The untapped potential for better waste and resource management to curb global heating

I am pleased that the RICS Land Journal has published online an updated version of my article on the untapped potential for the waste and resource management sector to act as an enabler to unlock significant climate mitigation benefits across the economy. My best estimate of the mitigation potential is at least 15-20% of global carbon dioxide (equivalent) emissions, which is far beyond the IPCC’s estimate of 3% for the narrowly defined end-of-the linear-economy ‘waste’ sector, which is necessarily used in official climate reporting to avoid double counting.

This post supercedes that titled ‘COP26 and the waste and resource sector’, first published on 25 October 2022:

How much can better waste and resource management contribute to mitigating global heating? Prof David C Wilson addressed this question at the Policy Connect Sustainable Resource Forum seminar on October 11 2021. The answer with a high level of confidence is ‘significantly’, perhaps 15-20% of global carbon dioxide (equivalent) emissions. DCW has now written this up as a ‘thought piece’, making the case for prioritising actions at COP26 and beyond to improve waste and resource management and move towards the circular economy. This may be found as both an article and as a video interview on WasteAid’s COP26 online hub; as a feature on CIWM’s Circular Online; and as an ISWA guest blog.

Diving Deep: deploying finance to prevent plastic pollution of the oceans

A key constraint to improving waste and resource management in many countries is a lack of access to investment finance. Extending waste collection to all and phasing out uncontrolled dumping and open burning in low-income countries would significantly cut the mass of plastics reaching the ocean. So the UNEP Finance Initiative publication Diving Deep, aimed at banks, insurers and institutional investors, is very welcome. Guidance is provided in the form of a science-based, actionable toolkit, to ensure that their investments, both in product manufacture and in waste management, encourage waste prevention and sound waste management, thus keeping plastics out of the oceans.

The promotional video and the document itself are worth looking at just for the wonderful images by world-renowned photographer Cristina Mittermeier of Sea Legacy. The guidance was prepared by WWF (led by Paula Chin) and RWA (led by Andy Whiteman). DCW played a small role as one of the reviewers.

Practical Action focuses attention on solid waste management

DCW was sent a copy of Practical Action’s new reportManaging Our Wastes 2021’ a few weeks ago and invited to write an endorsement for it. Having read and reviewed it, I was happy to do so; the report was launched today in a webinar hosted by UN-Habitat. The full text of what I wrote appears after the foreword by Practical Action’s Patron, Prince Charles.

Solid waste management is the ‘Cinderella’ among the essential utility services. Despite the crisis of some 40 per cent of the world’s population having no access, it has received very limited attention from either international agencies or mainstream development charities. I have been supporting Practical Action for nearly 50 years, so I warmly welcome this important new report which fills that gap. Most development work tackles the issue from the ‘top down’, and often focuses on (large scale) infrastructure. Much of my work over the last 25 years has focused on expanding performance assessment and planning of SWM systems in developing countries to include governance (including stakeholder inclusivity) alongside technical aspects; and to consider the often ‘informal’ recycling sector alongside ‘formal’ municipal waste management. Practical Action has taken that one step further, to strengthen the ‘bottom-up’, people-centred aspects. Sustainable waste and resource management needs to work for the poorest people, providing both a quality service which keeps slum areas clean and healthy, and a decent livelihood for the multitude of workers who deliver collection and recycling services. Both the revised assessment methods, the four insightful case studies and the four priority themes work well. I commend to you this important new manifesto to put people back at the centre of how we manage our solid wastes.’

Professor David C. Wilson. Visiting Professor in Resource and Waste Management, Imperial College London; Lead author of UNEP’s Global Waste Management Outlook

Nine Development Bands – a new theory of waste and development

Professor David C Wilson is pleased to co-author an important new publication The Nine Development Bands: A conceptual framework and global theory of waste and development. The open access paper in ISWA’s peer-reviewed journal Waste Management & Research can be downloaded freely. The ‘9 DBs’ builds on the integrated sustainable waste management (ISWM) analytical framework to help characterise waste and resources management (WaRM) systems in cities and countries. Based on over 100 years of combined experience of the authors (Andrew Whiteman, Mike Webster and DCW), the 9DBs is a powerful addition to the waste management practitioner’s toolkit, bringing depth and nuance to understanding of WaRM systems globally.

The early DBs reflect stepwise improvement towards the new baseline of meeting the SDG 11.6.1 indicators of universal collection and management in controlled facilities (DB5); while later DBs represent two prevailing routes to move towards environmentally sound management (ESM) and the 3Rs (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle). An aspirational DB Zero, a real circular economy, sits above all 9 DBs, accessible via multiple pathways, posing an ultimate challenge for development practice. The 9DBs contextualise the challenge of meeting the waste-related SDGs, in particular for developing countries striving towards SDG 11.6.1 but also for all countries aspiring to a circular economy. Whether you are a practitioner, decision-maker, service provider, or sector activist, the 9DBs will help you to identify the key pressure points for catalysing change, and focus your time and resources on achieving maximum impact.

SDGs as Drivers of Change for Waste and Resource Management

Professor David C. Wilson has contributed a chapter on the SDGs as drivers for change to The Routledge Handbook of Waste, Resources and the Circular Economy, edited by Terry Tudor and Cleber Dutra and published on 28 December 2020. This has been a subject on which DCW has worked extensively, as re-casting improved waste and resource management as an entry point for tackling multiple, high-profile sustainable development goals significantly strengthens the case for action.

Solid waste management is not one of the high-level SDGs; like the equally important topic of air pollution, it is rather cross-cutting, impacting on multiple SDGs. DCW links five global waste targets, as defined in UNEP and ISWA’s inaugural Global Waste Management Outlook, to the 17 SDGs. He shows strong and in principle measurable links to six SDGs, not only the ‘obvious’ SDG11 (sustainable cities) & indicator 11.6.1, and SDG12 (responsible consumption and production); but also SDG1 (end poverty), SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation); and SDG13 climate action and SDG14 life below water (preventing plastics reaching the oceans). Links to six other high priority SDGs are still direct but more difficult to measure (e.g. SDG8 decent work through sustainable job creation, and SDG2 zero hunger through reducing food waste). Indirect links can also be made to the remaining five SDGs, including difficult-to-tackle equality and governance issues.

The Handbook sits behind a paywall, with only the abstract of the chapter online. The accepted manuscript of the chapter can be downloaded here:

Measuring black carbon emissions from open burning of waste

Black carbon (BC) emissions from the open burning of municipal solid wastes (MSW) and other waste types contribute significantly to global heating but are not yet included in the official (IPCC) inventory of greenhouse gases (GHGs) due to poor data availability. Natalia Reyna has just completed her PhD thesis at Imperial College London, co-supervised by Professors David C Wilson and Stephen R. Smith, with the aim of generating reliable data to plug that gap. Our second and final paper was published last week in the leading journal Atmospheric Environment, providing a reliable methodology for measuring emission factors (EFs) for black carbon from waste burning. i.e. how much black carbon is produced by burning a kilogram of waste. The two papers have been submitted as evidence to the IPCC sixth assessment study due to be published in 2021.

When the measured emission factors are combined with our earlier measurements of the extent of open burning of municipal solid wastes in Mexico; other published estimates of waste composition and activity levels around the world; and a range of estimates of the global warming potential of black carbon as compared to CO₂; our best estimate of the contribution of BC from the open burning of MSW to global heating is in the range 2-10% of global CO₂Eq emissions. Given the associated air pollution and health impacts, urgent global action is essential to eliminate open burning of waste; this will provide a relatively ‘quick win’ in tackling the global climate emergency.
A short article reporting this research appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of CIWM’s new, award-winning magazine Circular.