Waste and Climate

Burning and landfilling waste drives climate change by releasing greenhouse gases, and by fueling a linear production and consumption system that requires the continual use of energy and raw materials to create new goods.  

Burning and landfilling waste releases greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide from incinerators and methane from landfills, that are significant contributors to global climate change. These methods of waste disposal also deprive the economy of reused, recycled and composted materials, requiring the constant use of energy and raw materials to fuel an unsustainable one-way production and consumption system.

Research shows that adopting proven waste reduction strategies in the U.S. alone can have climate protection benefits comparable to closing 21% of the country's coal-fired power plants. This startling revelation, contained in the Stop Trashing the Climate report, highlights the fact that waste management practices are an important, though oft-neglected, contributor to climate change.

People selling "waste-to-energy" incinerators claim that generating energy by burning trash is a win-win solution to our waste and energy crises. The truth, however, is that incinerators actually waste energy. When burning materials that could be reused, recycled, or composted, incinerators destroy the energy-saving potential of putting those materials to better use. Recycling, for instance, saves 3 to 5 times the energy that waste incinerator power plants generate. Incinerators are also net energy losers when the embodied energy of the burned materials is taken into account. For these reasons, "waste-to-energy" plants would be more aptly named "waste-of-energy" plants.

Despite the fact that incinerators are net energy losers and significant contributors to climate change, the waste industry is trying to secure subsidies it does not deserve through the UN's Clean Development Mechanism and through many national and regional subsidy programs. The bottom line, though, is that dirty technologies cannot clean the climate - and these climate cons should not receive subsidies meant for advancing true climate solutions.

The good news for all communities is that readily-available, cost-competitive and effective strategies to reduce and reuse discarded materials can be implemented on a wide scale within a relatively short time period. A climate-friendly alternative to wasting, known as zero waste, radically reduces greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the need for extraction, processing, and the transport of raw materials, as well as avoiding emissions from disposal (incineration, landfilling, open dumping and open burning). These savings far exceed the emissions from waste disposal facilities, and can play a major role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions throughout the entire economy.

GAIA members like IndyAct are organizing to support community-based movements for environmental justice, zero waste, and real climate solutions. We believe that a zero waste approach to managing our resources addresses the root causes of global warming while safeguarding human health and dramatically reducing our demand on natural resources.

Visit the Zero Waste for Zero Warming page to learn more about GAIA's global campaign on these issues. To learn more about the links between waste and climate change, read our Stop Trashing the Climate report.


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