Solid waste in the age of resilience

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June 3, 2020

I have never had a teacher of resilience like the last several months, and the lessons have come in ways that I would have never imagined.

Having been in the solid waste industry for two decades, I understand sustainability from a policy and program implementation perspective. But over the last year, two facts changed my mind about what I thought I knew: Ninety-nine percent of CO2 emission impacts from materials are generated upstream before use or discard, and food waste in landfills contributes more CO2 globally than anything except U.S. and China’s emissions in total.

Then came March, and we found ourselves as families, companies, countries and a global community responding to a pandemic. With the economy in free fall and our fragile social networks challenged, cities around the world were seeing the cleanest air on record at the same time. It felt paradoxical. Indeed, the U.S. Energy Information Administration is projecting that U.S. CO2 emissions will drop by 11 percent this year due primarily to the pandemic’s impacts on the economy.

The concept of resilience is relatively new as a planning framework and comes on the heels of recent U.S. natural disasters (e.g., Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Hurricane Sandy in 2012). At its core, resilience implies the ability of a system to flex with chronic stresses or acute shocks. The key with resilience is to avoid a tipping point which will force the system to undergo a metamorphosis.

With COVID-19, we have reached such a tipping point in our world and our solid waste systems. There is no doubt that things have changed dramatically. This begs the question, “Have we built the solid waste system, resilient or not, that we truly desire?”

The crisis and opportunity

Climate change is, in resilience theory, a chronic stress, and a pandemic is an acute shock. Both give us an opportunity to assess and redesign plans and procedures with two new resilience response focal points:

  • Resilience response No. 1 post-pandemic: Jobs Thirty-six million adults filed for unemployment insurance in the U.S. as of mid-May. Now is the time to invest in upstream circular economy models to design out waste where possible as well as catapult advanced processing to create raw materials, alternative fuels and nutrient-dense probiotic plant food—all of which create more jobs than traditional disposal methods.
  • Resilience response No. 2 post-pandemic: Climate Coordinated and standardized climate actions will, in turn, mean less time wasted debating the proper course of action. Gold Standard for the Global Goals, which is an organization that manages best practice standards for climate and sustainable development interventions, is setting the rubric for climate interventions via The Greenhouse Gas Protocol to align with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change-based goal to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. To do this, we must reduce CO2 by one-half by 2030, then significantly each year thereafter. To accomplish this, we must be on the same page.

Both the climate and the pandemic have forced shifts to all our former points of reference on what it is like to work, play, shop and exist normally. Let us dare to make our solid waste systems more sustainable and resilient to acute shocks and chronic stresses. We must strive to develop solid waste systems that are reflective of the future that we most optimistically desire.