The unexpected climate benefits of waste management

Recycling one tonne of aluminium can save the equivalent of 13 tonnes of CO2 emissions. [s2art/Flickr]

A leaked report on the climate impact of waste says climate mitigation strategies should concentrate on reducing and recycling textile and aluminium waste. Our partner Journal de l’Environnement reports

According to the European Environment Agency, the EU’s waste sector is responsible for only 3% of the bloc’s greenhouse gas emissions. The propotion was so small, it was not deemed worthy of integration in Brussels’ climate strategy.

But the Journal de l’Environnement has seen a copy of a report carried out by British research group Eunomia for the NGO Zero Waste Europe, due to be published on 28 October, which shows that this figure is far from accurate.

Vast gaps

“Accounting for waste emissions is one of the methods developed by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It focuses on methane emissions from landfill and CO2 emissions from incinerators that do not generate energy. But a large proportion of actual emissions are not taken into account,” said Delphine Lévi-Alvarès, the head of institutional relations advocacy at Zero Waste France.

>> Read: Commission under pressure over circular economy

Among the emissions repeatedly omitted from the waste sector’s account are those from waste transport (included under countries’ transport emissions calculations), and those from the incineration of waste for energy generation (included under energy emissions). Not to mention food waste.

Comparable situation in France

“To fulfil the guidelines defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), France has added emissions from burning vehicle parts or green waste to their accounting,” said Céline Gueguen, an engineer at the Interprofessional Technical Centre for Studies on Air Pollution (CITEPA), in charge of national emissions accounting for the French Ecology Ministry.

This small addition has hardly changed the results. According to CITEPA’s 2015 inventory, France’s waste sector produces only 4.6% of national emissions (against 3.2% in 1990).

The unknown factor of incineration

Emissions accounting throws the spotlight on the amount of methane produced by landfill (23.75% of the total French methane emissions). This is not enough to assess the climate impact of waste policy.

“A Northern European country that buries little will burn a lot, and its waste imports will emit large amounts of CO2 that are not taken into account by the UN’s climate change programme,” Delphine Lévi-Alvarès said. The Eunomia study concluded that “At a European level, the evaluation of a member state is often limited to its landfill rate, when it should focus on its rates of prevention, re-use and recycling, which are more important from a climate perspective.”

Unexpected climate benefits

This is one of two interesting discoveries brought to light by the report. On top of pointing out the limits of the current system of emissions accounting, the research group also assessed the climate benefits of other actions on all kinds of waste (the prevention of a tonne of paper, glass or aluminium waste, or the recycling of electronic and electrical waste, the composting of green waste or the methanisation or organic waste…).

>>Read: Waste key to global climate protection, German study says

The biggest emissions savings, in descending order, come from the prevention of textile waste (21 equivalent tonnes of CO2 per tonne (tCO2eq)) and aluminium waste (13 tCO2eq), the recycling of aluminium (10 tCO2eq) and textiles (6 tCO2eq), and the prevention of food waste (4 tCO2eq) and plastic waste (3.5 tCO2eq). Large amounts of these materials are still disposed of in landfill, or burned in incinerators.

>> Read: MEPs weaken efficiency target in circular economy resolution

“This shows that the climate impact of various types of waste, like aluminium or textiles, is not taken into account in public policy,” said Delphine Lévi-Alvarès.

“Whether at a European or a global level, climate strategies have reached a standstill on the issue of waste, while prevention, re-use, recycling and composting are obviously beneficial,” she added. With the presentation of the new circular economy package due on 2 December, it is important for Brussels to understand this message.

Food waste: a climate scourge

In 2013, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations calculated that food waste globally was responsible for 3.3 billion equivalent tonnes of CO2 emissions per year. To put this into perspective, the United States and China are the only countries in the world with higher annual emissions. And if no action is taken, food waste will increase by 50% by 2030. 

  • 2 décembre: présentation du nouveau paquet Economie circulaire à Bruxelles


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