Decreasing Waste Will Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions

by Susan MacVittie 

While governments and industry draft pages of policy to try to clean up the issue of reducing greenhouse gases, the bid for a zero waste approach just got stronger. Stop Trashing the Climate, a report released in June by the US-based Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, reveals that significantly decreasing waste sent to landfills and incinerators will reduce greenhouse gas emissions equal to closing one-fifth of US coal-fired power plants. 

Wasting directly impacts climate change because it is directly linked to global resource extraction, transportation, processing and manufacturing.

For instance, landfills are the largest source ofanthropogenic methane emissions in the US and methane is 72 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2) over a 20-year time frame. 

As well, incinerators are significant sources of CO2 and also emit nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas that is approximately 300 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. 

Current assessments of greenhouse gas emissions from waste take a narrow view of the potential of the waste sector to mitigate climate change. Conventional greenhouse gas inventory data indicates that the waste sector in the US was responsible for 2.6% of all greenhouse gas emissions in 2005. But this assessment does not include the most significant impact of waste disposal. We must continually extract new resources to replace those buried or burned. For every tonne of discarded products and materials destroyed by incinerators or landfills, about 71 tonnes of manufacturing, mining oil and gas exploration, agricultural, coal combustion and other discards are produced. 

A Zero Waste approach of preventing waste by reusing, recycling and composting is one of the fastest, cheapest and most effective strategies we can use to protect the climate and the environment. 

Reducing the amount of materials consumed in the first place is vital for combating climate change. In addition, when recovered materials are reused, recycled, and composted within local and regional economies, the climate protection benefits are even greater because significant greenhouse gas emissions associated with the transportation of products and materials are avoided. 

Stop Trashing the Climate presents an eleven step plan to move to Zero Waste, most of which can be enacted at the municipal level.


[From WS November/December 2008]

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