Solid Waste’s Unprecedented Threat and the Demand for a Circular Economy

The conventional narrative of climate change follows the notion that gas and oil are the main perpetrators of rising global temperatures and environmental degradation. However, another unlikely culprit is responsible for upwards of 40% of global carbon emissions: solid waste. 

The intricate connection between solid waste and climate change has narrowly been explored, with many believing the solution to the climate crisis lies solely in EVs and renewable energy. While proactive and necessary steps to preventing climate change, these acts alone cannot redirect Earth’s trajectory toward disaster. 

In the age of rampant consumerism and subsequent disposal, it is no wonder that over two billion tons of municipal solid waste cover the Earth’s surface today. Solid waste, a ubiquitous category of pollutants, is a leading factor in the worsening state of the climate. Our destructive ‘take, make, dispose’ extractive economy fails to allot for the future, depleting fossil fuels while littering the Earth with immortal waste. 

On the surface, solid waste makes up a mere 5% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at their respective sources. Having such a small stake in global emissions, solid waste is often overlooked as a root cause of global warming. However, looking further upstream at emissions generated in the manufacturing of the things we use and so easily dispose of, it is found that the GHG emissions associated with solid waste are responsible for more than 40% of the world’s global emissions.

In fact, solid waste is a major perpetrator in GHG emissions primarily due to how organic (carbon-based) materials decompose in environments like landfills. When buried in landfills, organic waste must break down in the absence of oxygen.  Through this process of bacteria breaking down organic waste anaerobically, methane is created–methane known to be over 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide at warming the planet. 

However, organic waste is not the only solid waste plaguing the environment: plastics, one of the most pervasive components of solid waste, have a significant environmental footprint throughout their lifecycle. The production of plastics involves the extraction of fossil fuels, primarily oil and natural gas, contributing to carbon emissions. Moreover, the disposal and incineration of plastic waste releases toxic pollutants and additional greenhouse gasses, further exacerbating their environmental impact.

Plastic production has exponentially increased in recent years, with 2023 plastic production totaling about 159 million tons. As the planet’s capacity for safely managing plastics reaches its limit, environmental scientists at Earth Action predict that more than 68.7 million tons of plastic will be mismanaged this year. 

The rate at which plastic is manufactured far exceeds its lifespan before being discarded. The longevity of plastics, combined with their seemingly infinite generation, invokes the fear that the long-term damages inflicted by the pervasive material will be irreversible. 

Heavy metal pollution has caused a rapid decline in soil fertility and quality, and the amount of plastic in the ocean is almost equal to the number of fish. Surface water contamination has escalated around the globe, endangering our water supplies with microplastics and other contaminants. 

And this is just the beginning

The reckless abandon with which people tend to use and dispose of single-use items demonstrates the risks of a ‘take, make, dispose’ economic model, and it is becoming increasingly evident that this chain of consumption cannot sustain itself for much longer. 

Even recycling, a longstanding ‘solution’ to our never-ending waste production, ultimately falls short of mitigating the effects of our overconsumption. According to Green Matters, only about 35% of municipal solid waste is recycled, and what is more unsettling, only 9% of our plastic waste is recycled. 

The recycling process is fundamentally flawed, and as environmental degradation worsens, it is becoming increasingly urgent that a more efficient solution be implemented. 

A paradigm shift towards zero waste and a circular economy is imperative to effectively address the environmental impact of solid waste and combat climate change. In a circular economy, products are designed, from inception, to last longer with a focus on durability and ease of repair, thus minimizing waste and reducing raw material consumption. 

Circular economy solutions disrupt the linear model of ‘take, make, dispose’ by promoting product design that prioritizes recyclability, encouraging the use of recycled materials, and fostering systems that allow for the recovery and reuse of resources. With this change, we go beyond trying to reduce emissions in our extractive linear system. By lowering emissions and boosting resistance to its impacts, it provides a methodical approach to addressing our waste crisis.

Five important categories—cement, aluminum, steel, plastics, and food—are highlighted in an Ellen MacArthur Foundation report on the advantages of a circular economy. Applying a circular economy framework to these five industries can reduce the overall emissions from the production of goods by almost 50%, amounting to 9.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide by 2025. 

The production of materials like steel, aluminum, and cement are some of the most exhaustive and polluting industries. However, by increasing the use of available assets (recycled materials), the demand for producing these materials can be significantly reduced. 

The food system is another area where a regenerative production model can be successfully applied. Emissions from uneaten or unused products can be prevented by minimizing waste throughout the food manufacturing process. This shift towards more regenerative farming practices has several benefits, including improved soil quality and increased resistance to extreme climates.

Even consumer behaviors shift under a circular economy, as it requires them to be actively involved in the acquisition, use, and disposal of products and services in a sustainable manner. Consumer engagement is crucial in the transition to a circular economy, and it can be accelerated through various types of consumer practices, such as product purchase, product use, and end-of-life product management. Seeking information is also crucial for guiding consumers towards more environmentally conscious purchases and choices that align with a circular economy.

The relationship between solid waste and climate change is multifaceted, extending beyond the visible impacts of landfill emissions. The transition towards a circular economy and zero waste solutions emerges as a powerful means of mitigating environmental harm, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and fostering a sustainable future.

As we confront the interconnected challenges of solid waste and climate change, it becomes clear that individual actions, corporate responsibility, and systemic changes are all integral components of the solution. By embracing circular economy principles and championing zero waste initiatives, we can pave the way for a more sustainable and resilient planet where waste is minimized, resources are conserved, and the impacts of climate change are mitigated for future generations.

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