Recycling Systems Are Broken

By 2050, the world is expected to increase waste generation by 70%. We generate over 2 billion tons of municipal solid waste annually and roughly 0.74 kilograms per person per day on average, ranging from 0.11Kg/day in the poorest countries to 4.54 Kg/day in the wealthiest. Total annual waste production is expected to grow to 3.4 billion tons per annum by 2050 as shown below. According to the World Bank, there exists a direct correlation between GDP growth and waste generation per capita, with rates of waste generation increasing at a faster level for developing countries experiencing incremental increases in income.

Global recycling and proper waste management rates are woefully low to combat the expanding waste footprint. According to the same study, 33% of global waste is openly dumped. 19% is recovered through recycling or composting. The rest is landfilled or incinerated. As of 2022, only 21% of global landfills are designated as sanitary, meaning that they have controls to limit leakage, odor and access by fauna. Though high income countries have better waste logistics operations that lead to a higher percentage of waste in landfills and incinerators, the negative consequences of carbon emissions generated in landfills and incinerators are jurisdictionally independent, and affect us all.

The accumulation of waste generates negative health, environmental, and climate-based consequences. Toxins and airborne particulate matter from landfills and burned waste are linked to respiratory and neurological diseases and even cancer[1]. Liquid runoff from waste piles, known as leachate, often makes contact with humans after draining into water bodies or seeping into soil and aquifers. Organic waste creates unhealthy environments for spreading disease and can lead to the growth of harmful bacteria in water bodies. A McKinsey study in 2016 found that openly dumped waste generated an economic cost of US$375/ton in regional healthcare, tourism, and fisheries in Southeast Asia[2]. In addition to the several costs to the circular economy from improper disposal of recyclables in landfills, there is an explicit cost to funding waste that only grow in tandem with the linear waste economy. According to the Environmental Research and Education Foundation (EREF), the average cost to landfill municipal solid waste in the United States is $53.72 per ton[3]. The cost of waste management to municipalities is typically related to waste “tipping” fees, charged by waste management corporations on a per ton basis of waste deposited at landfills or incineration sites. As waste is more successfully captured within a municipality, costs rise and landfill lifespans decrease, requiring more investment. Long-term contracts lock-in expensive, poorly performing waste solutions and restrict innovation for recycling and composting. As shown below, municipalities already spend a significant portion of their budgets on waste management, particularly in developing countries.

Increasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is another environmentally harmful byproduct of a linear waste economy. For one, long supply chains that require new raw material extraction each time are very carbon intensive. According to a 2009 White Paper by the Product Policy Institute, 49% of global GHG emissions, measured on a systems-based approach, come from the provisioning of food products and packaging[4]. Furthermore, according to the EPA, CO2 equivalent emissions from global landfills is at 1.6 billion tons or 5% of global CO2 emissions. As a reference, according to the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator this figure represents approximately 345 million passenger vehicles driven for one year.

Landfills identified as sanitary or controlled attempt to reduce environmental impact by isolating waste from the natural environment using synthetic plastics or clay as a base layer and soil, synthetic plastic, or clay as a cover. This limits discharges such as leaching, contamination of soil and water, bad odor, and contact with animals. However, the more sealed a landfill becomes the more methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is emitted because microorganisms cannot perform the work of breaking down food and green waste naturally in an anaerobic environment. The very best methane capturing systems at landfills eliminate no more than 50% of emissions, are expensive to build and performance verification is difficult. Each unit of methane has 27X the greenhouse gas effect of carbon dioxide and is the second-largest contributor to global warming, after carbon dioxide. Methane, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group III report[5], is the lowest hanging fruit in the fight to combat global warming.

Composting of food and green waste, on the other hand, eliminates methane emissions almost completely as decomposition is conducted by microorganisms in an aerobic state. Microorganisms break down nitrogen (food waste) and carbon (green waste) to form rich compost known colloquially as “black gold,” which carry the nutrients needed to restore topsoil. The residual byproduct that is compost is critical to closing the carbon cycle and establishing a regenerative economy. Nutrient rich topsoil limits the need for fertilizers (fertilizers require very carbon intensive supply chains), improves moisture retention reducing demand for irrigation and water; improves microbial activity for enhanced ecosystem resilience, and enhances plant growth efficiency and total photosynthesis action. Photosynthesis removes carbon from the atmosphere and “sinks” carbon into the plant’s physical structure and underground in its roots, providing the most effective and advanced technology for removing carbon from the atmosphere, nature itself. The combination of reducing methane emissions at landfills (by more than 90%) and enhancing carbon removal from the atmosphere through stimulating plant growth, transforms a persistent greenhouse gas problem into a critical climate change solution. It can be estimated that for every ton of food & green waste composted 1.0 - 2.75 tons of CO2 equivalent emissions are avoided and/or captured. In addition, the application of compost to soil is viewed as critical to our future food security. In 2014 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) stated that we only have 60 years of farming remaining if soil degradation continues at its current rate[6]. Sending food waste and green waste to landfills and incinerators is simply no longer an option. We can avoid the costs of landfilling and incineration, and expensive mitigation solutions, if we eliminate the problem at its source by capturing food and green waste and diverting them to composting facilities.

