Zero Waste to Zero Emissions: How Reducing Waste is a Climate Gamechanger

A new report by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) provides the clearest and most comprehensive evidence to date of how better waste management is critical to the climate fight, while building resilience, creating jobs, and promoting thriving local economies.

In 2019, GAIA Asia Pacific members gathered in Penang, Malaysia for a series of activities, which culminated in a regional meeting where we set our objectives for the next three years (2020-2023).

Just months after the regional meeting, the world confronted the uncertainty and threats of the COVID-19 pandemic, making work on the ground doubly difficult, as the pandemic also exacerbated the already widespread and systemic injustices that we have long been fighting. 

In the face of these challenges, GAIA members remained steadfast in their commitment for a better world. This publication, “POSSIBLE TOGETHER,” is a proof of that.

As written by GAIA International Coordinator, Christie Keith, in her message, “The organizing stories in the publication are a testament to how hard GAIA members have worked since early 2020 – despite great personal risk – to create visionary Zero Waste solutions and oppose toxic pollution. These are stories of cultural survival, fierce resistance, and local transformation.”

It takes a network to have a fighting chance when faced with challenges of this magnitude, and collectively, GAIA members rose to the occasion. They extended each other a helping hand and made sure that their communities would not be left behind. 

The work may be daunting; and the times, challenging. But difficult can become easy; and the impossible, possible when when people work together.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, the need to build a resilient economy is more pressing than ever. Today, waste management is a sector that typically uses up to 4-19% of municipal budgets. While zero waste systems are known for their wide-range of environmental benefits, they are also an affordable and practical strategy to waste management that is greatly economically advantageous.

Besançon and its surroundings have a population of 225,000 people of whom half is living in densely populated areas. Before 2008, waste was incinerated in the incineration plan which had 2 furnaces, one of them built in 1975 and therefore obsolete. That was the starting point of the waste management revamping to make it more sustainable. The political choice not to rebuild an incinerator entails need to both waste prevention and residual waste reduction.

Thanks to an alternative infrastructure plan, the province of Gipuzkoa, located in the Spanish Basque Country, has almost doubled its recycling rate in four years (from 2011 to 2015) and made investing in an incineration plant obsolete. The new plan aimed at complying with the EU recycling targets of 50% for 2020, phasing out the disposal of recyclable waste and stopping landfilling of untreated waste.

Zero Waste Europe released a report highlighting the importance of a Zero Waste Circular Economy in the post-COVID-19 recovery. The “Sustainable Finance for a Zero Waste Circular Economy (ZWCE)” report addresses the current lack of clarity around the concept of ZWCE. It provides clear criteria on the activities that need to be included and prioritised under the umbrella of the Sustainable Finance by looking at the social, economic, climate, and environmental benefits. (2020)

“Recycling without recyclers is garbage”. This phrase, which echoes throughout wastepicker or “informal recycler” organizations in Latina America and The Caribbean, is essential when it comes to planning any waste management policy in a region which has around 4 million people working in the collection and processing of recyclable materials.

Boulder, Colorado is known for its deep-rooted commitment to the natural environment and healthy living. But landfilling in this region is really cheap— less than half the national average. Achieving higher recycling rates here takes more than just a population that cares. It takes strong city government leadership, combined with strategic community partners, to build a successful Zero Waste model. Together, Boulder is making it easy for every resident and business to recycle and compost, and developing the innovative infrastructure to reach a Zero Waste future.

Already a statewide leader in reducing waste—with the goal of a recycling bin at every home, business and apartment—Arlington County still wanted to do more. In 2015, the County became the first community in Virginia to pass a Zero Waste resolution, citing the action as a way to “deepen their commitment to reduce, reuse and recycle,” as well as a way to protect the County against escalating disposal costs.