Our industry’s true impact on climate change

Departments - Waste Watch

September 9, 2020

Reflecting on current events, it’s hard to think or talk about much besides the COVID-19 pandemic—and understandably so. Many have lost not just their livelihoods as a result of the associated economic shutdown, but also their lives from the disease. But we should not lose sight of one of the biggest contributing factors to the severity of the pandemic: global climate change.

Climate change can adversely impact health by creating water and food insecurity, air pollution, heat stress and extreme weather. It also heightens our risk of disease. Considering the incredible toll we have witnessed COVID-19 take, it is no surprise that, for this and many other reasons, climate change is the biggest threat to the global economy today, according to the World Economic Forum. So, what, you might ask, does climate change have to do with waste? Well, everything.

One of the primary responsibilities of our industry is to provide programs and services that protect the health and welfare of our communities. If we were not here to provide these programs and services, public and planetary health and welfare would surely be in dire straits. Just as climate change can precipitate disease, so too can improperly managed waste materials and systems. But our role is farther reaching and more significant than that and requires us to step beyond a business-as-usual mindset.

According to the EPA, the U.S. waste industry accounted for just 2 percent of our nation’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2018. Not bad, right? Well, that’s not actually the whole picture. With the way industries are classified in many emissions inventory methodologies, the only emissions sources included in the “waste” industry are landfills (this category’s primary emitter), wastewater treatment, and composting (which, for technical reasons, is not considered a harmful emitter). It is worth noting here that landfills are the nation’s third-largest source of methane emissions, and methane is 86 times more powerful in terms of atmospheric warming potential than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. Next, let’s add in emissions from waste combustion facilities (classified in the electricity generation sector), and now we are up to 2.5 percent of all U.S. GHG emissions. Still, not bad, right? True, but still not the whole picture.

The rest of the picture gets a lot muddier. Emissions resulting from material processing, such as from MRFs, might be counted in the commercial & residential sector (12 percent of U.S. GHGs) or the industrial sector (22 percent of U.S. GHGs), depending on the type and source. Co-digestion of manure with other organic waste is counted in the agricultural sector (10 percent of U.S. GHGs). Lastly, some emissions associated with electricity use are captured within their respective sectors, but others must be traced back to the primary electricity generation sector (27 percent of U.S. GHGs).

Here’s the kicker: We still haven’t considered the impact of transportation. Transportation is the nation’s single-biggest emitting economic sector at 28 percent of total U.S. GHGs, primarily due to our ongoing reliance on fossil fuel-powered internal combustion engines. Waste and recycling collection fleets are no exception, with collection truck fuel efficiency as low as 1.5 to 6 miles per gallon, depending on type of truck.

The good news is that the only way to go is up. Electric vehicle (EV) costs are on a continued decline, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to dispute the advantageous economics, considering the significant fuel needs of our collection fleets. We’ve seen small-scale pilots of collection EVs here in the U.S., and now in August, we saw the first big U.S. waste industry player dive into a large-scale collection EV commitment..

We have a responsibility to protect the health and welfare of our communities, and that doesn’t stop simply by going about business as usual. As we have all witnessed during the pandemic, “business as usual” will not ensure the long-term health and welfare of our communities—or our planet. I challenge all of us to take a full-cost accounting approach to capturing the true impact of our industry on climate change.