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Climate Smart Waste Management

Reducing GHGs and Growing New York's Economy

Two people are standing surrounded by boxes of electronic waste that has been dropped off for recycling
E-waste recycling day in North Castle, a
Climate Smart Community in Westchester
County, informs and engages citizens and helps
reduce GHG emissions.
(Photo courtesy T. North Castle)

Solid waste management contributes significant amounts of heat-trapping greenhouse gases (GHGs) to our atmosphere. This section of the Climate Smart Communities Guide to Local Action discusses ways to reduce GHG emissions from local solid waste management programs.

Since New York's municipalities have primary responsibility for managing solid waste, they also have an important opportunity to reduce these GHG emissions. Local solid waste management planning can help communities move from solid waste management to materials management with economic growth, new permanent jobs and long-term savings for taxpayers and consumers.

The GHG Cost of Solid Waste

No material is a "waste" until it is destined for a landfill or other disposal. Until then, every product or item is a resource that has value and potential for other uses. This value has been added during all the steps in the product's life cycle - from raw material extraction and delivery, through manufacturing and distribution. When products are consigned to landfills or combusted, all the raw materials and most of the energy that went into making them are lost.

Most New York communities recycle some of their solid waste, but approximately four-fifths of it ends up in waste combustors or landfills. Our waste generation outpaces our recycling: even increasingly efficient recycling programs cannot keep up with the flood of non-recyclable products and packaging entering the waste stream. The most recent inventory of New York State's GHG emissions estimates that our system of solid waste disposal generates almost 4 percent (about 9.8 million tons) of the state's GHG emissions. For communities that have landfills within their borders, however, waste management accounts for a much higher percentage of total municipal GHG emissions.

hybrid electric truck
A hybrid electric truck for collecting solid waste and recyclables
proclaims the intent of the City of New Rochelle, a Climate
Smart Community, to reduce GHG emissions from
managing its solid waste. (Photo courtesy City of New Rochelle)

GHGs come primarily from two steps in the management of solid wastes:

  • Transportation and handling: most solid waste management systems today collect, move and process large volumes of waste, using fossil fuel-powered vehicles and equipment that emit carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane (CH4).
  • Landfilling or combusting: in a landfill's anaerobic environment, decomposing organic materials give off methane, a greenhouse gas 22 times as potent as CO2; combusting landfill gas or wastes generates heat-trapping CO2 and nitrogen compounds, but overall GHG emissions from combusted waste are lower than from the same amount of waste left to decompose.

Conserving Resources, Cutting GHG Emissions

Some Waste Management Practices are Better than Others

The table below summarizes the types of waste management practices available to local communities, the GHG implications of each, and other benefits of each practice. The table begins with the most efficient practices, waste prevention and reuse, which emit the smallest amount of GHGs; practices that are more GHG-intensive follow. Replacing fossil fuels with low carbon systems (such as hydrogen or electric power) for transporting and handling waste would make any solid waste management practice more efficient and less polluting.

