South Africa and other countries ignore waste reduction in climate plan

More than a quarter of countries’ climate plans are neglecting an essential climate strategy — waste reduction — an analysis has found.

This is despite the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identifying waste management as one of three sectors with the greatest potential to reduce a rise in temperature in the next 10 to 20 years, according to the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (Gaia).

As part of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, governments agreed to submit climate plans, or nationally determined contributions (NDCs), detailing what they are doing to address climate change.

Gaia researchers analysed the 99 NDCs that were updated since 2020 in preparation for the United Nations climate talks at COP26. Fossil fuels account for 99% of plastics’ content, and is projected to consume 13% of the 1.5˚C carbon budget by 2050, but only 11 countries propose bans or restrictions on the use of plastic. None propose restricting plastic production, which is the fastest-rising constituent of waste streams.

“Plastic production is currently growing at 3.5% to 4% per year … If plastic were a country, it would already be the fifth-largest emitter in the world,” the researchers said.

Taken together, the 99 NDCs “represent many missed opportunities” for the international community to rigorously address waste sector emissions in the coming years, the report found. “Most NDCs (92) acknowledge the waste sector to some extent, but only 71 have concrete plans to address waste-related emissions. 

“Similarly, reducing plastic production and waste is essential for achieving the international emission targets laid out in the Paris Agreement, and yet only Cambodia’s NDC discusses the link between plastic generation and its impact on the global carbon budget,” according to the report, which notes how many countries do not include emission targets for their waste sectors. Of those that do, only the Republic of the Congo proposes a zero emissions goal for the waste sector.

Despite the fact that landfills, open dumps, and incinerators tend to be concentrated in marginalised people, only Myanmar’s NDC acknowledges their disproportionate exposure to waste-related pollution. 

Only 12 countries discuss environmental justice, gender and equity, informal workers and people’s involvement the waste sector, missing the chance to fight poverty and create thousands of good jobs, according to Gaia.

South Africa’s NDC features a “minimal” mention of waste, with no specific practices proposed and “no discussion of environmental justice issues, gender and equity or informal workers in the waste sector and no stakeholder engagement process”. 

Although half of the NDCs propose common and effective strategies for reducing waste-related emissions, such as improved separate collection of waste, recycling, and composting, 39 also include waste incineration or refuse-derived fuel use in their plans. 

“These carbon-intensive practices undercut the benefits of the zero waste strategies proposed in the same NDCs,” said the report. “Furthermore, a majority of countries fail to prioritise the best waste management practices for eliminating waste sector methane emissions: organic waste recovery and composting.”

Only 35 countries propose improved separate collection for organic waste and/or composting in their NDCs. Methane emissions overwhelmingly derive from organic waste buried in landfills and dumps. 

“Separate collection of organic waste followed by composting is the most effective means to reduce emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas 81 times more powerful than CO2 [over 20 years].” 

Niven Reddy, the Africa regional coordinator for Break Free from Plastic, said: “When we think about the climate and the contributions towards climate change, very often we don’t consider waste management as a big part of this. 

“The amount of organic waste that is sent to landfill, is almost 50% to 60% of our waste stream, which should be separately managed — composted or going into biodigestion but because we don’t have a mechanism in place to separate our waste, we just send everything to landfill, which produces methane and greenhouse gases in the landfill itself.

“If there were mechanisms that enforce the idea that we should be separating our waste at home, and then we have separate collection, and then we have a system where organic waste is separately managed and then all the rest of the materials are dry, that helps the waste picker process. 

“They are then able to not have to sort through smelly mixed waste – they just have dry materials they can sort and divert and take for recycling. And actually the rest of what is remaining that cannot be recycled or composted is residual waste, that’s what goes to landfill. Ideally, that shouldn’t be created in the first place — we shouldn’t be producing materials that don’t fit a circular economy.”

Prabhat Upadhyaya, a senior policy analyst at World Wildlife Fund South Africa, said the links between climate and waste emissions are quite well-known, “yet have never been addressed simultaneously.

“It is important that countries factor in approaches to address and eliminate the emissions produced due to landfill methane emissions and plastic production. 

“Oil companies are looking at significantly increasing plastic production as their diversification strategy, which will not only fuel plastic pollution but also threaten realisation of the 1.5˚C goal.”

Tackling waste, Upadhyaya said, is a two-pronged strategy for simultaneously averting the climate crisis and plastic pollution. “Ensuring policy coherence across the issues of this kind requires investment in institutional capacity to ensure effective coordination across government departments as well as within the departments.”

Rico Euripidou, the environmental health campaigner for environmental justice organisation groundWork, pointed to the latest greenhouse gas inventory report for South Africa, which shows the contribution for the waste sector between 2000 and 2017. 

“Interestingly the waste sector emissions grew by a whopping 56.7%, which is the biggest increase among all of the greenhouse gas sectors that are measured.”

Excluding concrete strategies to address greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from this sector is a “major oversight,” he said, “considering that the bulk of our household waste is generally organic and made up of recoverable materials, which if designed and carefully managed throughout their life cycle could in fact be part of a circular economy that contributes less GHGs than current models of ‘design to throwaway’ productions”.

The South African gas inventory report finds that energy is the biggest source of the country’s emissions, with electricity and heat production taking up the biggest share. 

“The energy sector in South Africa is highly dependent on coal as the main primary energy provider. The largest source of energy sector emissions in South Africa is the combustion of fossil fuels,” Euripidou said. 

“However, the production of plastic from coal feedstock, as the Gaia report points out, is a major threat to reducing GHGs and also to health along the full value chain of plastics manufacturing. In fact, the more we think of plastics the more we realise that they were never intended to be recycled in the first place.”

According to Gaia, through good organics management, intensive recycling, and source reduction of plastic, waste management is one of the few sectors that has the potential to generate net negative emissions, and can help address poverty, environmental and social injustices and structural inequalities. 

“These waste management practices, collectively known as zero waste, are practical, affordable, and already being implemented in diverse cities around the world,” it said, adding how recycling and composting generate as much as 50 times as many jobs as waste disposal (landfill and incineration).

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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