Why this post?
The subject of waste management is rapidly evolving. National policies and regulations are getting redrafted, strengthened and expanded. Indeed, implementation continues to be the challenge but the interest from the community, entrepreneurs and investors is growing. The term waste is now closely linked to resources and innovation is now recognized as a product of this “union”. Achieving circularity in the material and energy flows using these innovations is imperative towards this planets sustainability.
In the last decade, I was fortunate to work on three interesting reports brought out by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). This post recounts these reports, describes their genesis and shares some of the findings. Though targeted to policy makers, these reports serve as a great resource to students, research workers and young practioners who are looking forward to making careers in the new era or avatara of waste management.
The Waste Chapter – UNEP Green Economy Project
The financial crisis of 2007–2008, also known as the global financial is considered by many economists as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The housing market suffered, resulting in evictions, foreclosures, and prolonged unemployment. In particular, as businesses cut production in response to lower aggregate demand, workers were shed in large numbers, sharply increasing unemployment worldwide. This was a time of great depression.
As a consequence, between 2007 and the end of 2009, there was an unprecedented increase in the number of unemployed. Beyond job losses, the quality of employment also deteriorated. Across the globe, many workers who did not lose their jobs were forced to accept reduced working hours as well as lower wages and benefits. In developing countries, a large number of workers lost their jobs in export sectors and were forced into informal and vulnerable employment elsewhere. The situation was further aggravated by austerity measures in most developed economies. The great recession had thus created a global jobs crisis.
It was in the background, UNEP launched the Green Economy project in 2008. Achim Steiner, then UNEP Executive Director played a crucial role on pushing the Green economy project. The Green economy project was coordinated by UNEP’s office in Geneva. Do watch Achim in the video below.
The idea of the Green Economy project was to demonstrate that the greening of economies is not generally a drag on growth but rather a new engine of growth.
Green economy was defined as one that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities. In its simplest expression, a green economy was thought of one which is low carbon, resource efficient and socially inclusive. UNEP’s definition of a green economy was influential in the build up to Rio+20.
The report was prepared in three Parts. Part I focused on investing in natural capital and had chapters on Agriculture, Fisheries, Water, Forests. Part II delved in Investing in Energy and Resource Efficiency, Renewable Energy, Manufacturing, Waste, Buildings, Transport, Tourism and Cities. Parts I and II thus illustrated how greening could be mainstreamed towards economic, environmental and social advantage.
Part III addressed supporting the transition to a global green economy with chapters on Modelling, Enabling Conditions and Finance. Modelling was carried out by the Millennium Institute (MI) from the United States. MI used Threshold 21 (T21) model that was developed after more than 20 years of research and application. The Chapters of Parts I and II provided inputs to T21 and results of T21 were in turn interpreted in the respective Chapters.
Armed with T21, the Green Economy report argued that Green investments will open up and enhance new sectors and technologies that will be the main sources of economic development and growth of the future. Sectors of potential included renewable energy technologies, resource and energy efficient buildings and equipment, low-carbon public transport systems, infrastructure for fuel efficient and clean energy vehicles, and waste management and recycling facilities. Greening was thus mainstreamed in the global economies as an engine of growth to revive the economy after the meltdown.
My company Environmental Management Centre LLP was contracted by UNEP to build the chapter on Waste. I was the Principal Author. We had benefit of five contributing authors representing various regions of the world and with extensive and varied experience in the waste sector. There were peer reviewers appointed as well and a global consultation was performed on the drafts we produced. I remember my colleague Swati Arunprasad had a harrowing time to compile and respond to some 400+ comments/inputs that we received! The Chapter was built over 8 months of painstaking work. I enjoyed interacting with the MI Team when it came to building scenarios or make predictions.
The tone of the Chapter was more on the economics of waste management. The global waste market, from collection to recycling, was estimated at US$ 410 billion a year, not including the sizable informal segment in developing countries. Recycling sector was considered as the main job-provider and attracting investments. The chapter recommended that we establish a global circular economy in which material use and waste generation is minimized, and any unavoidable waste is recycled or remanufactured. Only remaining waste should be treated in a manner least harmful to the environment and human health, and in a way, that generates new value such as energy recovered from waste. The circularity concept was thus positioned. However, we did not emphasize enough on the aspects of reduce, refurbish, re-manufacture. Probably we had less data, only scant case studies and less experience to make a strong economic, environmental and social case. Unfortunately, this weakness continues even today.
Global Waste Management Outlook (GWMO)
Presentation of the Green Economy report and especially the Waste chapter, led to The UNEP Governing Council decision GC 27/12: ‘develop a global outlook of challenges, trends and policies in relation to waste prevention, minimization and management […] to provide guidance for national policy planning’. In response to this decision, UNEP International Environment Technology Centre (IETC) in Osaka was asked to prepare Global Waste Management Outlook (GWMO). International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) joined as the partner.
The GWMO chose to focus primarily on the ‘governance’ issues– including the regulatory and other policy instruments, the partnerships and, crucially, the financing arrangements. Relatively less emphasis was given on the technology. The GWMO was result of two years’ work (by UNEP and ISWA) between 2014-2016 and provided an important and timely status report and call for action to the international community.
