As America’s climate commitments have floundered in the face of a rising existential threat, city leaders have increasingly stepped up to the plate to deliver the kind of transformative change we need to avert climate catastrophe. But cities have also been slammed, especially in the last few years, with other urgent challenges. The pandemic exacerbated existing crises of equity – access to affordable housing, healthcare, and decent jobs for all, as well as environmental pollution – that left low-income and BIPOC communities particularly vulnerable to COVID’s worst outcomes.
The climate solutions that cities pursue must not only quickly reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but also address the complex and interconnected social, political, and economic realities that we face. And sometimes we find solutions where we least expect it: like in our garbage bin.
“Zero waste,” namely the reduction, separate collection, composting, and recycling of our trash, is a low-hanging fruit solution that helps cities achieve their climate goals affordably and effectively. In the U.S., 42% of GHG emissions are associated with the making, using, and wasting of stuff. Plastic in particular is a deadly material for the climate. The GHG emissions from plastic production and destruction is on track to surpass the power sector’s climate footprint.
A new report released by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) found that waste reduction and better management could reduce waste sector GHG emissions by 84%, or 1.4 billion tons. That’s like taking all motor vehicles off the road in the U.S. for a year. Composting, in particular, would prevent the 20% of global methane emissions that come from putting our organic waste in a landfill. This organics recovery strategy is of particular importance because methane is 80 times as powerful of a GHG as carbon dioxide.
There is also evidence that zero waste strategies can help the waste sector prevent more GHG’s than it emits. The study found that through modest zero waste strategies like scaling up recycling and composting programs, cities like Detroit, MI, could achieve net negative emissions in the sector by 2030. Given Detroit’s current levels of recycling and composting–which thanks to dedicated community groups, small businesses, and policymakers, is growing but still very low–this modeling shows that the same astonishing GHG reduction potential is within reach in cities across the United States.
Zero waste strategies are much more affordable than conventional waste disposal methods. A recent study found that cities could save an average of 70% on waste management costs by transitioning to zero waste systems.
In contrast, waste incineration is the most costly approach to municipal waste: incinerators are extremely expensive to build, and once they are built, they demand a high tonnage of waste in order to keep the facility operational, discouraging cities from pursuing waste reduction strategies. Some cities have even been driven to bankruptcy due to investments in the incinerator, most notably Harrisburg, PA and Detroit, MI.
Zero waste can also help bring about a just transition to a low-carbon economy. Studies have found that zero waste systems create up to 200 times as many jobs as disposal methods like landfilling and incineration. And even more importantly, a healthy zero waste system can create well-paying, union jobs that provide a decent wage, benefits, and safe working conditions. The San Francisco-based unionized, worker-owned waste management company Recology, for example, has an 80% recovery rate, and offers a starting salary of $40 per hour, in contrast to the average waste hauler’s income of $16 per hour in the state.
As recent studies have uncovered the severity of the United State’s environmental pollution problem and its impact on public health, cities have begun to recognize the critical importance of protecting communities from this threat. It seems like there’s a new headline every month about the hazards of plastic– plastic in our food, plastic in our water, plastic in the human placenta, plastic in our blood. Burning our waste makes things even worse– it not only turns garbage into GHG emissions, but also into toxic air emissions of mercury, lead, dioxins, and particulate matter that can impact our organs.
For years the community living near the Detroit incinerator – 87% of whom are people of color and children– were five times more likely to be admitted to a hospital for asthma. The incinerator burned the waste of more affluent communities outside of the city, as well as that of communities from other states and even Canada, and it is estimated that the facility caused $2.6 million in health costs each year.
After four decades of tireless community activism, the Detroit incinerator was finally shut down. Now the very same communities that had once lived under the shadow of the incinerator are piloting a community composting program along with neighboring communities on the Eastside of Detroit for backyard, community garden, and urban farm scales.
Many other waste prevention and diversion projects, such as education campaigns to increase participation in Detroit’s growing curbside recycling program, compost collection, textile upcycling, food rescue and redistribution, and electronics repurposing, are taking place all at the same time. These projects provide a blueprint for the city on how decentralized waste diversion efforts could prevent further pollution and improve well-being across Detroit.
In the face of ever-worsening unnatural disasters, zero waste systems are a critical tool to further climate adaptation in cities. In particular, separately collecting and composting organic discards has a powerful impact on local agricultural systems. Not only does compost boost the productivity of the soil, but it also makes crops more resilient to climate instability like droughts and floods, making soil better able to both retain nutrients, and absorb and detoxify floodwaters. This is a boon to both local farmers and community members, creating a closed loop system where food is grown, delivered to communities, and any waste is returned to the soil to grow more healthy food. Reduction of single-use plastic has also been proven to help mitigate flooding, as plastic bags and other items have a tendency to clog storm drains.
Detroit’s local composting initiatives, like the Georgia Street Community Collective (GSCC), are prime examples of climate resilience in action. The Collective has become an organics drop-off site for local residents. Food scraps are composted and returned to the soil of the on-site community garden, which founder Mark Covington uses to grow nutritious foods for his neighbors. In just under two years, the Collective has prevented upward of 25,000 pounds of organics from a local university from being landfilled.
The scale of the climate crisis is often difficult to grasp, and many of our leaders still fail to identify climate change as the cause or amplifier of the many challenges that we’re facing. However, waste is literally easy to grasp, in fact we are in contact with it on a daily basis– when we throw it away, when we see it littering our public spaces, and certainly when we smell it. Successful city efforts to reduce and better manage waste are largely community-led, in part because when people are confronted with the waste crisis in a tangible way, they are more likely to take action, and to achieve tangible results. In this way, zero waste is a winning climate strategy that can create good jobs, save public funds, and build healthier communities.
Claire Arkin is the Global Communications Lead for Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA).