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.

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.

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.

Make phasing out open burning of waste an international priority

Professor David C Wilson welcomes the only waste-related official side event at COP26 which is being held in Glasgow today at 1315 and available to watch on the United Nations – Climate Change COP 26 YouTube channel. That the topic is ‘A wasted opportunity: open burning of waste causes a climate and health calamity’ is an added bonus. Congratulations to ISWA, Wasteaid, Engineering X and partners for getting both waste and open burning on the official COP26 agenda!

To ‘eliminate uncontrolled disposal and open burning of waste’ is the second of the waste-related SDGs set out in UNEP and ISWA’s inaugural Global Waste Management Outlook (2015), for which DCW was the lead author. It is one of the two indicators within SDG indicator 11.6.1, for which UN-Habitat have recently published guidance. The climate heating implications of black carbon from open burning of waste have been demonstrated by Natalia Reyna, DCW and co-authors, who estimated that  it is responsible for between 2-10% of global CO₂ equivalent emissions. The serious health impacts of open burning have been highlighted in a recent report by Engineering X, who are now leading an international collaboration to support its phasing out – DCW has joined their Technical Advisory Group. Open burning is also a major campaign issue for the charities Wasteaid, of which DCW is a Patron, and Tearfund, to whom DCW has provided advice on their ‘burning issue’ report.

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.