A Call to Mitigate Greenhouse Gas Emissions from the Waste Management Sector
The waste management sector generated more than 1,600 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) worldwide in 2020.
To put that number into context, that is approximately 2.4 times the total emissions generated in all economic sectors in Canada in the same year,. Out of these emissions, more than three quarters originate from management of solid waste (others are wastewater treatment and agricultural waste). Generation of solid waste varies significantly by location, socio-economic characteristics, and local industry. Whereas construction and agricultural activities comprise a significant segment of the solid waste generated, the majority is produced in households and by commercial activities.
Even though waste is collected and managed at the local level, the size and scope of management practices vary broadly depending on the municipality in question. Even in industrialized countries, completely different waste management practices can be found. While the United States and Canada tend to favour landfilling practices, most of the waste in Europe is incinerated for energy recovery or diverted for composing and recycling operations. Although these different practices have helped the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in recent decades, there are still several technological improvements that can be leveraged to reach national emissions targets. For example, the federal government has outlined a plan to reduce about 40% of emissions (compared to 2005 levels) from the waste sector in Canada by 2030.
These targets are expected to be achieved by significant growth in the generation of renewable energy from waste, and with an increment in recycling, composting, and similar practices that align with the principles of a circular economy.
Figure 1. Breakdown of Canada’s GHG emissions by Sector in 2020.
Emissions from waste originate from the decomposition of organic components in the solid waste. Typical household waste such as food waste, cardboard, and paper, will generate gases when decomposed. From these, methane is the major contributor to GHG emissions in the solid waste sector, and it has about 25-30 times more global warming potential (GWP) than carbon dioxide. Therefore, a small reduction in the amount of methane emitted to the atmosphere will have a significant impact on global GHG emissions reduction efforts. There are not significant technological barriers impeding achieving these goals as may be the case for other sectors of the economy.
In other jurisdictions however, hurdles can be found in the rapid access to these technologies, including lack of knowledge, training, and the financial means to pay for these efforts. About 70% of solid waste is generated in developing countries, with more than 60% focused on the regions of Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The effects of poor waste management not only affect air emissions, but also has long lasting socio-economic, health, and water pollution impacts.
Firstly, waste collection remains a major issue in developing countries where less than half of waste is collected and taken to a suitable final disposal facility. Secondly, inefficient waste policies have led to a surge of hundreds of uncontrolled waste disposal sites. These sites not only often lack adequate infrastructure to protect underground aquifers around the site, but also do not take measures to properly gather and compact the residues, or to accumulate and control the flow of gas produced. The latter often leads to fires that endanger and affect the health of nearby residents that frequently make their living from the informal recycling economy. Another similar problem begins when well-engineered and well-managed sanitary landfills are abandoned as they become too expensive to maintain and operate, or when rules suddenly change and there are not clear funding policies in place.
Effective landfilling is a good initial first step to start combating emissions from this important but often forgotten economic sector. Different strategies to abate emissions can follow and will be attractive depending on local conditions, however there is a clear call to at least start talking these issues. From our position, we should engage in programs of cooperation and technology transfer to help support the transition to a cleaner waste management sector in developing countries. Other than technical skills, this effort must have political backing, commitment from different sectors and organizations, and financial resources. Process Ecology has engaged in tackling these issues with the development of TEAM, a cloud-based support-decision software to estimate emissions and GHG mitigation technologies from this and other sectors of the economy. This tool is intended for municipalities, operators, and other parties interested in designing strategies to abate emissions from the waste sector.
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 Climate Watch, the World Resources Institute (2020). Historical GHG Emissions. https://www.climatewatchdata.org/ghg-emissions?end_year=2018&start_year=1990. Retrieved on May 8, 2022.
 Environment and Climate Change Canada (2021). National Inventory Report 1990-2020: Greenhouse gas sources and sinks in Canada. Canada’s Submission to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Gatineau, QC.
 Environment and Climate Change Canada (2022). 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan. Canada’s Next Steps for Clean Air and a Strong Economy. Gatineau, QC.
 Further reading: Circular Economy by The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. https://unctad.org/topic/trade-and-environment/circular-economy. Retrieved on May 5, 2022.
 The global warming potential measures the ability for each gas to trap heat in the atmosphere. More information can be found at https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/climate-change/greenhouse-gas-emissions/quantification-guidance/global-warming-potentials.html. Retrieved on May 12, 2022.
 Air & Waste Management Association (A&WMA). Webinar on “Progress and Challenges in International Solid Waste Management and Disposal.” March 15, 2022.