Trash Could be a Wasted Opportunity— Or a Key to Achieving the Global Sustainable Development Goals

Solving the global garbage problem would bring the world one step closer to clean air and a healthy planet.

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Waste burns at the main dump for Nigeria's capital Abuja. Improving waste management can reduce toxic air pollution and powerful greenhouse gases like methane. .

Humans produce trash at a staggering rate— in fact, without dramatic changes waste production will increase by 70 percent between now and 2050. That’s up from pretty dire levels already: in 2016, the world produced over 2 billion tonnes of waste.

Worse yet, humans don’t even know how to process the levels of waste that already exist: By conservative estimates, a third of global waste isn’t managed in an environmentally safe manner. In poor countries, over 90 percent of waste is openly dumped, burned, or both, with devastating impacts for health and the environmental. Solid waste generated 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gas emissions— that’s about 5 percent of global emissions. Without substantive changes emissions are expected to increase to 2.6 billion tonnes by 2050.

The magnitude of the problem is overwhelming but it’s also an opportunity. Solving the waste juggernaut is a key strategy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the pressing call for action at the heart of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Adopted by every United Nations member state in 2015, the 2030 Agenda creates “a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.”

A session at the recent Tenth Session of the World Urban Forum, the foremost international gathering on urban issues, focused on this vital intersection. It showcased proven policy and technology solutions for improving waste management and diverting waste. Sandra Mazo-Nix, the Waste Initiative Coordinator at Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), explained how better waste management can improve air quality, mitigate climate change, and meet the SDGs.

Waste transects a number of the goals— from SDG 2, helping achieve zero hunger by addressing food waste, to SDG 8, encouraging decent work and economic growth by addressing working conditions in the waste sector, and SDG 14 protecting marine life by addressing the staggering amounts of plastics in the ocean. But perhaps most of all, waste management is crucial for achieving SDG 11, sustainable cities and communities, and SDG 13, taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.

The CCAC is a network of governments and organizations working to mitigate climate change and improve air quality by reducing short-lived climate pollutants like black carbon and methane, which are many times more powerful than carbon dioxide and have a variety of deleterious health impacts.

Waste is very important to the Coalition’s work, not least of all because municipal waste landfills are the third largest man-made source of methane emissions. Open burning of waste and the diesel trucks that collect and transport garbage also emit dangerous air pollutants, including black carbon, a potent short-lived climate pollutant that causes crop loss and premature death.

Waste management can be incredibly expensive— cities in poor countries are spending about 20 percent of their budgets on waste management despite most of it being burned or dumped. That’s why CCAC is working with cities around the world to help them implement more sustainable waste management systems with a focus on mitigating methane and black carbon emissions. Its strategies include preventing and reducing waste generation, banning open burning and open dumping, diverting organic waste from landfills, optimising waste collection routes, and recovering methane from landfills for energy production before they are emitted.

The CCAC assistance takes into account the waste hierarchy in which waste prevention, recycling and composting are key. Change is possible, we’re already seeing it happening: between 2012 and 2018 the collection of waste in low-income countries increased from 22 percent to 39 percent. Recycling and composting are also increasing and waste to energy incineration in higher-income countries increased from 0.1 percent to 10 percent, driven largely by China.

Here’s a peek into three cities where CCAC is accelerating that change:

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Operations at the landfill in Bijeljina, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The country’s fifth-largest city became a member of the CCAC in 2018. The city applied for expert assistance from the CCAC’s Solution Centre to improve and upgrade their waste management system. The city wanted help with diverting organic waste from landfills and finding the optimum composting treatment technologies to treat the bio-waste. The CCAC approved their request in October 2019 which allowed them to undertake a study, the Biowaste Diversion Study for the Bijeljina Region.

“Food waste comprises around 50 percent of the total generated municipal waste and that’s one of the big issues that related to the Sustainable Development Goals,” said Dusan Milovanovic, Project Manager, Serbian Solid Waste Association (SeSWA). “We have to figure out how to prevent food waste and redistribute food to those in need. That’s something we must be thinking about.”

The study found that if 20 percent of home waste was composted then over 6 percent of the city’s bio-waste could be diverted from landfills. If every rural household took part then a third of all bio-waste could be diverted. The study highlighted minimum and maximum scenarios of bio-waste collections which could collect 20 percent or 70 percent of bio-waste, respectively.

