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Linking Municipal Solid Waste, Methane Emissions, and Health Ahead of COP28

November 17, 2023

Every year, the world generates a shocking 2 billion tons of municipal solid waste (MSW). Between 40 and 70 percent of MSW is comprised of organic waste—think food or green waste. If not managed properly, organic waste breaks down in landfills and dumpsites and, in doing so, releases methane. Methane traps 25 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide and is responsible for 45 percent of global temperature increases since the industrial revolution, accelerating climate change at a rate that directly threatens both the environment and human health. Due to the urgency of the climate crisis, targeted investments in methane solutions must be prioritized to keep global temperatures below the critical 1.5°C threshold. Methane also has a more direct link to human health concerns: as a precursor to ground level ozone—which is associated with respiratory challenges—methane is attributed to between 500,000 and 1 million premature deaths each year.

The waste sector is the third largest source of global anthropogenic methane emissions, making it a leading contributor to both climate change and adverse human health impacts. Despite these environmental and direct human health threats, globally, 33 percent of MSW is mismanaged, ending up in dumpsites, unsanitary landfills, or being openly burned or incinerated without proper environmental controls.

It is long past time to address the nexus of MSW, methane emissions, and public health impacts, and the fast-approaching COP28 is the perfect setting to do so as it’s the first to dedicate a day to health, which will include related programming and funding announcements. With global waste generation predicted to reach a staggering 3.4 billion tons by 2050, the time to enhance waste management practices, especially concerning organic waste, is now.

The Health Impacts of Methane Emissions

According to the Mitigation Methane: A Global Health Strategy report series developed by Abt on behalf of the Global Climate and Health Alliance (GCHA), the health impacts of methane emissions are often overlooked. Tropospheric ozone—a toxic air pollutant generated by methane—leads to adverse health outcomes, such as cardiovascular diseases, asthma, respiratory illness, and premature death. In addition to tropospheric ozone and its direct impact on health, co-pollutants such as black carbon and particulate matter found in toxic smoke exacerbate respiratory infections, stroke, heart disease and lung cancer associated with air pollution. These effects are especially impactful near waste sites, where marginalized populations and vulnerable communities are often located, forcing them to bear the brunt of poor waste management practices, and further exacerbating existing health disparities and environmental injustices. Because waste management is primarily a subnational (i.e., local and municipal) service, locally and regionally driven action from the public sector—in close partnership with meaningful private sector engagement—is needed to ensure equitable solutions.

Solutions and the Way Forward

Fortunately, while COP28 provides an opportunity to elevate the conversation and accelerate solutions around waste, climate, methane, and health, collaborative work is already underway. For example, Abt supports the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the Global Methane Initiative (GMI) by focusing on improving organic waste management in GMI partner countries. Importantly, while GMI is an international partnership program, GMI prioritizes the development and implementation of locally led solutions by working with in-country partners, recognizing the importance of local insights that can inform tailored approaches. 

The waste sector report from the Mitigation Methane: A Global Health Strategy series also suggests developing both national and local solutions which include reducing, reusing, and recycling waste (the 3R strategy) as well as diverting organic waste from landfills through composting and anaerobic digestion. Both the report and the GMI note that elevating the stories of communities and individuals whose health has been impacted by improper waste practices can promote collective action and ensure local and subnational entities are kept accountable on safe and proper waste practices.

A case study from the Mitigation Methane reports offers valuable insights into the potential impact of effective national and local waste management strategies. In the Philippines, municipal solid waste is responsible for a significant portion of the country's GHG emissions, with a worrying amount of waste remaining uncollected, leading to dumping, burning, or contamination of waterways and streets.

In response, the Philippines released its National Strategy to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants. This strategy aims to achieve several critical goals by 2030, including capturing landfill gas (LFG) and diverting organic waste to composting. The Philippines has also explored using GHG reduction credits, such as emission reduction purchase agreement credits, to fund these initiatives. This approach has led to the implementation of innovative solutions, including biogas collection systems in livestock farms and LFG collection systems in landfills, which not only reduce GHG emissions but also generate clean energy.

Additionally, by involving stakeholders and encouraging a collaborative approach, the city of Cebu was able to reduce its municipal solid waste generation by a remarkable 30 percent over three years. Cebu’s experience demonstrates the potential impact of integrated solid waste management solutions.

Due to its impacts on climate, environment and health, the global waste crisis demands immediate attention and a concerted effort to improve waste management practices. This can be achieved through a combination of national and local solutions, community engagement, and innovative approaches. As we prepare for COP28, it is imperative to recognize the critical connection between municipal solid waste, methane emissions, climate, and health to drive engagement across countries and sectors.

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