Zero Waste Cities: A Key Solution to the Climate Crisis

By Claire Arkin

(This blog contains excerpts from this article by Mariel Vilella, and this blog by Jack McQuibban. Special thanks to Doun Moon.)

©Santiago Vivacqua/Zero Waste LAC

In 2015, world leaders signed the Paris Agreement: A bold commitment to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius and thereby protect our communities, wildlife, oceans and natural ecosystems from the devastating effects of climate change.

Nearly five years on, progress has been virtually nonexistent. The materials economy — raw material extraction, processing, and goods manufacture — is responsible for a lion’s share of the problem, accounting for a whopping 62% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Unfortunately the world’s linear model of make/take/waste is not slowing down any time soon.  

Cities are both the source of the problem, and have the most potential to solve it. By 2050, it is estimated that 70% of the population will live in cities. Moreover, cities account for 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The good news is that the solutions are out there, and cities around the world are moving towards Zero Waste. 

Zero Waste is both a goal and a plan of action. The goal is to ensure resource recovery and protect scarce natural resources by progressively minimising and ultimately ending waste disposal in incinerators, cement plants, dumps, and landfills, while at the same time taking action to reduce waste upstream, by banning wasteful products and packaging, holding producers accountable for their waste, and encouraging reuse and repair. 

The plan encompasses city and community-led programs for waste reduction, changes in consumption habits, redesign, and toxic-free production, reuse and repair programs, composting, and recycling. Rooted in community participation, zero waste policies are both far-sighted and inclusive; they pave the way toward sustainable waste management systems that work for both communities and the environment. Ultimately, zero waste is a revolution in the relationship between waste and people, a new way of thinking that aims to safeguard the health and improve the lives of everyone who produces, handles, works with, or is affected by waste — in other words, all of us.

The climate benefits of zero waste are significant, to say the least. The city of Malabon in the Philippines is in a low-lying area and is constantly prone to flooding, the impacts of which were often exacerbated by clogged drains from plastic waste. By implementing a Zero Waste system in the neighborhood of Potrero, one of the areas most vulnerable to flooding (sometimes up to 10 feet deep), residents now don’t have to worry about being awash in plastic pollution, and the public health impacts that come with it. By providing better infrastructure for the neighborhood to withstand storms — which are increasing in intensity due to climate change — Potrero is becoming a more sustainable and resilient community.

Another key piece of the puzzle is tackling food waste. When organic waste goes to a landfill, it emits methane, a GHG 84 times more potent than CO2  over a 20-year period. It is estimated that 12% of global methane contribution comes from landfills, which still remain a primary source of organics management for cities. However, many cities across the globe are making great strides towards reducing food waste and diverting food scraps to compost instead of landfill. 

Materials Recovery Facility in Malabon, Philippines.
©Eidyl Khate Nolasco/GAIA
Analysis of which sectors are most responsible for food waste in Bruges, Belgium.

The city of Bruges in Belgium had a food waste problem — a study found that food retailers were wasting around 750.000 Kg of edible food every year. To combat this problem, the city worked with different sectors to reduce their food waste, and had particular success with the health care sector, which wasted 318 tonnes of food in 2015 alone (just from hot meals), equivalent to 1.017 tonnes of CO2 emissions. Through a participatory program, the main local hospital was able to reduce its food waste by 43%. Globally, food waste prevention can reduce emissions by 70.53 gigatonnes of CO2  over the next 30 years, making it one of the most essential solutions to the climate crisis.

In Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city of the state of Kerala in India, organic waste comprises 72% of all waste residents generate. The Thiruvananthapuram Municipal Corporation (TMC) developed a decentralised system for households to handle kitchen and garden waste at home, and larger waste generators like housing societies to have infrastructure to handle their own organic waste. To make the program successful, TMC launched an extensive door-to-door campaign and provided subsidies to households for setting up residential composting and biodigesters or biomethanation facilities. These kinds of programs are not only critical to keeping food waste from emitting methane in landfills. Studies have shown that compost improves soil quality and allows it to sequester more carbon from the atmosphere. In 25 years, soil could sequester more than 10% of annual anthropogenic emissions. 

While recycling should not be treated as a cure-all for our over-consumptive society, it does play an important role on the path to Zero Waste. Recycling paper avoids further deforestation, preventing the destruction of one of our most important carbon sinks — trees. Recycling plastic provides great climate benefits by displacing virgin plastic production and associated fossil fuel use:  For every tonne of plastic packaging waste recycled, more than one tonne of CO2 emissions is avoided. Plastic recycling is also three times more energy efficient than extraction of virgin materials.

SAWPA workers posing at the entrance to Vaalpark recycling centre in Sasolburg, South Africa ©Focalize Media

Recycling isn’t easy — it takes millions of people around the world to make it happen. Waste pickers and recycling workers in every region work diligently to make sure that whatever we can recycle gets a second chance at life. In South Africa, SAWPA (South African Waste Pickers Association) is a waste picker cooperative. It is estimated that informal waste pickers collect over 90% of the waste recycled from households in South Africa. The group has fought tirelessly for recognition, fair wages, and safe working conditions, and although it’s been an uphill battle, the waste picker movement is stronger by organizing together. 

Zero Waste is a fundamental solution to the climate crisis — waste reduction, composting, recycling, and other hallmarks of a Zero Waste system are proven to both prevent emissions and sequester existing carbon. But the calculus of emissions reductions is only part of the equation. The economic, social, and health benefits that Zero Waste provides to cities is pivotal for creating the strong and resilient societies we need to face climate change and not only survive, but thrive.