Two additional studies are underway, one to design a composting plant and another about the market for compost. There are still a lot of challenges, including government resistance to increasing waste collection fees for fear of upsetting their electorate, but CCAC support has meant the city has made significant progress.

The diversion of bio-waste from landfills will reduce methane emissions from anaerobic degradation of the organic waste. This is key to combating climate change and achieving the associated SDGs. Bio-waste separation will also help the economy by increasing the demand for appropriate equipment and job creation (for bio-waste collection and the composting plant) — both important goals of the SDGs.

Medan City, Indonesia

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Internal landfill fires burn at the landfill in Medan, Indonesia.

With the help of CCAC’s Municipal Solid Waste Initiative, Medan City, the fourth-largest city in Indonesia, conducted a rapid assessment in 2017-2018 to better understand the challenges and opportunities of its waste management.  Using the assessment’s findings and conversations with relevant local experts, the CCAC and Medan City developed a work plan to improve waste management.

“This provided a basis for achieving the SDGs and a start for actual implementation,” said Willy Irawan, the Head of Division for Planning and Environment of Medan Municipality “This work plan will be used as a tool that brings a wide range of stakeholders together to work on improving waste management and accomplish our SDG targets in the long run.”

The plan includes measures like separating waste at the source, reducing waste through composting, and proper landfill operations. It also helped the city develop new targets including that by 2025 Medan City must reduce total waste by 30 percent.

Indonesia is a marine litter hotspot, and improved waste collection and treatment will lead to less plastic waste making its way into water causeways and the ocean. Preventing the dumping of waste into the oceans is a big contribution to SDG 14 “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, sea and marine resources for sustainable development”.

Medan’s work plan also includes closing the city’s open dump. This will decrease black carbon emissions from fires at the open dump, improving air quality and citizen health.

Buenos Aires, Argentina

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Organic waste is sorted at a composting facility in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Buenos Aires has emerged as a regional waste management leader and cites the CCAC as providing inspiration and guidance for that leadership.

“The information that CCAC and C40 gave us was the key to understanding a lot of things about waste management,” said Melisa Wilkinson, Operative Manager at New Technologies. “The workshops we participated in and the people we met helped us learn the experience of other cities, what worked and what didn’t.

All waste generated in the city is placed into trash bins separated for recycling and wet waste that are located all over the city and picked up by trucks with a GPS system for route control. The wet waste is treated in a mechanical and biological treatment plant while the rest is diverted to landfills.

The recyclables are collected by urban recyclers, who are divided into cooperatives. This has created 5,000 new formal jobs with many of the new employees formerly unemployed trash pickers. There are green centers around the city recycling is sorted and then and then sold onto companies who can reuse them.

Buenos Aires also built a recycling center that processes over 3,000 tons of construction and demolition waste every day— which makes up 40 percent of the city’s entire waste. It uses an air blower to separate lighter materials like papers and plastics, a magnetic separator for heavy duty material, and then hand selection for more complicated items. There is also a pruning waste treatment facility and an organic waste treatment facility that creates fertilizer.

Buenos Aires’ actions to divert organic waste have yielded a multitude of benefits in line with the SDGs. Its work to reduce food waste and create fertilizer contributes to SDG 2 “Zero Hunger” and its employment of trash pickers means the city also contributes toachieving SDG 8, “Decent work and economic growth.”

“We learned from the experiences of other cities that our problems are similar to almost every other city,” said Wilkinson, “Talking to other cities helped us understand if what we were doing was okay or if we needed to push a bit more.”

At the 2014 UN Climate Summit, the CCAC Waste Initiative pledged, as part of the overall CCAC commitments, to engage with 150 cities by 2020 who are committed to mitigate SLCPs from their waste management systems. Beyond that, the Initiative envisions working with those 150 cities as a launchpad to eventually make a positive impact in 1,000 cities. The exciting progress of Bijeljina, Medan City, and Buenos Aires shows how much progress cities can make when they work together. The CCAC hopes these efforts will provide inspiration for other cities around the world to join hands with the CCAC and tit partner cities that are global leaders at transforming waste from a problem to an opportunity.

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