While waste contributes relatively little to climate change—only 3 to 5 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions—certain waste management approaches offer an immediate, cost-effective way to achieve significant cuts in global GHG emissions. Using existing technologies that can be deployed at scale in virtually all regions and markets, waste management can be transformed into a climate mitigation tool.
Every city, region, and country has a unique foundation of waste composition, technologies and infrastructure, climate conditions, and economic capability. During the past 50 years, the waste management sector has developed the technology and expertise to tailor its approach to these specific conditions of each area. A key advantage of waste management’s GHG mitigation potential is that it can use these conditions as a foundation to enhance overall performance.
There are several strategies in the waste management sector with the potential to reduce GHGs. They provide opportunities for both upstream and downstream cost savings, energy efficiency improvements, and public health and lifestyle benefits.
These strategies include:
- Optimize collection routes and streamline operations to improve fuel efficiency.
- Use alternative fuels (e.g., biodiesel, bioethanol).
- Develop alternative means of transportation (e.g., rail and waterway transport).
- Increase material recovery rate to save energy.
- Recover substitute fuels (e.g., waste oil, refuse-derived fuels).
- Generate thermal energy and electricity from waste combustion as a cost-competitive substitute for conventional fossil fuels.
- Recover metals and bottom ashes from incineration.
- Increase compost production (a low-emitting treatment solution).
- Recover methane from anaerobic digestion processes.
- Install active landfill gas collection and treatment systems.
- Use landfill gas as a fuel to produce electricity or thermal energy.
The EU and beyond
Recent experience in European Union (EU) countries has shown that through the combination of proven waste management technologies, comprehensive regulatory standards, and broad, multi-stakeholder coordination and communication, municipal waste management can achieve substantial, near-term reductions in GHGs.
Between 1995 and 2008, for example, municipal solid waste management systems in the EU have reduced approximately 48 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent. Another 62 million tonnes of CO2- equivalent will be reduced by 2020 as the EU Landfill Directive is fully implemented in the coming decade. This will make the municipal waste sector a net GHG reducer between 2012 and 2020.
In developing countries, however, rapid increases in population and urbanization are resulting in increased waste generation. GHG emissions will also increase unless a new approach takes hold. Implementing effective waste management systems in these developing regions can bring a wide range of environmental, economic, and social benefits.
- Reduced GHG emissions generation.
- Reduced environmental degradation from uncontrolled waste disposal.
- Resource and energy conservation through material recovery.
- Energy recovery to reduce demand on limited natural resources.
- Access to international financing.
- Revenues from the sale of carbon reduction credits, recovered energy, and materials.
- Technical expertise and training to facilitate technology transfer and build capacity.
- Improved sanitary and health conditions.
- New jobs from construction of new facilities and projects.
- Training and capacity building in support of waste management modernization.
Moving from waste management to resource management is a transition critical to the success of all economies. In this transition, waste prevention, resource recovery, reuse, and recycling are essential and enabling components of strategies that can help slow the negative effects of climate change for generations to come.