06 April 2009

climate change and waste management

One of the greatest challenges facing the modern world today is climate change. Apart from the obvious consequences like floods, droughts etc., climate change is the single most important factor affecting global economy. Among the things that can alleviate climate change, one of the most important is waste management.

Waste management has at least five types of impacts on climate change, attributable to:

  • landfill methane emissions
  • reduction in industrial energy use and emissions due to recycling and waste reduction
  • energy recovery from waste
  • carbon sequestration in forests due to decreased demand for virgin paper
  • energy used in long-distance transport of waste
It is arguable to say therefore, that reducing wastes reduces GHG emissions which are the causative agents of the global warming which causes climate change. Recycling of wastes not only reduces landfill space but also reduces energy consumption during the production of virgin material and energy used for incineration and disposal of wastes. It also forces manufacturers to take a closer look at the production process and employing philosophies like TQM which not only reduces wastes but also increases productivity throughout the production line. Carrying out life cycle assessments is another way to tackle the growing problem of wastes.

Modern landfills which accept biodegradable wastes are engineered to capture the gases produced. About 42% of renewable gas and electricity now comes from landfill gas in Great Britain. Burning the methane collected in this manner releases CO2 into the atmosphere which is less harmful and as it is derived from biomass, it does not count towards the national average emissions.

When products are recycled and reduced, industrial consumption of energy decreases as a result because they are not starting a virgin production cycle. Reduction of paper wastes saves trees from being cut down thereby saving forests. Paper is biodegradable because it is made of a natural substance, but it can also be recycled and reused thereby decreasing the amount of trees felled. Transporting, compacting and sorting of wastes uses up tremendous amounts of energy which contribute to the global energy demand and release of GHG into the atmosphere. Waste management therefore, is a global issue. An example to prove the point - plastic bags from UK are transported to China to be recycled and transported back. This leaves a huge carbon footprint due to transportation of goods over 10,000 miles . As 17 billion plastic bags a year are handed out to British shoppers, this generates a huge amount of wastes. When plastic bags are not disposed of properly, they not only take many years to biodegrade but also leach into the soil to contaminate ground water supplies and cause many detrimental affects to wildlife. This situation also throws into light how something as seemingly simple as a plastic carrier bag can cause global problems. Declining a plastic bag is something that every one of us can do as plastic carrier bags are easily reusable.

Using natural materials can help to alleviate the hazards of landfill gases but this in turn puts biodiversity at risk. The issue of tackling wastes therefore is not an easy problem. It has varying dynamics and it requires a balanced decision making approach. Every individual can do their bit to tackle the issue of wastes by taking simple measures to choose products with less packaging material, declining plastic bags etc. Waste management should become a personal decision making factor for every one of us especially when it comes to choosing the products we buy and how we manage domestic waste. Since this is so intricately tied into other bigger, global problems, there is an opportunity within the waste management framework to alleviate some of those problems as well. Waste management ultimately is tied into the three golden Rs of sustainability - reduce, reuse, recycle.

Waste management forms one of the corner-stones of tackling the looming consequences of climate change and global warming. The effects of climate change are already being felt in many parts of the world and if current trends continue, the problems associated with enhanced global warming are only going to accelerate.

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