Guest Editorial: Challenges and Opportunities

Local solid waste management programs operate in a global ­environment. Global forces can have a significant impact on local solid waste management systems, and local actions can have global effects. The quantity and composition of MSW is the result of a global marketplace for the production, packaging, and consumption of products and services. The wastestream is significantly influenced by products manufactured from all over the world. The market and price for recyclables is basically determined by international secondary material market forces. Efforts to improve solid waste practices on a worldwide basis can create enormous opportunities for application of technologies and practices developed in North America. Widescale international efforts to respond to global warming and climate change will create new opportunities for recycling and renewable energy from solid waste. Solid waste professionals in North America must be very aware of these international and global forces and trends, and also must be very proactive in responding to the challenges and taking advantage of the opportunities that they present.

The World Bank estimates that worldwide municipal solid waste generation was 1.3 billion metric tons in 2012. This is projected to increase to 2.2 billion metric tons per year by 2025. Most of this increase will come in rapidly growing cities in developing countries where there is inadequate infrastructure to handle it. In many parts of the world, citizens do not receive the basic services to assure that solid wastes are managed in a way that provides for protection of public health and the environment. According to the International solid Waste Association (ISWA), in many developing countries less than 50% of the waste is collected on a regular or frequent basis, and disposal sites are no more than open uncontrolled dumps. As a result, wastes accumulate along roadways and in water bodies and are the source of public health problems and the spread of disease. Scavengers, including children, at disposal sites are exposed to toxic chemicals, hazardous working and living conditions, and unsafe surroundings involving vehicles and machinery.

The 2014 Waste Atlas supported by members of ISWA documents the 50 biggest, active, uncontrolled dumpsites in the world. Most of these sites are located in poor countries with no financial and human resources available to deal with them. These are not simply local problems that can be ignored; they affect the daily lives of 64 million people.

ISWA’s vision is an Earth where no waste exists and all people have the right to an environment with clean air, water, seas, and soils. Technologies and management systems currently in use in countries around the world can help develop systems where wastes are reused and reduced to a minimum, then collected, recycled, and treated properly, and where residuals are disposed in safe engineered landfills. Establishment of a stable financing structure is paramount to promote investments and capacity building in the waste sector. This is huge challenge of global scope that must become an international priority.

In terms of opportunity, the solid waste management sector holds the potential to become a major participant in the international climate agenda, and this can create access to financial resources to assist in the development of functional waste management infrastructures in developing countries. As ISWA pointed out in its 2010 Waste and Climate Change white paper:

The waste industry occupies a unique position as a potential reducer of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. As industries and countries worldwide struggle to address their carbon footprint, waste sector activities represent an opportunity for carbon reduction which has yet to be fully exploited.

The waste sector offers a portfolio of proven, practical and cost effective technologies which can contribute to GHG mitigation. When adapted and deployed according to local traditions and needs, they can help secure significant GHG emission savings.

Waste offers a significant source of renewable energy. Waste-to-energy, landfill gas recovery and utilization, and use of anaerobic digester biogas can play important roles in reducing fossil fuel consumption and GHG emissions. Waste prevention, recycling, and composting can also significantly reduce GHG emissions.

Waste policies and regulations can be strong national drivers of change. This has been clearly demonstrated in the US. The 2014 EPA GHG Emissions Inventory reported that the emissions from waste operations decreased by 30% from 1990 to 2012. This was due to the increased recycling of organic wastes (paper, paperboard, food waste, and yard trimmings), and a significant increase in the amount of landfill gas collected, recovered, and used as a renewable fuel. This is a remarkable success story that shows how waste reduction and resource recovery can play a major role in reducing GHG emissions from solid waste
management activities.

Solid waste management needs to become a crucial part of the global effort under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). The goal of this Convention, signed by 196 countries including the US and Canada, is to stabilize GHG emissions in the atmosphere to prevent dangerous interference with the climate system. In order to assist developing countries, the UNFCC has established the Green Climate Fund. Initial capitalization of the Fund has reached $10 billion to date, with the US pledging $3 billion, and Canada $300 million. The ultimate goal is to reach $100 billion by 2020. These funds will be used by developing countries to carry out national climate mitigation plans. If some of the funds were directed to GHG reductions in the solid waste management sector, there would also be significant benefits in terms of preventing threats to public health and the environment, and creating opportunities for job creation and economic development.

In December 2015 in Paris, the Council of Parties to the UNFCC will hold its 21st Conference (referred to as COP 21). The ambitious goal of this seminal event is to reach a legally binding and universal agreement for all countries of the world to limit GHG emissions. During COP 17, held in Durban, South Africa, in 2011, ISWA succeeded in assuring that waste for the first time was recognized as an important sector for reporting on climate mitigation. This recognition needs to be extended and reinforced at COP 21 in Paris later this year. To do this we need to enlist the support of international aid agencies such as the World Bank, United Nations Environment Programme, the International Monetary Fund, UN Habitat and national aid and funding agencies. Solid waste management professionals need to work with ISWA, through its broad network of National Members, to communicate an essential message to international policy makers: Policies that encourage climate-friendly solid waste management can help address serious public health and environmental problems across the globe.

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