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Zero Waste – a Key Solution for a Low-Carbon Economy

by Joan Marc Simon
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Waste management has critical climate implications. While waste is not always seen as a critical frontline issue for climate change mitigation, it in fact offers particularly cost-effective and ready-to-implement solutions pathways that can draw support from diverse constituencies who may otherwise not engage in climate-related work. The impact of these solutions on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is far from negligible, particularly from a lifecycle perspective. As climate change economist Nicholas Stern has noted, “Recycling is already making a major contribution to keeping down emissions. Indeed, its scale is so little appreciated that it might be described as one of the ‘best kept secrets’ in energy and climate change….”[1]

Zero waste solutions—including waste reduction, redesign, composting, biogas, extended producer responsibility, consumption transformation, and recycling—could be implemented today, using existing innovations, with immediate results.

7 Key Achievements of Zero Waste Solutions for a Low-Carbon Economy:

 1. Reduction of GHG emissions in every household. Programs that reduce, reuse and recycle municipal waste are effective and high-impact means of reducing GHG emissions.[2] When discarded materials are recycled, they provide industry with an alternative source of raw materials from which to make new products. This results in less demand for virgin materials whose extraction, transport and processing are major sources of GHG emissions. Zero Waste solutions thus reduce emissions in virtually all extractive industries: mining, forestry, agriculture, and petroleum extraction.

 cartro reciclat2. Reduction of GHG emissions at the production line. Additional energy and associated emissions are saved in the manufacturing process, as recycled materials generally require less energy to be turned back into products.[3] While “waste to energy” incinerators capture some of the energy embodied in materials that they burn, recycling the same materials conserves three to five times as much energy.[4] This is particularly notable

in products such as aluminum, where the direct energy use is reduced by 88% from that required to produce primary aluminum.[5]

  1. Soil restoration with compost and increase of carbon sink capacity. Compost from green waste — everything from household food scraps to dairy manure — avoids methane emissions from waste disposal
    organic waste
    Source-separated organic waste is key to produce high-quality compost to restore the carbon sink capacity of soils.

    and most importantly, it contributes to soil restoration and helps increase its capacity to act as carbon sinks. Research shows that if compost was applied to just 5 percent of the California state’s grazing lands, the soil could capture a year’s worth of greenhouse gas emissions from California’s farm and forestry industries. The effect is cumulative, meaning the soil keeps absorbing carbon dioxide even after just one application of compost, as compost decomposition provides a slow release fertilizer to the soils leading to an increase in carbon sequestration and increased plant production.[6]

  2. Reduction of GHG and toxic emissions from waste disposal. Zero Waste solutions also directly reduce GHG emissions and toxic pollutant releases from waste disposal facilities, which are a significant source of both. Burning waste emits
    rugby cement plant
    CEMEX Cement plant in Rugby (UK), burning waste as fuel.

    carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrous oxide (N2O); and landfills and dumps are a primary source of methane (CH4), as well as CO2.[7In fact, incinerators produce more carbon dioxide (CO2) per unit of electricity than coal-fired power plants.[8] The average trash incinerator in the U.S. directly emits an average of 2.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide per MWh and 2.8 tonnes of nitrous oxide per MWh—both greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.[9] Burning waste also drives a climate changing cycle of new resources pulled out of the earth, processed in factories, shipped around the world, and then wasted in incinerators,landfills and combustion plants that use it as fuel, such as cement kilns.

  3. Zero Waste Solutions are cost-effective and accessible. Recycling for example has been noted as an extremely cost effective method of achieving emissions reductions. Avoiding one ton of CO2 emissions through recycling costs 30% less than doing so through energy efficiency and 90% less than wind power.[10] As climate change economist Nicholas Stern has noted, “Recycling is already making a major contribution to keeping down emissions. Indeed, its scale is so little appreciated that it might be described as one of the ‘best kept secrets’ in energy and climate change….”[11]
  1. Zero Waste Solutions create green jobs and revitalize local economies. The recycling sector, with more than two million informal recyclers in developing country cities, offers climate-smart urban solutions to sustain and strengthen livelihood development, improve local environmental health, and strengthen local economies. foto22By prioritizing people-led zero waste programs that are rooted in worker empowerment, community participation, and policies that are both farsighted and inclusive, zero waste solutions illuminate the path toward building sustainable waste management systems that work for both communities and the environment.
  2. It reinvigorates and develops our communities. Solving the waste and climate problem requires more than technical fixes: zero waste solutions are part of a larger web of decisions about health, equity, power, poverty, development, policy decisions and governance which require the participation and engagement of everyone. Waste is everyone’s business and zero waste programs can draw support from diverse constituencies who may otherwise not engage in climate-related work.

[1] Stern, Nicholas, A Blueprint for a Safer Planet. Bodley Head, 2009.

[2] USEPA, Solid Waste Management And Greenhouse Gases: A Life-Cycle Assessment Of Emissions And Sinks, 3rd Edition. 2006.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Morris, “Comparative LCAs for Curbside Recycling, Versus Either Landfilling or Incineration With Energy Recovery.” International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment. (2005); 13(3) 226-234.

[5] Schlesinger, Aluminum Recycling. CRC Press, 2006.

[6] See for the latest bibliography on this work.

[7] IPCC, AR4, Working Group 3, Chapter 10.

[8] U.S. EPA,


[10] Skumatz, “What Provides The Biggest Bang? Comparing Carbon Footprint Effects And Costs from Diversion vs. Energy Programs” presentation at California Resource Recovery Association, August 2008.

[11] Stern, Nicholas, A Blueprint for a Safer Planet. Bodley Head, 2009.

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There are 2 comments
  1. Waste has become one major threat to lives and greater threat to survival, Solid, liquid and E-waste has created serious threat to environment and under climate change it has prominent for pollution and adding pollutants in rivers, lands by landfill and disposal ,
    Waster will be waste if this has to be thought for recycle, reuse, and that waste will automatically reduced if any productive assets or durable products could the developed , I thing there has way out to create several opportunities , employability, productive assets and shelter materials and assure income for youth and adolescent,
    Thus there an opportunity to engage major stake holders to develop a a solid modality that can be used as farm yard manure in reducing degradation along with enhancing social- ecological- financial capitals follwoed by envirnmental sustainability,
    In this regard UDYAMA is very much keen to undertake this challenge as an opportunity, It can be ery much liked to SMART CITIES program, Plz extend any idea , thoughts, inputs and innovations to carry forward wate to Energy & wealth,

    with Best Regards
    Pradeep Mahapatra, Secretary & chief Executive UDYAMA, India- Mobile -+919437110892

  2. […] if you still think this way, please feel very welcomed to check out our previous post about how we can bridge the two campaigning fronts and create mutually reinforcing positive […]

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