Solid Waste Management Practice Examples GHG Outcome Other Benefits
Waste prevention
Avoid generating waste in the first place
Product stewardship/producer responsibility, Waste prevention incentives, Technical assistance Avoids GHG emissions from transportation, handling and disposal of wastes not generated Avoids disposal cost and non-GHG pollutants, can save money for manufacturers by conserving raw materials
Reuse
Redirect to new users items that still have value for their original purpose
Usable wastes (e.g., clothing, furniture, building materials) given or sold to be used for their original purpose Avoids GHGs from virgin material extraction/delivery, from manufacturing/distribution of new items, and from waste disposal Saves money for users of redirected materials, recovers material and energy value, avoids cost and non-GHG pollution from disposal
Beneficial use
Redirect items with value for uses other than their original purpose
Use waste paper for animal bedding, waste glass and tires for civil engineering applications; some preparation (e.g. shredding or crushing) may be required Avoids GHG emissions from disposal and from virgin material extraction and manufacturing for new use; transport and preparation may emit some GHGs Recovers material, energy value of waste; saves the cost of virgin material acquisition; reduces
new user's cost and pollution
Comprehensive recycling
Include new materials and venues; expand participation & capture of targeted recyclables
Add recycling in new venues (e.g., workplaces, public spaces, public events), recycle new materials, recruit new recycling participants, replace demolition with deconstruction Avoids GHGs from virgin material extraction/delivery; reduces GHG emissions from disposal (transportation and separation are still necessary, but landfilling or combusting is avoided) Avoids cost and non-GHG pollution from disposal, provides cheaper raw materials for manufacturers, sale of recovered materials can help pay for solid waste management
Recovery of waste organics
Make nutrients in organic wastes available to people, soil organisms, plants
Distribute excess prepared food to institutions or agricultural users; compost food scraps, non-recyclable paper, yard debris; transport, some handling needed Avoids or reduces GHGs from disposal (in particular, methane from decomposition of organics in landfill), sequesters carbon in soil Makes food available for people or animals, provides soil-building compost for landscaping and gardening, avoids or reduces disposal cost, avoids non-GHG pollutants from disposal
Energy recovery
Burn under controlled conditions waste materials that cannot be recycled, capturing combustion heat
Properly equipped combustors can convert water into steam; steam used to heat buildings or generate electricity Recovers energy value from wastes; when substituted for fossil fueled heat or power, eliminates that amount
of fossil fuel CO2
Burning at high temperatures destroys chemicals and disease-causing bacteria; some combustion ash is used beneficially (e.g. cover in landfills)
Best residual management
Dispose of remaining wastes in a way that is environmentally sound and sustainable
Landfills with liners, leachate collection/removal, best operating practices, groundwater monitoring, closure/post closure care, financial assurance, gas recovery Decomposing wastes generate methane, a powerful GHG; capturing and combusting for power generation destroys methane and can avoid some fossil fuel use but still emits CO2 Methane combustion captures some energy value from landfilled wastes; non-degradable wastes remain available for future recovery

By adopting a mix of solid waste management practices that reduce waste and favor efficiency, leaving only limited residues for combustion or landfilling, communities can minimize the tax dollars they spend for waste disposal, conserve materials and avoid GHG emissions. New York's Climate Smart Communities are taking the lead in testing and adopting efficient solid waste management. Industries and other private sector concerns that generate a large amount of waste can reap the same benefits from more efficient waste management practices.

Students from a North Hempstead school sit on the entrance steps surrounded by blue and green recyling bins. Staff and the town supervisor stand behind on the top of the steps
Leading by example is crucial in moving to
efficient, GHG-reducing materials and waste
management. The Town of North Hempstead
involved all eleven school districts within its
jurisdiction in a highly visible effort to
increase recycling. (Photo courtesy of the
Town of North Hempstead)

Materials Management: the Way of the Future

In a materials-efficient economy

  • Goods and services are designed to require much less virgin material
  • Strategies are in place for materials efficiency and waste prevention in homes, businesses and institutions
  • Promotion and support are widespread for materials conservation, recovery and efficiency
  • A robust economy exists for secondary (recovered) materials
  • The maximum amount of material is recovered from the waste stream

With material resources used much more efficiently, New York will significantly reduce GHG emissions, resource depletion, energy use and pollution. Managing materials efficiently will help sustain the low-energy economy and provide good local jobs.

Beyond Waste: A Sustainable Materials Management Strategy for New York

Achieving materials efficiency will require action by governments and the private sector. The recently-published state materials management strategy, Beyond Waste, begins New York's shift from "end-of-the-pipe" waste management to looking "upstream" at how materials that would otherwise become waste can be more sustainably managed throughout the economy. The plan projects that this kind of materials management could:

  • Save more than 280 trillion BTUs of energy each year-as much energy as is consumed by more than 2.6 million homes.
  • Add as many as 67,000 jobs in the state by 2030.
  • Reduce New York's GHG emissions by nearly 21 million metric tons annually.

Beyond Waste targets a progressive reduction in the daily amount of municipal solid waste destined for disposal, from the current 4.1 pounds per person per day to 0.6 pounds by 2030. To accomplish this reduction, the plan focuses on increasing local solid waste management planning; expanded technical assistance, guidance, tools and funding would help address challenging planning issues.


More about Climate Smart Waste Management: