Zero waste: The forgotten climate change mitigation tactic

Published on: 
21 Mar 2018
Emily DeCremer

Zero waste has been called the “Cinderella of sustainability.” Energy and water get all the attention and investment, while waste modestly sits on the sidelines. Although energy and water reduction efforts are critical to reducing our impact on the environment, waste reduction is just as important.

The production of goods and subsequent waste contributes to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, pollution and general environmental degradation—in some cases, drastically. Managing materials is associated with an estimated 42 percent of total GHG emissions in the U.S. By increasing our national recycling rate (an average around 30 percent) by just 8 percent and cutting the amount of waste we generate by 5 percent, we could slash emissions by more than 20 million metric tons of carbon equivalent.

The links between climate change and waste

Here are the important links between climate change and waste that all green building champions should understand:

  • Emissions from extraction of resources: Trees, minerals, oil and other basic components of materials we use must be extracted from the environment. The extraction process and resulting depletion of resources releases GHGs and disrupts the ecosystem.
  • Transportation of goods and materials: Raw materials must be transported to processing and manufacturing facilities. Most finished goods include excessive packaging, which has several stages of extraction and transportation. The materials or finished goods are repacked from one destination to another, adding to the climate impact. Finished goods must be transported to retail facilities or consumers. Finally, after consumption the materials (especially packaging) are transported several times to landfill, waste to energy or recycling facilities.
  • Manufacturing emissions: The production of goods and materials also has associated emissions. This can be direct emissions output from the manufacturing facility itself, or indirect output through the energy it uses.
  • Landfill methane: As some materials degrade in the anaerobic environment of a landfill, methane is released. Methane is a potent GHG, with as high as 72 times the impact on warming the climate than CO2. In California, landfills are one of the top five sources of GHG emissions. This is why zero waste was tied into one of the most sweeping pieces of climate mitigation legislation in the country, California Assembly Bill 32. The bill supports infrastructure and programs to decrease methane emissions from resource management activities and the increase of diversion efforts.
  • Emissions from incineration: Even with emission controls, some GHG and other air pollutants are produced from these processes. Energy recovery capabilities at these facilities can help to negate climate impact. However, as with landfills, it is still not the most desirable outcome for residuals. This is because the materials are permanently destroyed, which necessitates starting over again by extracting new raw materials. The best approach is to prevent the need for disposal in the first place by reducing, reusing and recreating products. Instead of destroying the materials, this mitigates climate impacts upstream.
  • Ocean pollution: Litter, particularly single-use plastic items, and polluted runoff enter our oceans, damaging its ecosystem. Healthy oceans are critical to maintaining a healthy climate, and acidification and warming ocean temperature may amplify overall warming.
  • Destruction of forests: Trees cut down for the production of paper-based products can no longer filter our air or sequester carbon. We must preserve elements of our ecosystem that mitigate climate change impacts.

Going zero waste as a solution

The solution is taking resource management to the next level by going zero waste: redesigning products and packaging to prevent waste from being generated in the first place, reducing waste, reusing, upcycling, composting and recycling.

With the integration of the TRUE Zero Waste certification program into our suite of rating systems, GBCI is aiming to give this zero waste philosophy the attention it deserves in our collective effort to combat climate change. The achievements and ongoing performance of a diverse array of TRUE-certified facilities show that zero waste is possible.

Resources to get you started

Learn more about the impacts of waste and how you can get started on the journey to zero waste:

  1. TRUE Advisor Certificate program
  2. Articles on zero waste and TRUE
  3. Fourth Assessment Report, Waste Management and Climate Change, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
  4. Emissions from Waste Incineration Report, IPCC
  5. Climate Change and Municipal Solid Waste, U.S. EPA
  6. Waste Reduction Model, U.S. EPA: Calculate the impact of your current materials management program and what would happen if you took your program to the next level.
  7. CalRecycle
  8. Stop Trashing the Climate report, Institute for Local Self-Reliance
  9. Global Reporting Initiative
  10. Sound Resource Management Group