Turning solid waste into resources

Almost 27 billion tons of waste is expected to be produced globally by 2050 as a result of rapid urbanization and population growth. A major portion of this will be generated by developing economies in the Asia-Pacific region.

Turning growing volumes of solid waste into income-generating resources has been identified by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) as an important opportunity for countries in the region, provided they are able to improve the efficiency of waste management services, with the help of the private sector and communities. Improper management of solid waste contributes not only to the release of toxic chemicals, it also increases the risk of climate change, air pollution and a range of public health concerns.

To assist the countries of Asia and the Pacific to turn waste into resources and strengthen their climate change mitigation actions, ESCAP is promoting the implementation of a financially sustainable waste-to-resource project. Focusing on developing countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Viet Nam, the project provides technical assistance for the development of integrated resource recovery centres at the local level and their replication and up-scaling through national programmes, including country-appropriate mitigation actions in the waste sector.

The initiative comes at a time critical time, as world leaders are set to adopt a universal, comprehensive and ambitious new sustainable development agenda at the United Nations summit in September. Many of the new proposed sustainable developed goals are focused on protecting the environment, including Goal six on water and sanitation, Goal 13 on climate change, Goal 14 on oceans and coasts, and Goal 15 on the conservation of terrestrial ecosystems.
To date, investment in solid waste management in most developing countries has focused on ‘end-of-the-pipe’ solutions, such as open waste dumping and uncontrolled landfilling, which leads to methane emissions from untreated waste streams as well as significant environmental, social and economic impacts in communities. While these solutions are often easier to implement, and face fewer barriers than pro-poor waste-to-resource projects, they are largely unsustainable as they often become increasingly expensive and challenging – an example is the difficulty in finding new land when existing landfills reach capacity. Open waste dumping also results in environmental degradation around disposal sites, the spread of diseases and high costs for municipal governments in collecting and disposing of waste.

On the other hand, decentralized and pro-poor solid waste management in developing countries can generate many co-benefits, such as green job creation, improved health, improved waste collection, and cost savings from the reduced need for landfilling, as well as improved crop yields through the use of compost, among others. In the case of composting projects in selected developing countries in Asia and the Pacific, it was calculated that these co-benefits can be as high as US$ 184.21 per ton of CO2 reduced.

However, the financial sustainability of waste-to-resource projects remains a challenge due to the low prices of resources that can be recovered from waste; the absence of fiscal incentives for investments in these projects; and a lack of supporting policies such as separation of waste at source.

In this context, in its latest research report: Valuing the sustainable development co-benefits of climate change mitigation actions, ESCAP calls for policy interventions to prioritize mechanisms that would turn waste into resources, with the help of the private sector and cooperation among different government ministries. The report aims to provide guidance to policy-makers and practitioners in the quantification and monetization of the co-benefits of climate change mitigation, using the waste sector as a case study.

To begin with, this would include the creation of an investment-enabling environment in developing Asia-Pacific countries, as well as providing direct and indirect monetary benefits to private sector enterprises involved in waste-to-resource projects. ESCAP further highlights that strengthening solid waste management can result in the creation of several co-benefits such as job creation, reduced pollution, increases in crop yields, and cost savings.

For more information, download the full report here: