The significant potential of better waste and resource management for climate mitigation

ISWA are hosting the first ever Waste and Resources Pavilion at COP28 in Dubai. My contribution is an article, co-authored with the ISWA President Carlos Silva Filho and Technical Director Aditi Ramola, where we challenge the common perception that waste and resource management contributes minimally to mitigation of climate heating. We argue that is simply WRONG, and one can have high confidence that the sector’s potential is significant. Whatever the actual number, action is needed now: it is imperative that better waste and resource management is prioritised in climate action plans and nationally determined contributions.

Waste management needs to be central to the plastics treaty

ISWA has published my blog that makes the evidence-based case for bringing waste management onto the main agenda of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) for the proposed international treaty to end plastics pollution; the third INC meeting is in Nairobi 13-17 November 2023. Much of the focus of negotiations is rightly on plastics reduction and circularity. But a necessary parallel component is sound waste management and plastics leakage prevention. It is not a case of one or the other – both are necessary and complementary.

Of course the goal is the 3Rs of reduce, reuse and recycle, restricting the need for sound management to a small fraction of residual plastics waste. But it is also critical to stem the current catastrophic flow of plastics into the environment and the oceans. Extending municipal solid waste collection to all and phasing out uncontrolled dumping and open burning (thus meeting SDG indicator 11.6.1) would halve plastics leakage to the oceans and cut by more than 90% open burning of plastics waste.

Progress towards that target needs to be stepwise – the Zero Draft published in advance of INC-3 makes the mistake of multiplying together three separate indicators into one aggregate indicator, which would run counter to current implementation of the SDGs and introduce a major disincentive to stepwise progress in the least developed countries. The major constraints currently are lack of political will and the mismatch of local costs versus global benefits. The plastics treaty can contribute positively both through making international ‘plastics finance’ available; and by instituting a mechanism for regional or even global negotiation and implementation of proper EPR (extended producer responsibility) ‘with teeth’. Not only does waste management need to be on the main agenda of the INC, but the focus needs to be on improving management of all municipal and related solid wastes, rather than attempting to consider plastic wastes in isolation.

Learning from the past to plan for the future

My magnum opus that I’ve been working for the last 5 years has now been published. This uses my own experiences and analytical tools to review the historical evolution of waste and resource management since the first environmental legislation back in the 1970s when I first started working as a consultant in the sector. I then draw on my more recent international policy work to reflect on priorities and challenges over the next decade. My basic thesis is that we need to understand how the sector has evolved in the recent past to plan confidently for the future. I hope it will be widely read, not least to avoid ‘reinventing the wheel’; which is why I have published open access, as part of the 40th anniversary celebrations of ISWA’s peer-reviewed journal Waste Management & Research, rather than as a shiny book sitting behind a paywall.

Update. The paper is now officially published as Waste Management & Research, Volume 41, Issue 12, December 2023, pages 1754-1813. A review by Andy Whiteman appeared in CIWM’s Circular journal.

The full title is: ‘Learning from the Past to Plan for the Future: an Historical Review of the Evolution of Waste and Resources Management 1970-2020 and Reflections on Priorities 2020-2030 – the Perspective of an Involved Witness’. The scope includes both municipal solid wastes (MSW) and hazardous wastes; the journey from end-of-pipe waste management, through the 3Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle) to the circular economy; and the continuing struggles of many developing countries to take even the early steps to bring their wastes under control.  Despite impressive progress, around 2.7 billion people worldwide lack access to waste collection; while ~40% of collected MSW is open dumped or burned – a continuing global waste emergency.

So, much remains to be done. Three policy priorities are critical for all countries: access to sustainable financing; rethinking sustainable recycling; and worldwide EPR (extended producer responsibility) with teeth. Extending services to unserved communities (SDG11.6.1) requires a people centred approach, working with communities to provide both quality services and decent livelihoods for collection and recycling workers. Two current opportunities to make real progress are provided by negotiations on an international legally binding instrument to end plastic pollution – extending waste collection and controlled disposal to all would halve the weight of plastics entering the oceans; and on a science-policy panel on chemicals, waste and pollution prevention, modeled on the IPCC for climate change. We need to grasp this ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity.

Socio-economic development drives solid waste management performance in cities

Our new open access paper tests and confirms for the first time the long-standing hypothesis that both the rate of municipal solid waste (MSW) generation in a city, and the performance of its MSW management system, depends on its level of socio-economic development level. We prepared the first consistent and comprehensive dataset for 40 cities around the world and used state-of-the-art statistical and machine learning techniques to correlate Wasteaware Cities Benchmark Indicators (WABI) with a broad range of explanatory socio-economic indices (including Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Social Progress Index (SPI) and Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI).

The results indicate that progress in collection coverage, and controlled recovery and disposal, has already taken place in low- and middle-income cities, although improvements in service quality often lag improvements in service coverage. However, the elephant in the room is that if we continue with ‘business as usual’ development, waste generation per capita and the total quantities (and cost) of waste management services will substantially increase. We urgently need to find new approaches to decoupling waste generation from economic growth and social progress.

The paper is open access and can be downloaded free of charge. It has taken a long time in preparation: thanks to my co-authors Costas Velis, Yoni Gavish, Sue M Grimes and Andrew Whiteman.

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.