By Desmond Alugnoa, Member Support Program Coordinator, GAIA Africa, and Claire Arkin, Global Communications Lead, GAIA 

As another UN Climate Change Conference, or “COP” in climate parlance, rapidly approaches, leaders are looking for affordable, effective strategies to reach their emissions reduction targets while also strengthening national economies. Since climate change is related to so many other societal ills, climate solutions cannot be considered in a vacuum. Taking an intersectional approach will both lower political hurdles and bring about more tangible immediate outcomes to community health and wellbeing.

A new report from the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) finds that “zero waste” systems – waste reduction, separate collection, composting, and recycling – is not only a rapid and cost-effective climate mitigation strategy, but can also help bring about a host of economic and social benefits that support several of the SDGs. 

There’s a reason why SDGs 12 (responsible consumption and production) and 13 (climate action) sit beside one another. We cannot achieve climate action without dramatically rethinking our relationship with the material world. An estimated 70% of global greenhouse (GHG) emissions come from the materials economy – from extraction to manufacturing, transport, use, and disposal. By avoiding waste through such methods as reuse, repair, and banning single-use materials, we can create ripple effects that reduce emissions throughout the product life cycle. For example, creating a soda can from recycled aluminum uses 96% less energy than starting with raw materials. 

The waste sector itself has a significant carbon footprint. The report finds that zero waste strategies could reduce global waste emissions by 84%, or 1.4 billion tons, the equivalent of taking 300 million cars off the road annually (or all motor vehicles in the US). The report profiles the potential GHG emissions savings through zero waste approaches for eight cities of diverse geographies and socioeconomic status, and finds that some like São Paulo and Detroit could achieve net negative emissions in the waste sector by 2030, with the sector saving more carbon than it emits. 

Tackling waste is a powerful climate strategy particularly when it comes to methane, a greenhouse gas 80 times as potent as carbon dioxide (CO2). Twenty percent of all methane emissions comes from landfilling our organic waste where it sits and rots, belching the gas into the atmosphere. At the last year’s COP in Glasgow, UK, the international community recognized the importance of reducing methane by announcing the Global Methane Pledge signed by more than one hundred countries, committing to reducing global methane emissions at least 30% from 2020 levels by 2030. Utilizing proven strategies like separate collection of organic waste, composting, mechanical-biological treatment of residual waste, and biologically active landfill cover can reduce waste sector methane emissions by an average of 95%.

The climate crisis has also threatened food production, with the increase in droughts, floods, and pestilence leading to reduced yields and crop failure, putting SDG 2 (zero hunger) in jeopardy. The simple act of separately collecting and composting our organic discards can support food security by making local food systems more resilient to climate-related environmental stressors. 

Not only does composted soil draw down carbon from the atmosphere, increasing soil’s ability to be a carbon sink, it also enriches the bacteria in the soil that facilitate a good harvest. Composted soil has also been shown to preserve nutrients in the face of drought and absorb and detoxify floodwaters to prevent the worst outcomes of flooding. 

The necessity of composting organics is especially important in the Global South, not only because the majority of the region’s waste streams are made up of organics, but because Global South communities are on the frontlines of the changing climate’s worst impacts. Composting can support communities in both flood-prone areas like the Philippines and Bangladesh, and in dry Sub-Saharan Africa to protect local agriculture. Fortunately, communities across the world have been practicing composting for generations. The next step is for governments to scale composting infrastructure in their climate plans. 

Zero waste systems do not only promote climate resilience but support economic stability and equity as well. Zero waste has been shown to support SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth), by creating up to 200 times as many jobs as disposal systems like landfilling and incineration. And there are not just more jobs but better jobs: studies show that zero waste systems support higher wages and better working conditions than in disposal systems, and allow workers to develop and use a diverse range of skills, from equipment repair to public outreach. Reports show that an 80% diversion of organics and recyclables could lead to 18,000 new jobs in places like Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and 36,000 new jobs in São Paulo, Brazil.  

Governments that put in place zero waste strategies also fight poverty (SDG 1) and systemic inequities (SDG 10). Much of the existing recycling collection around the world is performed by the informal recycling sector, particularly in the Global South. There are between 12.6 million and 56 million people worldwide currently working as informal recyclers, and the majority of them work in unsafe and undignified conditions with very little pay, job security, or worker protections. By adopting a zero waste system, local governments “formalize” these workers, meaning that they are recognized and compensated for the important work they do for the community, and are given a seat at the decision-making table. 

For example, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the government contracted 6,500 registered workers in 12 waste picker cooperatives to run their recycling system, which the cooperatives co-manage with the local government. Through this partnership workers receive the recognition and support they deserve, and the city saves thousands of tons of GHG emissions. The cooperative Amanecer de los Cartoneros alone prevents an estimated 112,157 tons of GHG emissions per year. 

Sometimes the simplest and most obvious solutions are the best, and the same is true for the waste sector. With a modest investment in scaling zero waste solutions, governments can achieve quick results towards meeting the SDGs.