David Wilson from the UK was appointed as the Chief Editor of GWMO and I was taken on board as one of the four contributing authors. I had just completed then a Strategic Action Plan for Waste to Resource Management for UNEP. In the situation analyses of the Action Plan, I reviewed some 300 projects and programs of the UN across the world in the arena of waste management and assessed their effectiveness vis-e-vis investments made. This Action Plan was not published – perhaps outcome of this assessment was rather dismal!
During the work on GWMO, team at EMC LLP took the task of developing a “database” on waste generation, waste collection and processing infrastructure across the world. Apart from the waste related data, key “meta data” was also compiled on economic and social parameters. This was quite some sweat, requiring validation as the numbers were often conflicting and my colleagues Shreya Bhatia, Vishwa Trivedi, Tausif Farookhi and Anuja Sarangdhar helped me immensely. This database, now a bit dated, was put in Tableau platform for rapid processing and visualization. I wish I could update this work now. I am looking for researchers/interns to take this up. Interested?
The GWMO stressed on costs of inaction – the public health and environmental damage costs of uncontrolled disposal and open burning – and cautioned that these costs far exceed the costs of sound waste management. We were hoping that this argument would influence the politicians to allocate more budget for management of waste. Pity that we did not have very many “convincing” case studies.
The GWMO noted that while developed countries have made good progress in increasing recycling rates and stabilizing waste growth –there was still much to be done across the world in making the transition from ‘end-of-pipe’ waste biased linear economy, to a circular economy. So once again, the need for circularity in material/energy flows in waste management was emphasized.
The report corroborated with findings of the Green Economy report and recommended a steep increase in the level of funding on waste management sector. It came up with targets to consider such as – achieving 100% collection coverage in all cities with a population more than 1 million. Integrated strategies to simultaneously address sanitation and solid waste management services were emphasized. GWMO urged that producer responsibility programmes should be promoted and monitored to ensure that international companies take more responsibility for waste management associated with their products and wastes in developing countries. We realized that we were working on inconsistent and incomplete numbers and were many times apologetic. Poor data was also the experience of one of the well-known reports of the World Bank called “What a Waste?”. So, a plea was made to improve the availability and reliability of waste and resource related data.
Asia Waste Management Outlook (AWMO)
The success and experience of GWMO and to respond to requests from countries, UNEP IETC considered building Regional Waste Management Outlooks. Accordingly, a project on preparation of Asia Waste Management Outlook (AWMO) was launched in partnership with ISWA. I was appointed as the Chief Editor with contributions from three other authors. UNEPs Regional Resource Center at Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) did the coordination and final production. My students Asha Panwar and Malavika Gopinath from IIT Bombay assisted me.
By then I had realized that the Outlooks and associated reports were getting rather rhetoric. Lot was said before and many a times more. More focused and strategic recommendations were needed. In AWMO, we therefore stressed the importance of developing and promoting Green products and introducing Green Public Procurement as recycling was dominating the understanding of circularity. Since informal waste pickers play a major role in waste management in Asia, sorting centres and materials recovery facilities were recommended providing a safe environment for waste pickers to work. Segregation was stressed as something vital for circularity.
We also realized that the secondary materials industry in Asia is growing rapidly. This sector needed to be factored in the national economies as done in countries like Japan, Korea, Taiwan and China. The growth of this industry was important because it provides an alternative to the use of virgin materials, thereby improving resource security and reducing GHG emissions.
To build more consistent data, standardization of definitions of waste streams and waste-related terminologies was recommended while generating inventories, tracking progress and making comparisons. Today, each country “defines” waste differently.
Studies on “costs of inaction” on health, environmental and social impacts of indiscriminate waste disposal were found to be rather scant. In this context, remediation of contaminated dumpsites was suggested as a priority intervention by the national governments. Further, necessity of preparing strategic action plans to address upcoming and challenging waste streams, such as marine litter, mining and disaster waste was also emphasized.
The AWMO, amongst its several recommendations, made following four key suggestions for strategic action
- Test the effectiveness of economic instruments for effective and sustainable waste management. We realized that Asia lacks this experience.
- Develop a referral framework assessment of policy equivalence, implementation and tracking of progress to guide national governments. The idea was to attempt a regional harmonization on waste and resource related governance. Material flows that dominate movement of waste and resources through trade are dominating today and are getting skewed due to differentials in pricing and governance.
- Emphasize holistic or zero waste management addressing waste in all three media (solid, liquid and air). This suggestion came from Surendra Shrestha, then Director of UNEP IETC. Indeed, a needed expansion of the “mandate”, but rather ambitious and difficult to achieve. Needs piloting.
- Consider development of an Asian Directive on Circular Economy to guide the national governments. I thought this was an important intervention to consider.
The Outlooks are expected to get updated every two to three years. I do hope I get an opportunity to work on the next updates. The experience has been inspirational, enjoyable and with a lot of learning.
If you like this post then Follow me or forward to your colleagues