In late February, 160 people from 51 nations participated in a United Nations waste management conference in Tokyo. I had the good fortune to be one of two Americans in attendance. The meeting’s title, “CSD Intercessional Conference on Building Partnerships for Moving Towards Zero Waste,” was a mouthful. Our goal, to help develop a U.N. policy addressing waste management, was challenging. The experience, working with delegates from around the world, was priceless.
As it turned out, I had a fairly active role in the meeting. I was a speaker on the opening plenary, and I facilitated one of three work groups. My presentation (an “intervention” in U.N.-speak) briefly summarized solid waste management in the United States, with an emphasis on the last two decades, during which recycling has taken off, and zero waste has gained traction.
My working group had two hours to identify barriers preventing local communities and the private sector from working together to expand waste management services. We were then to suggest policies to overcome those barriers. Fortunately, we had many excellent suggestions from the plenary sessions involving such seemingly simple things as raising public attitudes on best waste management practices, creating and enforcing a regulatory system, developing reliable data and guaranteeing the security of contracts.
The working group engaged in a good deal of debate, some of it over things we take for granted in our country. “Segregating waste” — simply requiring that garbage be set aside for collection and not thrown on the street — was the subject of much discussion. Nobody opposed the idea, but some delegates argued that requiring separate collection of garbage was not yet feasible in their country. Others argued that not only must garbage be collected separately, but that scavenging at landfills should be immediately banned. How can we do this, was the reply, when we don’t have fences around landfills in our country? People argued passionately, but respectfully. I couldn’t help but think that our Congress could learn lessons in civility from my fellow delegates! We finally agreed to recommend segregation of waste as an immediate goal, with a ban on scavenging as a long-term goal.
The next day, the entire body debated and then voted to accept the recommendations from the three groups. The final document was extensive in scope and included the creation of an International Partnership for Expanding Waste Management Services of Local Authorities (IPLA), which will work with the U.N. Global Partnership on Waste Management.
As I listened to all of the speakers, I gained an increased appreciation for our country’s success in managing our waste. We have reliable garbage collection, recycling is readily available, and we have safe disposal systems. Our regulatory regime ensures protection of public health and the environment. We have the luxury of trying to figure out how to eliminate waste entirely.
Other countries have a ways to go, which is why the United Nations wants to raise the level of waste management systems throughout the world. If it is successful, public health will be improved. Converting open dumps into landfills with active gas recovery systems will greatly lower worldwide methane emissions. Enhanced recycling and organics recovery will also play a key role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. When the conference was over, I felt we had taken a step in the right direction. By working together, the rest of the world may soon join us in taking for granted the safe, responsible handling of its waste.