment opportunities.
Waste sector neglected
Despite this, 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 waste produced in Africa by 2050.
In order to keep global warming below 1.5°C, as set out in the Paris Agreement, and prevent catastrophic climate change, GAIA is urging global leaders to take urgent and bold action on zero waste by:
Incorporating zero waste goals and policies into climate mitigation and adaptation plans.
Prioritising food waste prevention and single-use plastic ban.
Instituting separate collection and treatment of organic waste.
Investing in waste management systems, recycling, and composting capacity.
Establishing institutional frameworks and financial incentives for zero waste including regulations, educational and outreach programs, and subsidies to recycling and composting.
Janez Potočnik, Co-Chair of the International Resource Panel of the UN Environment Programme, former European Commissioner for the Environment states: “This report demonstrates the huge importance of aligning our waste systems with climate goals. It shows how cities are already working to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from waste while building climate resilience and creating livelihoods. It highlights the absolute necessity of reducing root sources of waste through changing our production and consumption patterns – using all the tools at our disposal to achieve the deep emissions reductions we need.”