Editorial Feature

The Connection Between Waste Management & Global Warming

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The surface temperature of the Earth has risen in the past century, with global temperatures rising by 0.7 to 0.9 ºC (1.3 to 1.6 ºF) per century since 1901. However, since 1975, the rate of global surface temperature warming has increased by almost double to 1.5 to 1.8 ºC (2.7 to 2.3 ºF) per century.

Evidence suggests that it is human activities that have contributed to this warming. The chemical composition of the atmosphere has been changed significantly by the increase in emissions of greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. As a result, seasonal and weather patterns are changing and becoming more extreme with less snow cover and heavier rainfall, with certain wildlife habitats shrinking as a result.

Connection Between Waste and the Climate

The life cycle of a product both directly and indirectly contributes to the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and affects the global climate.

The manufacturing of products affects greenhouse gas emissions directly through the manufacturing process itself, while it indirectly affects emissions from the energy produced while running the manufacturing plant, including the carbon dioxide released from gasoline-powered vehicles to transport the product, and the release of methane gas during the decomposition of the product when it is discarded in a landfill.

In a consumerist society, products are disposed at very high rates, with discarded products quickly replaced by new ones. To keep this cycle running, fossil fuels are often needed to power the processes required to obtain raw materials to manufacture the items.

A report on the waste management options in the EU stated that “the impact of solid waste management on the global warming equivalence of European greenhouse gas emissions comes mostly from CH4, which is released as biodegradable matter decay in anerobic landfill conditions. However, the report found that only 1 percent of N2O emissions and less than 0.5 percent of CO2 emissions were associated with the disposal of solid waste.

CH4 has a much shorter atmospheric life than N2O or CO2, meaning that a lower percentage reduction would be needed to stabilize CH4 levels in the atmosphere when compared with N2O or CO2.

Waste Reduction and Recycling

The reduction and recycling of solid waste can help address global climate change. The distribution, application and manufacture of products, as well as management of the resulting waste, all result in greenhouse gas emissions.

The prevention and recycling of waste reduces greenhouse gases is associated with these activities by reducing methane emissions, saving energy, and increasing forest carbon sequestration.

As a result, there is a lot of attention on how to make living practices more sustainable, from reducing plastic packaging on a huge number of products including food and drink, to introducing charges on the use of plastic bags in shops to encourage shoppers to use reusable bags instead. These measures aim to reduce the amount of physical waste we produce in our day to day lives, shrinking the size of landfills and therefore decreasing the amount of greenhouse gases emitted through decay.

Waste prevention and recycling, commonly referred to as waste reduction, assists in the management of the solid waste we generate. The prevention and recycling of waste also are potent strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

For example, the prevention and recycling of waste diverts organic wastes from landfills, as a result, a reduction in the release of methane gas from the decomposition of these organic materials. Additionally, a reduction in emissions from incinerators combusting waste by preventing waste production through recycling would also contribute to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Regarding paper production in particular, waste prevention and the recycling of paper products allow more trees to remain standing in the forest, where they can continue to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in a process commonly referred to as carbon sequestration.

The Reduction of Greenhouse Gas Emissions Through Waste Management

It has been argued that the reduction of greenhouse gases from waste disposal should be treated in the same manner as the cholera and typhoid epidemics in nineteenth century Europe. Once the causal relationship between sewage waste and environmental harm that came in the form of cholera and typhoid had been proved, systems to appropriately manage the sewage waste were built.

When applied to greenhouse gas emissions, putting the focus on appropriate waste disposal to reduce its consequent greenhouse gas emissions seems a plausible concept.

Not only does waste disposal and management affect climate change, climate change can also affect how we dispose of waste. Possible adverse effects climate change could have on waste management include:

  • Changes in site hydrology and temperature, risking changes to landfill degradation rates and leachate production
  • Higher risks of inundation or erosion of low-lying facilities in coastal areas
  • Adverse weather causing damage to infrastructure and transport links
  • A higher risk of subsidence in landfills from extreme weather changes, from drying soil in hot periods to heavy rainfall causing sudden water retention
  • Health risks from increased pathogen and vermin activity, odours, and dusts.

Summary

A reduction in overall waste production would in turn help the negative affects waste has on the environment through greenhouse gas emissions, however, there is a paucity of information on how climate change will impact waste management systems. A focus on recycling is often cited throughout the available literature, and more and more businesses and governments are becoming active in their efforts to combat their greenhouse gas emissions through employing more sustainable practices.

Sources and Further Reading

This article was updated on the 12th April, 2019.

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