The waste sector, and specifically organic waste, is the third largest source of global methane emissions, which in addition to other actions, must be curbed in order to achieve commitments of the Global Methane Pledge.
So what’s missing? In our latest publication, The Big Methane-Cutting Opportunity That Immediately Helps Vulnerable Communities: Organic Waste, we make the case for managing methane emissions by managing organic waste. We then explore measures that could significantly spur expansion of better organic waste management, especially in more vulnerable communities.
The Global Organic Waste Management Opportunity
Methane is a greenhouse gas that is shorter-lived than carbon dioxide (CO2), lasting only about a decade in the atmosphere. However, its global warming effects are over 80 times more potent in that shorter period.1 Left unchecked, methane emissions could send climate change past a point of no return, triggering dangerous feedback loops.
A seminal UN report published last year found that immediate reductions in methane emissions are the best, most effective measure to reduce near-term global warming and meet the Paris Agreement goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C.2 Over 100 countries have pledged to collectively reduce global methane emissions by 20% in 2030, compared with 2020 levels. That alone could prevent over 0.2°C of warming by 2050.3
After the agricultural and energy sectors, the waste sector is the third highest emitter of methane. Solid waste disposal and wastewater are responsible for 14-20% of global human-caused methane emissions, with solid waste management accounting for roughly half of that amount.4
The main culprit of the solid waste sector’s methane emissions is organic waste. In many parts of the world, compostable materials such as food and garden waste make up over half of total municipal solid waste, sometimes as high as 80%.5 As all that buried organic waste breaks down anaerobically in landfills, and leachate forms from rainwater seeping through it, one ton of methane is released into the atmosphere approximately every second. Even when landfills are closed, they continue to emit methane for 25-30 years.6
Unmanaged organic waste harms local communities as well as accelerating global warming. Decaying organic material generates heat alongside methane gas, which can spark fires in dumpsites.8 These fires can then release toxic chemicals into the air, as well as cause cave-ins and landslides.9 Leachate, meanwhile, causes drinking water and soil contamination.10 And decomposing organics in dumpsites become breeding grounds for infectious diseases.11
Fortunately, low-tech and proven solutions are readily available. Waste collection systems can keep organic waste separated from other waste at the source – and Delterra has demonstrated that investing in the necessary behavior change can achieve high-quality results cost-effectively.12 Once collected as a separate stream, organic waste can be treated (locally or commercially) to produce useful products, such as compost for amending soil, animal feed, or even biogas to generate energy, all without releasing methane into the atmosphere or harmful leachate into local environments.
A Holistic Investment in Healthier Communities and the Planet
Despite the clear opportunity, collection and treatment of organic waste remains rare throughout the world. In the Global South, where the harms of unmanaged organic waste are most acute, waste management funding predominantly goes toward mixed waste collection and landfilling. The problem is that separated organic waste collection and treatment are more complex to operate, with no clear economic incentive to do so – yet.
Governments, NGOs, and philanthropic funders can work together to create a more attractive business case for organic waste treatment. In this publication we explore measures that could greatly spur expansion of better organic waste management, especially in more vulnerable communities, including:
- fostering use of organic waste treatment products
- closing the profitability gap through additional revenue streams
- making organic waste treatment the cheaper option compared to landfilling and illegal dumping, and
- improving efficiency of treatment facilities.
Delterra’s Experience: Rethinking Recycling Bali
Delterra’s analyses and on-the-ground experience building organic waste treatment solutions suggest that, even in seemingly challenging settings in the Global South, it is possible to create financially sustainable, holistic waste management systems that divert organic waste into productive use. We have also witnessed firsthand how transforming waste management can uplift vulnerable communities and provide new livelihoods while creating a safer, healthier local environment.
It’s clear how much more would be possible with a more supportive policy framework and more robust markets for the products of organic waste treatment. With curbing methane emissions now a global priority, and the urgency of addressing the harms of waste pollution in vulnerable communities, solutions for organic waste deserve a closer look, and bold action.
Authors: Caroline Vanchiere, Cynthia Shih, Anna Haffmans, Alina Jurcola
Reviewers: Esther Carter, Federico di Penta, Jeremy Douglas, Dr.Wolfgang Pfaff-Simoneit
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