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What Does the Paris Climate Agreement Say about Waste?

Eric Lombardi

February 18, 2016

4 Min Read
What Does the Paris Climate Agreement Say about Waste?

The world has been heatedly debating the significance of the Paris climate agreement since it was published in December. Some see it as a historic moment of global cooperation while others call it a landmark failure to hold countries truly accountable for their climate impacts and nothing more than empty words.  Whatever one thinks, it does appear to be true what the Guardian newspaper said in the U.K., “The whole world agreed, we need to stop delaying and start getting serious about preventing a climate crisis. We’ve turned the corner; climate denial is no longer being taken seriously.”

Waste (finally) mattered in Paris

Skim through the official Paris Agreement and you won’t find the word “waste” even mentioned. But if you had tuned into the side rooms, the street protests, formal meetings and the negotiations where the real work was being done to figure out how we’re going to actually meet the Paris goals and you would find the subjects of recycling, composting, minimizing waste and the concept of Zero Waste emerged as priority solutions for a carbon-free future.

David Newman, the head of the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), attended these COP21 meetings and was exhilarated by “how many donor countries said how waste was the critical issue to tackle and especially reducing organics going to landfill. After years of fighting for a seat at the table, they proclaimed ‘Waste counts!’ and that the contribution of our industry is recognized for what it is- equally as important as renewable energy, electric cars, solar panels and so on.”

This is worth repeating: Reducing waste, recycling and composting are equally as important as other leading climate solutions. Here’s why:

  1. Energy use and emissions related to raw material extraction (think giant trucks and bulldozers) are virtually eliminated with recycling and reuse;

  2. Energy use is greatly reduced in the manufacturing process when products are made from recycled materials rather than virgin materials;

  3. Not disrupting ecosystems in the hunt for virgin resources means more forests, trees and other vegetation are left intact, allowing them to absorb carbon dioxide;

  4. Stopping the landfilling of organic materials eliminates a huge source of methane into the atmosphere;

  5. Composting organic discards creates a nutrient-rich soil amendment that helps store carbon in the soils.

Business as usual isn’t the answer.

Two important take-away themes emerged from Paris: the need for urgency and prioritizing REAL solutions. Time is not on our side to delay the worst effects of climate change. There is a growing focus on short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) that are dramatic in their negative impacts but can be reduced quickly and cost-effectively to curb their most dangerous effects. Methane is one of the four priority short-term gases, and landfills are a top cause of methane emissions.   

For the Big Trash companies, the call to reduce emissions from waste is seen as an opportunity to sell “improved” waste incinerators and build more “modern” landfills. The problem is that both these technologies still depend upon huge amounts of mixed waste to burn or bury as the foundation of their business plans.

That means we can’t settle for landfill gas capture systems at landfills as the best answer. The real solution is to stop methane emissions from landfills by keeping organic materials out. This means composting food scraps and yard waste, and better paper recycling.

Further, we need to eliminate policies that financially reward trash incineration by:

  • Ending climate financing for waste incineration, which emits more pollution per unit of energy than coal-fired power plants

  • Suspending all renewable energy credits and subsidies for waste disposal, including landfills and incinerators

  • Moving away from biomass burning in favor of composting which can store carbon in our soils

Our work is a priority solution.

The Paris agreement is an important step forward, but the hard work really hasn’t even begun. It’s up to local communities to implement Zero Waste solutions to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG’s) emissions, and we need to start pressuring the Federal government to establish national goals for waste reduction and resource recovery.   

Real climate solutions move us toward a circular economy—one that doesn’t accept any material as “waste.” Recycling, composting and waste reduction are proven, low-cost and ready to implement climate solutions. The world is eager for answers and it’s time our industry delivers. 

Eric Lombardi is the Director of Eco-Cycle Solutions. Find videos, tools and more to use Zero Waste strategies to address climate change at ecocyclesolutionshub.org. 

About the Author(s)

Eric Lombardi

Executive Director, Eco-Cycle International

Eric Lombardi is the executive director of Eco-Cycle International and has had a long career in community resource conservation, social enterprise development and non-profit (NGO) organizational management since 1980.

Lombardi ran Eco-Cycle, a nationwide pioneer in recycling, from 1989-2014, a developed it to become the largest community-based recycling social enterprise in the United States with a staff of 70 and processing of more than 50,000 tons of diverse recycled materials per year (2014). Lombardi is recognized as an authority on developing comprehensive community-based resource recovery programs and is often a keynote speaker and consultant on the social and technical aspects of creating a “Zero Waste–or Darn Near” society.

Lombardi has experience both nationally and internationally as a project consultant, keynote speaker and workshop leader for government and private sector clients across the United States, and in New Zealand, England, France, Italy, Scotland, Romania, American Samoa, Tobago and Saipan. He was invited to the Clinton White House in 1998 as one of the Top 100 USA Recyclers, and he co-founded the U.S. GrassRoots Recycling Network, and the Zero Waste International Alliance, based in Wales.

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