Nairobi, 22 March 2022—The interest of the global community on measures to reduce emissions and stay within the 1.5 degree target has surged considerably and as the world approaches 2030, taking steps to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals is becoming increasingly urgent. There has also been an increasing recognition that addressing the climate crisis requires the contribution of every country, sector, and individual.

One area that requires more attention is the management of solid waste. Waste generation globally is high and growing every day and expected to reach a peak only by year 2100. If left unmanaged the waste will create crises in many cities and countries, and their surrounding ecosystems, while simultaneously representing a lost economic opportunity. Solid waste is a large contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, through unregulated dumping of waste. Some estimates suggest that 2.6 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalents will come from waste in 2050, with methane from decomposing organic waste as the largest GHG contributor from the waste sector, and open dumpsites will be responsible for up to 5-10 per cent of the global anthropogenic GHG by 2025 under a business as usual scenario

Food waste especially, is contributing to GHG emissions because its degradation creates methane, a very potent greenhouse gas. When looking at the whole supply chain of food, from farm to table, food waste contributes to around 6 per cent of global GHG emissions. This means that if it was a country, it would be the third largest GHG emitter in the world. A large percentage of food waste happens before it reaches the consumer, representing both wasted resources and emissions. In addition to GHG emissions, dumpsites and unregulated landfills release leachate, or contaminated water, that enters rivers, groundwater, and soil, harming wildlife, marine life, and the people that live near or work on the dumpsites. Additionally, areas near dumpsites experience loss of biodiversity because natural habitats are taken over by waste, and because many animals ingest waste, especially plastic, which contributes to shortening their lifespans.

Mismanaged waste contributes to a wide array of negative impacts, such as global emissions and climate change. However, if waste is properly managed it can contribute to a clean environment, reduced GHG emissions, and wealth generation through a circular economy approach. Sustainable collection, recovery, and recycling is key to creating economic opportunities while simultaneously reducing the negative impacts of waste. One estimate says that through making sure waste stayed in the loop in Africa instead of being dumped, an additional USD 8 billion dollars could be injected into the African economy each year. The recycling sector therefore has great potential for wealth generation. The organic waste fraction is also one that would provide great benefits if properly managed. It is in general the largest fraction of waste in any country, being larger in low income countries, and has a large impact on GHG emissions. Treating organic waste can be done in many ways to ensure that it is turned into something useful, such as compost, that positively contributes to local agriculture, improves soil health, and reduces emissions. Using waste as a resource ensures that less raw materials have to be extracted for production purposes, which is key in a circular economy. Focusing on sustainable production and consumption, reducing how much waste is generated in the first place, is essential to achieve a circular economy

UN-Habitat’s Waste Wise Cities (WWC) works to address the increasing global waste management crisis, in line with UN-Habitat’s vision to achieve “a better quality of life for all in an urbanizing world”. WWC was launched in 2018 by the Executive Director of UN-Habitat and President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya. With around 200 member cities, WWC is currently working on improving municipal solid waste management and resource efficiency in the world’s cities through four key areas: knowledge and good practices sharing, waste data and monitoring, advocacy and education, and project finance and bankability support. In early 2021, WWC launched  the Waste Wise Cities Tool (WaCT), a rapid assessment and planning tool that evaluates a city’s municipal solid waste performance and provide data and information to design strategic plans for a circular economy as well as project proposal for funds mobilization. The tool builds on SDG indicator 11.6.1. By applying the WaCT, cities will learn how much waste is generated, collected, and treated in controlled facilities, and report on waste-related SDGs.

A significant amount of work is yet to be done before waste is seen as a resource rather than a nuisance globally, but through programmes like WWC you can be part of the solution! Join UN-Habitat’s WWC, and together we can become waste wise and beat climate change!