Reducing Pollutant Emissions From The Waste Sector

by CCAC Secretariat - 5 February, 2024
A Conversation with Donovan Storey, Waste Expert at the UNEP-convened Climate and Clean Air Coalition Secretariat

The 2023 UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) was a crucial step towards transformative waste management solutions. During COP28, global leaders and stakeholders discussed and developed strategies for sustainable waste management through a climate change lens and launched global initiatives, such as Lowering Organic Waste Methane (LOW-Methane) and Zero to Waste, which will help drive adoption of technologies, policies and actions, that will additionally address Short-lived Climate Pollutants (SLCPs) to achieve double dividend benefits associated with integrated action on climate and clean air.  

The private sector is already involved in some aspects of waste valorisation, and we know there is potential to make waste a sustainable and leading-edge circular economy sector. What are the major structural factors blocking waste management from becoming a win-win for investors and the planet? 

While waste management can look like a coherent system from a distance, in most countries it is a highly fragmented and complex environment. There are systems within systems, and you have multiple actors working on different waste streams, all with different potential for valorisation and circularities. This lack of coordination and standardization makes it difficult for investors to navigate the waste management sector and identify profitable opportunities. Additionally, the lack of clear regulations and practices regarding waste management hinders the development of a sustainable circular economy. 

We have to look at waste systems and streams in a more specialised way, based on the actors and the types of waste. For example, some materials, such as metals, have high value and are rarely left lying about, while others, such as low-quality plastic, have very little value and only represent an opportunity cost and little circular economy potential. Organic waste, again, provides very specific challenges – but also opportunities.  

Waste management affects a large number of stakeholders and communities, and the absence of a unified framework and resulting investment opportunities makes it difficult to synthesise system-wide solutions. Nevertheless, we can start to address this complex issue and create space for efficient waste management solutions by making investments in appropriate waste management infrastructure that encourage circularity, inclusion, and financial sustainability as a top priority.

By doing so, we can ensure that waste is efficiently collected, treated, and disposed of in a way that minimises environmental impact and maximises resource recovery. Additionally, investing in waste management infrastructure can create job opportunities and stimulate economic growth in the recycling and waste management sectors. The opportunities are there, but  require creative thinking and leadership. Recognising waste as a critical environment and climate issue – as was done at COP28 – is an important step in the right redirection.  

Given this awareness of the complexity of waste management, what did COP28 achieve in advancing towards real waste management solutions? 

Our knowledge of waste streams and their complexity and importance has increased in the last few years. For instance, the understanding that solutions are stakeholder and material-specific was a key component in the formulation of the Plastics Treaty. Organic waste is also a distinct value chain, as was acknowledged at COP28. Looking at it from a black carbon, air quality, health and methane perspective helped tremendously with this. A better grasp of its unique characteristics and the ways in which organic materials may be integrated into a circular economy strategy is also emerging. 

This understanding also extends to the actors involved. A country's waste sector could be highly structured and formalised, with government contracts, or it can be largely informal and unregulated. Some of the most impoverished communities, acting as waste pickers, are in some places at the core of waste management systems – yet they are rarely recognised as such. In most cases, it is a complex combination of many levels of formality and informality organised at different scales across communities and cities. This even varies from city to city, and thus, the solutions must be tailored to each context.  

In general, COP28 showed that we are now seeing more nuanced approaches to solving these challenges, particularly in relation to finance. There is a growing recognition of the importance of involving municipalities, local communities and private-sector stakeholders in decision-making processes to ensure that solutions are context-specific and address the unique needs and challenges of each city or community. This resulted in launch of LOW-Methane Initiative at COP28 and the CCAC’s Technology and Economic Assessment Panel (TEAP) at the Climate and Clean Air Ministerial 2023. These efforts are very much part of a re-assessment of waste management as not just a local or national concern, but a global issue. 

 

What is the latest information we have on the extent of co-benefits for formalising waste pickers as a part of achieving broader Sustainable Development Goals? 

There have been clear examples in countries like Brazil where recognising the rights of waste pickers has led to waste cooperatives coming under the purview of national policies and regulations. Having said that, a great deal of work needs to be done. The informal sector, which includes an estimated 12–15 million people, is frequently overlooked and ignored when it comes to waste management systems. Waste pickers are often the most vulnerable groups in society and include women and children. 

By acknowledging the positive role of the informal sector in waste management, COP28 demonstrated a growing awareness of the need to address the vulnerabilities faced by waste pickers. Integrating informal workers into waste management solutions not only promotes inclusivity but also ensures a just transition that takes into account their livelihoods and income sources. For example, this is an important consideration when we are talking about closing landfill and dump sites where waste pickers gain an income.   