It is important to note that controlled anaerobic digestion in biodigesters followed by composting of the residual organic mass is also viewed as a promising technology for decomposing biowaste whilst capturing biogas (methane) to produce energy locally. While some of the nutrients are lost through the anaerobic decomposition process when compared to composting, such a solution at scale can perform well once nutrient rich topsoil is restored and becomes abundant in the region.

Landfilling also presents the problem of reducing our available space. The global waste material footprint has more than tripled since 1979 according to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). The plastic waste footprint, specifically, is expected to grow 200 million tons by 2030[7]. A failure to curb waste pileup will only lead to an increase in the size and number of landfills worldwide and their accompanying risks. In Mozambique, heavy rains in 2018 led to a “landslide” of waste from a local landfill, killing at least seventeen people[8]. Because waste management is typically handled at the municipal level, lack of space has led municipalities to look for alternatives. Moving landfills further from urban centers increases logistical costs and carbon footprints. Shipping waste overseas to other countries not only presents ethical concerns, but is expensive and presents economic and geopolitical risk. In late 2017, China implemented a Waste Import Ban, known as Operation National Sword,[9] which prohibited the importation of several waste products, including plastics, affecting the recycling market globally. Incineration, under the guise of Waste-to-Energy (WtE), has appeared as a preferred solution by many municipalities due to its simplicity, requiring few or no changes to sorting practices and offering easy paths for logistics managers to transition from, or pair with, landfilling operations. While producing energy from waste is extremely expensive and inefficient (consider the effect of putting food waste, which is mostly water, into an oven,) the WtE lobby has managed to convince many in government that WtE is a Circular Economy solution because it is able to extract some value from mixed waste, while reducing landfilling and corresponding methane emissions. The argument usually begins with establishing the premise that humans will never learn to properly sort waste or be convinced of the importance of doing so, despite excellent examples of cities on the path to Zero Waste, including Ljubljana, Slovenia and Capannori, Italy. Never is the critical preservation of our natural resources, which can only be obtained through recycling, addressed in their defense of WtE as a Circular Economy solution. Most unfortunately though, WtE sustains the idea among constituents and businesses that, as with landfilling, sorting is not necessary. And, without clean, sorted waste the costs of sorting and cleaning post-consumer and post-industrial materials become too prohibitive for businesses to turn a profit from the services of hauling, recycling and composting.

Forecasted waste-to-energy market value (in US$)

Despite the size and growth of the WtE industry it should be noted that the actual electricity output by WtE facilities in the EU is very small, representing approximately 1.5% of total energy generation. Fifty-percent of the energy output in WtE plants is heat, which if not utilized for district heating goes completely to waste, making WtE an even less efficient technology in tropical and temperate climates. Yet, as the market closes off to WtE in Europe (see Wales and Catalonia) it is making inroads in developing countries like Brazil[10]. Comparing waste burning efficiency (kWh/US$ invested) to coal, natural gas, petroleum, peat and biofuels is misleading because those installations need to purchase their inputs while WtE plants are paid on a per ton basis for the waste mass that gets incinerated, a cost which is passed on to the taxpayer and which goes completely to waste. From an emissions perspective, WtE should also be compared to complementary energy generation solutions reserved for peak-demand, which are typically renewables and are far less carbon intensive than baseline power production solutions[11]. In essence, burning waste is about transferring a local pollution problem to others by removing waste from the ground and sending it up into the atmosphere. Fortunately, regulators caught on. According to a European Parliament vote on June 22, 2022, starting in 2026 waste incineration will be included in the EU ETS (Emissions Trading System), and WtE facilities will need to begin buying carbon credits to offset their emissions[12]. The ratified report states, “The inclusion of municipal waste incineration installations in the EU ETS would contribute to the circular economy by encouraging recycling, reuse and repair of products, while also contributing to economy-wide decarbonisation”[13]. This will make WtE even less economically viable and should remove an important barrier to the formation of a Zero Waste, low-carbon Circular Economy, once adopted globally.

Sorting waste at the source and sending compostables and recyclables directly to composting and recycling facilities, respectively, is the most efficient way to optimize natural resource management and reduce pollution. It also requires far less capital than building sanitary landfills and incinerators.

As governments continue to provide centralized and linear economy landfilling and incineration services at the lowest possible cost to taxpayers, without accounting for environmental costs, they hinder the formation of a dynamic, private and highly efficient market for recycling and composting services; this is the very foundation of the circular economy.

1. International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) - Emerging Contaminants, vol. 8

2. Hauke Engel, Martin Stuchtey, and Helga Vanthournou. Managing waste in emerging markets, Feb 2016

3. EREF Study Shows Average MSW Tip Fee Decreased in 2020, 2020

4. Product Policy Institute - “Products, Packaging and US Greenhouse Gas Emissions”, Whitepaper Sept 2009.

5. IPCC report. Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change

6. Scientific American / Reuters: December 5, 2014 - “Only 60 Years of Farming Left If Soil Degradation Continues”

7. WBCSD. Time to Transform

8. BBC. Mozambique rubbish dump collapse kills at least 17 people

9. Operation National Sword

10. ABREN release on 05/10/2021- “Auction Makes Latin America's First Waste-to-Energy Plant Feasible”

11. Eunomia: Greenhouse Gas and Air Quality Impacts of Incineration and Landfill, p.29

12. Zero Waste Europe release: “The European Parliament approves the inclusion of municipal incinerators in ETS as of 2022.

13. European Parliament, adopted text, report - Revision of the EU Emissions Trading System ***I

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