Tackle trash for the climate, economy and human dignity

by Helena Molin Valdes | Climate and Clean Air Coalition
Thursday, 18 September 2014 08:46 GMT

A woman collects garbage from a dump along the polluted Buriganga river in Dhaka, Bangladesh, June 5, 2014. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Better management of municipal waste cuts methane emissions, and improves water and air quality - as well as people's lives

In the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, home to 12 million people, less than half the garbage is formally collected. The rest is dumped in open spaces, particularly in slums.

The piles of rubbish create a stench, attract rodents and clog drains. Liquids leach into the groundwater. Often the trash is burned, creating thick smoke.

In Cali, Colombia, virtually all the waste is collected, and most goes into a sanitary landfill. Yet of the roughly 600,000 tonnes of material disposed of each year, only about 17 percent is recycled. Around half the recycling is done by informal waste-pickers, some of the city’s poorest and most vulnerable people.

Meanwhile in Stockholm, Sweden, less than 1 percent of trash goes to landfills. More than half is turned into energy – incinerated or used to produce biogas, which fuels city buses and garbage trucks. A third is recycled, and about one sixth is composted or anaerobically digested.

This is an exciting time for climate action. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has challenged the world to raise our collective ambition and come to his Climate Summit with bold new commitments and robust solutions.

The Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants (CCAC), now more than 90 members strong, is coming to the table with a half dozen initiatives.

Our municipal solid waste initiative is a prime example of what can be accomplished.

Municipal solid waste, including landfills, is a major source of global methane emissions: 800 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent each year, about the same as Germany’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Open burning and transport of this waste also produces black carbon (soot) and carbon dioxide.

So garbage is a serious climate issue, for both the near and long term. But it’s also a sector full of opportunities to achieve multiple benefits from actions that reduce emissions: better air quality, improved public health and living standards, new energy sources and economic development.

SAFER WATER, CLEANER AIR

We know what works, and nearly 30 cities – including Dhaka, Cali and Stockholm – are already collaborating through the CCAC to realise the potential. They are backed by public- and private-sector partners, development banks and international organisations.

Our goal is to expand to 50 cities by December 2015 and 150 by 2020, and through them, to catalyse actions in 1,000 cities worldwide.

“For us, dealing with municipal waste isn’t just about methane emissions,” says Bipan Kumar, chief waste management officer of the Dhaka North City Corporation.

“We’re also doing it for water safety, cleaner air and a better quality of life. This initiative provides a platform to increase the visibility of municipal solid waste and help us move in the right direction. We get to work shoulder-to-shoulder with other partners in pursuit of common goals. We learn from one another, and we get technical assistance, new knowledge, capacity-building, and access to experts.”

That is the essence of our CCAC collaboration: working together to achieve “win-wins” for the climate and development, and aiming higher than we could alone.

Cities at all development levels can do better. Once we’ve got the basics covered, we can move up the “waste ladder” to better collection, more sanitary disposal, higher levels of recycling and energy production.

For example, Cebu City in the Philippines is focusing on community and private-sector engagement. It’s also mapping opportunities to develop products from recycled waste, and thus create jobs and boost incomes. “Cebu City dreams of becoming a low-carbon city, and CCAC is helping us to achieve that dream,” says City Councillor Nida Cabrera.

CITIES TEAM UP

Cali has also made recycling a priority, aiming to recover a bigger share of the valuable materials that now go to waste. By upgrading its recycling systems, the city also hopes to create safer, healthier work conditions for the waste-pickers, and give them a chance at better livelihoods.

The initiative is also helping build new relationships. At our first workshop in March 2013 the team from Viña del Mar, Chile – already a sustainability leader – was inspired by Stockholm to develop an integrated solid waste management plan.

The two cities have forged a formal partnership, and so have Chile and Sweden, aiming to have Viña del Mar serve as a model for other Chilean cities.  

Our partners are already making great strides, but we can do so much more. Tackling municipal solid waste can help us reduce greenhouse gas emissions while helping cities achieve their top development priorities.

We look forward to sharing our ideas at the Climate Summit, and hope to leave New York with many new partners in our quest for better waste management.

Helena Molin Valdes is head of the secretariat of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, based in Paris. To learn more about CCAC and its Municipal Solid Waste Initiative, visit http://www.unep.org/ccac.