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.

COP26 and the waste and resource sector

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 hub; as a feature on CIWM’s Circular Online; and as an ISWA guest blog.

Resource and Waste Management and the SDGs

Prof David C Wilson took part in a panel discussion at the RWM with CIWM exhibition and conference at the NEC in Birmingham this week. He made the point that while we already know what needs to be done to extend municipal solid waste management services to the unserved half of the World’s population, the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) are critical to unlocking the political will to make it happen.

Extending waste collection to everyone and eliminating open dumping and burning would specifically address targets under SDGs 11 (sustainable cities), 12 (responsible consumption and production) and 6 (clean water and sanitation). But it would also halve the quantities of plastics reaching the oceans (SDG14 life below water) and contribute to climate mitigation (SDG13) and public health (SDG3). Local recycling would also contribute significantly to SDG8 (livelihoods) and SDG1 (end poverty).

DCW is currently drafting a chapter on SDGs as a driver for change, for an upcoming Routledge Handbook on the circular economy.

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.

A key utility service

In his first monthly column in the CIWM Journal as CIWM President, Professor David C. Wilson has revisited his Presidential address. His overall theme for the year is solid waste management as a key utility service, underpinning modern society. Within that three strands are to avoid complacency when it comes to protecting public health and the environment; the continuing move from the linear ‘make – use – dispose’ model to a more circular economy; and the global waste crisis, with more than 3 billion people lacking access to a basic solid waste management service.
DCW writes: ‘“Let us work together to promote the fact that solid waste management is one of the essential utility services underpinning our society. Let us ensure that the regular, daily delivery of that service to protect public health and the environment is not undermined, either by on-going cuts in local authority spending or by deregulation following Brexit”. And again: “It is simply unacceptable that 40% of the World’s population lack this basic utility service that we take for granted. We need to ensure that waste collection is extended to all people, and that uncontrolled dumping and open burning is eliminated.”