Part I: The impact of COP21 on recycling and renewable energy from waste

Columns - Critical Thinking

Focusing on an integrated approach to waste and resource management will help achieve large reductions in GHG emissions

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February 22, 2016
Harvey Gershman

Just before the ball dropped in Times Square, nation leaders from around the world attended the 21st annual Conference of Parties (COP21) to form the Paris Agreement, committing the international community to fight climate change.

Two notable initiatives were founded together with COP21—Breakthrough Energy Coalition and Mission Innovation—are focused on bringing together public and private organizations to catalyze investment in research and development for clean energy, of which renewable energy from waste is an important component.

During the event, International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) President David Newman made great points regarding contributions waste management can make. He noted while “much focus of the conference has been on energy, greater emphasis must be placed on waste and materials management…the whole waste system, when it is working efficiently and to its maximum potential, can reduce up to 15 to 20 percent of a country’s carbon dioxide emissions compared to a scene where waste is just dumped.”

More worldwide emphasis needs to be placed on commercial-scale recycling, waste-to-energy and anaerobic digestion. Investments in these technologies will help build a circular materials management economy where recycling materials and energy from organics and residues are recovered ... before landfilling or dumping.

“From where I sit, it seems that the Paris Climate Conference was a step in the right direction for renewable energy from waste!”

In the EU, by heavily restricting and taxing unprocessed waste disposal at landfills, investments in materials and energy utilization management collection and processing infrastructure has been successfully put in place to achieve an astonishing 42 percent recycling rate and 66 percent diversion rate in 2013. For the U.S. to follow the EU’s lead, public- and private-sector organizations must collaborate to develop regionalized integrated solid waste management systems.

This integrated approach to waste and resource management will help achieve large reductions in GHG emissions, but to get there will require capital investments in planning efforts, technology development and capacity building.

We hopefully will see new conversion technologies prove themselves at more attractive economics than taking unprocessed waste to landfills for disposal. Unless we see these environmental benefits monetized more across the board, we will need to continue to work very hard to convince the public to pay more for the environmentally superior approach!

From where I sit, it seems that the COP21 was a step in the right direction for renewable energy from waste! However, the U.S. is only one player on the world stage … Stay tuned next issue, when we will discuss the challenges of implementing a circular materials management economy in developing countries and what COP21 and the Paris Agreement bring for them.

Gershman, Brickner & Bratton, Inc. (GBB), www.gbbinc.com, is an international solid waste management consulting firm that helps public- and private-sector organizations craft practical, customized and technically sound solutions for complex solid waste management challenges.

Inspiration and research assistance by Ljupka Arsova, senior consultant, and Eric Weiss, consultant I.