As the world marks the International Day of Zero Waste, Adriana Gómez-Sanabria highlights that the path to zero waste will require a shift in society’s current consumption and production patterns. Originally conceived to shield humanity and the environment from the fallout of our actions, waste management systems must now evolve into engines of sustainability.

The International Day of Zero Waste observed on 30 March, is an initiative highlighting the relevance of reducing and potentially eliminating waste, while also emphasizing that this goal cannot be achieved without transforming our current consumption and production patterns. Originally, waste management services were developed to protect humans and the environment from the direct and indirect consequences of our economy and actions. Today, the provision of waste management services needs to be transformed into resources and waste management systems, recognizing that these systems are catalysts for sustainability.

To ensure that these new resource and waste management systems fulfill their purpose, the transformation must occur at all levels of the supply chain and should consider social, economic, environmental, and technological implications. This transformation presents numerous opportunities, as well as many challenges.

One way to achieve this transformation is by adopting a circular economy, in other words, to transform the economic system from linear – produce-use-dispose – to a system that reduces material use and products that are less resource intensive, decreases environmental burdens, and eliminates waste by recapturing it as new material.

As part of a circular economy, there are 10 key strategies – known as the R- strategies – that can be instrumental in achieving greater sustainability. They can in turn be grouped into three categories: narrow (use less), referring to actions such as refuse, rethink, reduce, which primarily occur during the design and production phase; slow (use longer) implying reuse, repair, refurbish, remanufacture, and repurpose, which mainly take place at the consumption phase; and close (use again), which refers to recycling and recovery actions.

The implementation of every single R-strategy necessitates interventions at all levels, including the political, legal, innovative, capacity-building, and technological domains. To facilitate this process, cooperation and financial support are imperative. The level of interventions and adoption of circular practices depends, among other aspects, on firm size. Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) will therefore require special support and financial subsidies for the green transition. Consumers would also need to transform  their practices to align with the principles of the circular economy.

Moreover, the transition must ensure that the benefits are shared widely and inclusively among all stakeholders involved, while also being implemented in a timely manner.  Particularly, from the waste management systems point of view, as informal waste workers are at high risk of being left out. Consequently, their active participation in this transformation must be guaranteed.

On this important day, I would like to highlight the work of IIASA, particularly its Energy, Climate and Environment (ECE) Program, in this field. ECE has been assessing the environmental impacts of the material circularity and waste management systems on climate, air, and water pollution.  This research includes:  

  • Evaluating the potential emission reductions of short-lived climate pollutants from organic waste management by collaborating with local stakeholders to develop strategies for reducing organic waste generation, improving source-separation, and diverting it from landfills through composting and anaerobic digestion as alternative treatments. 
  • Quantifying waste leakage into aquatic environments and evaluating measures to eliminate it. This project analyzes various scenarios and proposes strategies to manage eight different streams of municipal solid waste based on different socioeconomic developments.
  • Assessing the significance of methane emissions from landfills and air pollutant emissions from open burning of waste through global, regional, and local assessments, proposing alternative waste management routes, from reduction of waste to recycling and end-of-life, to eliminate this source of pollution.
  • Developing new approaches for analyzing circularity from a systems perspective, including dematerialization (reduction of the quantity of materials used), servitized economy (offering a service instead of a product), life extension of products and materials, and end-of-life treatment.  
  • Evaluating the role of the waste sector in the transformation to sustainable cities.

In addition, IIASA researchers have been collaborating with highly recognized institutions, participating in national and international events, and contributing to reports related to dematerialization and waste management. They are also focusing on the reduction and management of organic waste, plastic, and more recently, electronic waste (secondary resources).

I believe that by integrating the relevant stakeholders into our research and adopting a systematic approach, we will be able to identify strategies than can potentially be adopted to support a just transition to an economy that preserves natural resources, reduces waste generation, and mitigates climate change, air, and water pollution. 


Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the IIASA blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.