The International Alliance of Waste Pickers is a union of waste picker organizations representing more than 460,000 workers across 34 countries
Supported by Logo WIEGO


November 13, 2011

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Waste pickers saying no to waste-to-energy false solutions and expressing solidarity for waste pickers imprisoned in Mexico’s northern region. Photo credit: Lucia Fernandez.

By Mariel Vilella

Waste has become an important item on the international agenda for climate change.

Greenhouse gas emissions from waste are growing. In particular, people expect methane gas from open landfills to increase almost 50 percent between 1990 and 2020. Since methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, decreasing methane emissions is crucial to prevent catastrophic climate change. (see “Waste pickers! COP17 is important” for information on climate change issues).

Climate policy attempts to reduce methane emissions from waste have mainly focused on the United Nations-administered Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). The CDM was created to help rich countries reduce their greenhouse gas emissions through the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.

Basically, the CDM allows rich countries to buy pollution permits from poor countries, which have low green house gas emissions instead of cutting back on emissions themselves. In this way, the CDM supports the development of projects in the Global South that are helping the fight against climate change.

In the case of waste, however, the CDM is not doing a great job. Considerable evidence indicates that the projects approved by the CDM are directly undermining communities and the environment. This is because rich countries keep buying pollution permits to escape from their commitments to reduce emissions in order to save our planet.

So far, the CDM has mostly supported the expansion of ‘waste-to-energy’ technologies such as waste incinerators and landfill gas facilities, which are a huge threat to waste pickers.

Incinerators take recyclable materials such as paper and plastic to burn them and produce electricity. Landfill gas systems bury vegetables and kitchen waste, mixed with other kinds of waste, to produce methane and then electricity as well.

In this way, these technologies actively compete with the valuable contribution of waste pickers to prevent catastrophic climate change as well as with general recycling programmes. Waste pickers and other recyclers offer much greater greenhouse gas reductions, especially when combined with biological treatment methods.

Recycling paper, plastic and metals is a very effective way to prevent pollution involved in the production of stuff. In the extraction, transport, processing, distribution, consumption and final disposal, each step of the process involves pollution. However, if we recycle stuff, we do not need to produce so many new things, and we can effectively prevent the pollution in the first place.

With vegetables and kitchen waste, we should prevent them coming into landfills to avoid methane emissions. Instead we can pile this waste up in a facility to turn it into fertiliser for crops. This kind of fertiliser is called compost.

Recycling provides a livelihood for approximately 15 million people worldwide – 1 percent of the urban population in the developing world. Waste pickers are incredibly efficient recyclers, achieving recycling rates higher than 80% in places where they have handled vegetables and kitchen waste, such as in Cairo, Egypt.

In India’s Delhi, gas emission savings that the informal sector brings to the city is estimated to be over three times more than other waste projects in the city that receive pollution permits. Waste pickers present a huge opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through increased recycling rates, if they get the proper recognition and support.

Dangers of incineration

The CDM fails to take waste pickers and the potential of recycling programmes into account while CDM landfills and incinerators result in increased emissions from materials that waste pickers previously recycled, and that are now burnt or landfilled.

In incinerators, energy produced through burning recyclable materials involves a much higher rate ofgreenhouse gas emissions than other conventional means of energy generation such as coal-fired power plants. The use of added fossil fuel to burn organic waste is not ‘renewable’ energy, and the lack of monitoring of this method has serious implications for the CDM’s environmental integrity.

Furthermore, the CDM does not require any monitoring of, or compliance with, pollution controls in incinerators so they are a major source of global pollution.

In landfill gas systems, methane emissions are not reduced as much as project developers claim. In fact the opposite is happening. Their low efficiency rate involves a considerable amount of methane emissions being released into the atmosphere.

Evidence shows that landfill operators’ manipulate the sites to increase methane emissions and make more profit, and so these projects result in an increase of atmospheric methane releases.

After strong campaigning by GAIA (Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance), WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment, Globalizing and Organizing) and the Global Alliance of Wastepickers, the CDM has included the revision of its projects in their work plan. Hopefully this will address the methodological flaws that overestimate the amount of greenhouse gas reductions achieved by these projects.

GAIA together with waste picker representatives from Latin America, India and South Africa submitted detailed comments to the CDM Secretariat about these projects.

Moreover, we also welcomed the opportunity to present and discuss the issues with the CDM Secretariat and other stakeholders in the Practitioners Workshop on CDM Standards held in Bonn in June this year which devoted a half day to problems with these project types.

We will be watching closely to see how the CDM addresses its methodological flaws to comply with its mandate. Failure to do so would result in the issuing of false pollution permits, and would compromise the livelihoods of millions of waste pickers and further undermine confidence in the CDM.