What can waste management professionals do to empower change?

global waste

Echoing the first edition shared nine years ago, the 2024 Global Waste Management Outlook (GWMO) urges stronger, more collective action to help prevent waste generation, extend adequate affordable Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) management to everyone worldwide, and ensure that all unavoidable waste is managed safely.

Here, we dissect the key takeaways from the report — published jointly by the United Nations Environment Programme and the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) — and explore the critical role of waste and resource management in driving sustainable development.

Every year, over two billion tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) is generated worldwide. That’s enough to encircle the Earth’s equator 25 times, or further than travelling to the moon and back. And this figure is projected to increase by 56 per cent to 3.8 billion tonnes by 2050 if urgent action is not taken.

This waste, which is the primary focus of GWMO, includes food waste, packaging, household items including broken furniture and electronic goods, clothes and shoes, as well personal hygiene products, to name a few.

However, a number of concerning additions are still making their way into MSW streams — including hazardous chemical waste, e-waste, textiles, plastics, end-of-life vehicles and waste from mechanics’ garages. This is owed, in part, to rapid volume increases or difficulties in collection, treatment, and other aspects of waste management, and is significantly impacting climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss across the globe.

How does waste management link to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

With the interconnection of MSW management, the way global governments, communities, and industries handle waste aligns closely with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, as detailed in the full report. But ultimately, our sector’s influence on the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution can be summarised as follows:

  • Climate change: Transporting, processing and disposing of waste generates CO2 and other greenhouse gases and airborne pollutants that contribute to climate change both short and long term. When black carbon settles on the surface of sea ice it accelerates the melting process by absorbing rather than reflecting sunlight. Black carbon has a strong contribution to current global warming, second only to the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

  • Biodiversity loss: Indiscriminate waste disposal practices can introduce hazardous chemicals into soil, water bodies and the air, causing long-term, potentially irreversible damage to local flora and fauna, negatively impacting biodiversity, harming entire ecosystems, and entering the human food chain.

  • Pollution: Improper waste management contributes to between 400,000 and one million global deaths annually, due to diseases like diarrhoea, malaria, heart disease, and cancer. At the same time, it poses long-term environmental hazards such as pollution of freshwater sources with pathogens, heavy metals, and harmful chemicals, as well as the release of “forever chemicals” through open burning, which can have detrimental effects on human health and ecosystems.

Because the quantity and composition of MSW varies significantly from one country to another, so too do the corresponding waste management approaches. However, in line with the Waste Hierarchy, it is universally accepted that preventing the generation of waste altogether is the most desired method to adopt. In scenarios where this is not possible, measures relating to recycling, energy recovery, plus heat and emissions control, should follow.

Of course, this is not new information for the UK’s waste management industry. But with such disparities from one community and country to another, it’s clear that significant strides are required to help reach global targets. No longer enough to implement localised solutions, industries need to collaborate on a global scale to meet 2030 and 2050 targets.

The report shows, for example:

1. Every minute, the equivalent of one garbage truck full of plastic is dumped into the ocean.

2. 38 per cent of the MSW generated globally in 2020 was uncontrolled — not collected —  and so by necessity dumped or burned in the open by the waste generator, or collected and then dumped or burned at its final destination. This is projected to increase to 41 per cent by 2050.

3. 540 million tonnes of MSW, or around 27 per cent of the global total, is not collected. While almost all MSW is collected in higher-income regions, less than 40 per cent is collected in lower-income countries such as Oceania, Central and South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa.

4. The Fifth Assessment Report estimated the contribution of the waste sector to GHG emissions at around 3 per cent, meaning countries may have previously underestimated the potential of municipal waste management interventions in fulfilling nationally determined contributions (NDCs).

5. Calculations by ISWA suggest that better waste and resource management could mitigate 15-25 per cent of global GHG emissions.

What can waste management professionals do to empower change?

As a sector, our role is therefore to seek opportunities to move waste management practices up the Waste Hierarchy at any given opportunity — advocating for the prevention of waste from the outset. Using expertise about material resources, we also have a responsibility to support waste reduction, resource efficiency, and circular economy models.

UNTHA UK client, PSH Environmental, has a site powered entirely by solar power, for example. So, not only can it feed energy back to the grid, it can also remain self-sufficient on-site — powering the electric-driven XR shredder that transforms over 96,000 tonnes of waste into an alternative fuel fuel each year, seamlessly transitioning to zero-carbon electricity sourced from the grid when solar power is insufficient.

We must also help governments and municipalities to design systems that are locally appropriate, fit-for-purpose and future-proofed, ensuring they do not lock-in linear resource use and can be adapted to meet the changing needs of society.

For professionals working for waste producers, such as goods manufacturers and retailers, it’s about recognising the private sector’s vital responsibility to reduce the resource footprint of its commercial activities. These organisations can also pursue business models that promote resource efficiency, as well as supporting governments with efforts to regulate waste generation and avoid greenwashing.

Download the full report to learn about potential strategies for waste reduction. Or if you’re keen to learn about the commercial and environmental benefits of MSW shredding, talk to our experts.

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