What can be done to increase the value of certain waste streams, such as organics to the point that they become commercially viable on a large scale? 

All value of different waste products really relies on efficient and organised waste separation. Investors can do very little with mixed waste. As soon as waste mixing happens all the components lose value, and the longer down the waste stream that occurs, the less potential for circularity there is. This applies to paper and plastic, as well as food waste. So, it is essential that waste is separated and transported separately as early as possible. 

One way to increase the value of certain waste streams, such as organics, is by investing in infrastructure and technologies for waste separation, sorting and transportation. This can support more targeted and effective recycling and circularity.

We need to see a shift away from the current "collect and dump" infrastructure that many countries have. There are too few models of decentralised infrastructure to support separation at source and the diversion of waste from landfills. Upstream solutions are thus important to maximise the valorisation of any waste stream.  This will help investors to guarantee stock quality as well as volumes and consistency, supporting investments in composting, Black Soldier Fly or biogas to become more efficient and profitable.  

By prioritising the development of decentralised infrastructure and implementing separation at source, we can effectively divert waste from landfills and promote a more sustainable waste management system.  Investing in upstream solutions will also maximise the value of waste streams but also ensure consistent stock quality and volumes. Elevating organic waste processing is particularly crucial as it addresses the primary contaminant undermining the value of other waste streams, contributing to overall progress in combating climate change and mitigating other harmful environmental processes.  Additionally, establishing strong partnerships between waste management companies, recycling facilities, and potential end-users can help create a demand for these waste streams and drive their commercial viability on a large scale. 

What do we know about the main challenges faced by municipal governments and other actors in establishing solutions for sustainable waste management? 

Finding the right scale is one of the main challenges. We have seen many examples, even in less developed countries where there is investment in waste management facilities, but the infrastructure doesn’t support enough aggregation of waste volume to make the investment break even or profitable. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but rather, we need to have a toolkit from which different countries and cities can draw to meet their context and needs.  

As urbanisation and population growth continue to accelerate in developing countries and with changes in consumption patterns, the amount of waste generated is increasing at an alarming rate. The infrastructure of many cities is struggling to handle the increased volume of packaging and e-waste for example, being initially built to handle a different type of waste. 

For municipalities waste management is often seen as nothing more than a cost, with the sole goal of increased collection rates with almost all waste going to landfills. This approach is simply not sustainable – nor is it necessary. We need to go the scale with national waste management strategies which empower local government to do things differently, and the global community needs to support that change and invest in that change.  

What sort of regulatory examples are emerging which can make a difference to organic waste management? 

Regulations are obviously vital since they ensure more uniform behaviour and can support markets. The general tendency is toward more producer accountability. However, this method does not work well with organic waste; hence, concentrating on food loss and waste avoidance is the key to the organic waste stream, as is separation at source. 

The European Union has recently declared a goal of having zero organic waste to landfill by 2030. This is powerful and really sends a signal that the nature of landfills can be changed from our current concept. They can become material recovery facilities rather than dumpsites, for example, so by only accepting separated waste it can have a powerful upstream effect on producers of waste and households.  

Regulations that alter our relationship with food are also critical.  We need to encourage people to see food beyond large scale commercial industrial systems. This is where innovations in food transportation, storage, and refrigeration are required for the integration of rural and urban systems as well as the development of urban agriculture systems. 

The CCAC has recently begun working on waste through its Technology and Economic Assistance Panel, what role is there for new technologies to support upscaled pollutant reductions? 

Waste is an area where technology is not really the obstacle. The solutions are relatively technologically simple, the real challenges are the infrastructure, regulatory, financial, and coordination systems. 

Biocovers and Black Soldier Fly technologies – which feature in the first CCAC TEAP Brief – are two examples of waste management solutions which are currently under-utilised. They provide examples of good practices with organic waste which additionally support livelihoods and used of composted material to mitigate against methane emissions and odours.

The actors which need the most support in waste management are cities and subnational governments. Most don’t collect enough fees, nor do they have the system-wide regulatory power that national governments have.

As recognition grows on the significance of the global waste crisis on our environment, health and climate, investments in solutions at scale will become more appealing.  TEAP coordinates opportunities for investors and technologies and helps facilitate private sector involvement and access to international financing for sustainable waste solutions.

To fully leverage these technologies, cities and subnational governments require increased financial and regulatory support from national governments to implement and integrate them into their waste management systems effectively. The LOW-Methane Initiative, launched at COP28 and which will be supported by a coordination group housed within the CCAC Secretariat, is an example of this ambition. It’s an exciting initiative, in that it recognises the need for global ambition alongside localised solutions and national ownership.