In the upcoming days, COP26 will bring together governments and other key stakeholders to try to negotiate solutions to tackle climate change and mitigate its impact in the upcoming decades. This year, the pressure is on, following the latest report by the IPCCwhich highlighted that reaching the threshold of 3 degrees warming compared to pre-industrial global temperatures will result in climate extremes, such as floods, droughts and wildfires, all of which will cause the displacement of millions of people and the increase of food insecurity.
The waste sector as a whole is a large source of GHG emissions. This is particularly relevant when looking at waste management within cities, especially at a time when the world is on a trajectory where waste generation will outpace population growth by more than double by 2050. Each year, the European Union produces nearly 2.3 billion tonnes of waste. Although this is primarily from construction, mining and industry, each person within the EU still produces, on average, half a tonne of household waste a year, of which less than half is currently being recycled.
The role of cities
With more than 50% of the world’s population currently living in cities, a figure that is expected to increase to almost 70% by 2050, the role cities play in global efforts to tackle climate change is fundamental. For example, cities generate around 70% of total global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
They should, can, and in a growing number of circumstances already are, taking a leading role by being the first to adopt more circular economy strategies. Since the urban population is expected to grow by 2.5 billion over the next 30 years, taking action at this level could reduce emissions by nearly 90% by 2050.
But what is it exactly that municipalities can concretely do to fight climate change?
- Maximize source separation and separate collection: An effective separation and collection system ensures the retrieval of materials that can be recycled or put back into the economic system. Current examples in Europe show separate collection systems achieving recycling rates of 80-90% of municipal waste, having a huge impact on the volume of waste sent for incineration/landfill.
- The separate collection of organics, in particular, has the biggest impact if the huge volume of this waste could be sent for composting rather than landfill or incineration. For example, organic waste sitting in landfills emits high volumes of methane, a GHG 25 times more potent than CO2.
- Encourage reuse: Authorities can play a key role in facilitating the roll-out of refillable systems for beverages and other reuse systems, such as those for reusable nappies. They can also support second-hand shops, repair cafes and other zero-waste initiatives. Municipalities should follow the example led by those authorities who have signed the #WeChooseReuse commitment letter.
- Prevent food waste: Preventing food waste is a critically important option to avoid emissions from landfills. For example, food waste is estimated to contribute to 8% of all global GhG emissions. Whilst most of these emissions occur during the production and agricultural process, rather than in households, there is still an important role for cities to introduce greater prevention awareness and measures, both in households and local businesses. For example, food waste can be reduced with the right training, incentives and procurement policies in canteens, restaurants, hotels, hospitals and homes. Packaging free shops and local markets can prevent packaging and food waste whilst also providing citizens with fresh, locally sourced food, if they’re able to partner with local producers.
Through the prevention of materials becoming waste, by the re-thinking of existing business models and the development of community-centred solutions, less energy and materials would be used and therefore subsequently reducing the volume of GhG emissions produced. The potential positive climate impacts on offer to us, by adopting more circular strategies across society, are huge and their importance must be recognised by decision-makers at COP26.
Zero waste, with its core solutions such as waste reduction, composting, recycling, is therefore a fundamental solution to the climate crisis. Zero waste systems and their approach can both prevent emissions throughout the entire lifecycle of a product or material, as well as actually helping to sequester existing carbon dioxide, through biological processes. Yet it is also the economic, social, and health benefits that zero waste provides to cities that mean they are so important and pivotal in the fight against climate change, helping create strong and resilient societies that are able to face the challenges of the future.
Maria Nembo is a volunteer for Zero Waste Europe.