The World has a Waste Problem. Here’s How to Fix It

  • Nuru Lama
April 26, 2024
Post card with image of Nuru Lama, IFC global lead for waste management and circularity

By Nuru Lama
IFC Global Lead for Waste and Circularity

Originally published in EFE

Let’s face it: waste management is not exactly a glamorous topic. In fact, even in the international discourse on climate and development, addressing waste has not been high on the agenda. But if we are to succeed at addressing the global climate, pollution, and biodiversity-loss crises, we need to talk more about waste—and do more, globally and locally.

Waste is responsible for a full 20 percent of the world’s human-related methane emissions. And, at a potency 80 times that of carbon dioxide, these emissions will continue to wreak environmental and economic havoc if left unchecked, making it nearly impossible to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Unfortunately, the outlook is rather grim. With rising urbanization, rapid industrialization, and ever-increasing consumption, the global scale of solid waste generation has reached staggering proportions. The world generates over 2 billion tons of municipal solid waste annually, and this is expected to increase 70 percent by 2050. Most of this increase will come from developing countries, where the issues are exacerbated by the lack of reliable waste collection services, limited source separation of waste types, and reliance on unmanaged landfills and open dumps for disposal—creating vast, toxic mountains that pollute the air, contaminate the water, endanger public health, and hasten climate change. In Latin America and the Caribbean for example, around 145,000 tons of garbage - a third of all urban waste- ends up in dumpsites every day.

water treatment plant Industrial waste management facility for mixed recyclable materials. Photo: Adobe Stock.

Meanwhile, the proliferation of plastic waste—discarded bottles, bags, containers of all sorts—is responsible for the majority of debris found in rivers and oceans, causing serious risks to marine life and coastal livelihoods. According to UNESCO, plastic debris kills more than 1 million seabirds every year, as well as more than 100,000 marine mammals.

The flip side of this somber scenario is that it’s a fixable problem. Unlike other complex climate- and development-related challenges that will require major innovation and technological advances to address, scalable methods to curb waste-generated pollution and methane emissions already exist in practice. These solutions enable energy recovery and a “circular” approach to production and consumption that emphasizes reuse, recycling, and regeneration to minimize environmental impacts. And they offer the promise of inclusive job creation and business opportunities that can uplift entire communities.

The flip side of this somber scenario is that it’s a fixable problem. Unlike other complex climate- and development-related challenges that will require major innovation and technological advances to address, scalable methods to curb waste-generated pollution and methane emissions already exist in practice.

These circular pathways begin with modernizing the waste collection process—increasing the scope and scale of recycling to reclaim materials such as plastics, glass and metals, and organic waste for composting and energy value. This cuts down on what’s sent to landfills and yields new income streams for municipalities and waste management companies, which can help offset the cost of asset upgrades. It also gives producers an opportunity to reduce their own carbon emissions by limiting the amount of new raw material and energy needed. And compared to open dumps, sanitary landfills with methane capture and utilization are key to avoiding harmful waste leakage into the environment—and to mitigating climate change.

One example is the construction of Latin America's largest mechanized recycling plant in the state of Pernambuco, in the northeast region of Brazil, with a capacity to process approximately 2,000 tons of waste per day. This initiative was supported by the International Finance Corporation (IFC, the private sector arm of the World Bank) through the issuance of the first sustainability loan in the country's waste sector. IFC has been taking such a comprehensive approach in many other countries, such as Poland and Vietnamengaging across the entire sustainable waste management value chain.

Electronic waste management of worker in the uniform Electronic waste management of worker in the uniform. Photo: Adobe Stock.

Of course, there are challenges, which limit the widespread adoption of sustainable waste management practices. Regulations that support and enforce proper waste collection, recycling, energy recovery, and disposal are vital. Extended producer responsibility (EPR)regulations offer potential for boosting circularity, while reducing the burden on municipal waste management operators. EPR legislation such as that enacted in India places responsibility on producers and manufacturers to collect the waste they create—such as plastic packaging—and reuse or recycle it—rather than sending it to landfills.

And as with other essential infrastructure services like electricity and water, there is need for ensuring that households, businesses, and municipalities pay for managing the waste that they generate. The ability to pay can often be a bottleneck in lower-income countries and communities. Public-private financing approaches, with concessional finance and business models that extract value and additional revenue sources from waste will be needed. For example, waste management companies are tapping the carbon credit market where possibilities abound, providing financial incentives to invest and expand their operations in ways that help reduce emissions.

Despite the great promise it holds for curbing global warming, reducing pollution, greening cities, and creating economic opportunity, methane abatement accounts for only 2 percent of climate finance today. Dedicated initiatives such as IFC’s Circularity Plus platform—which provides companies and municipalities with investment and advisory solutions that accelerate the waste-to-value approach—are seeking to close such gaps and raise awareness about the possibilities.

Fixing the world’s waste problem is 100 percent doable. But we must come together—public and private sector, governments, regulators, investors, international development institutions, climate activists, and civil society—to elevate the dialogue, spur action, and trigger more investment. If we can do that, we’ll have a far better shot at realizing the dream of a cleaner, greener, and healthier future.