Guest Article #55

Turning Wastes into Resources While Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions: A Contribution to a Green Economy

Environmentally sound management of wastes – including hazardous wastes – is not among the measures that spontaneously come to mind in the context of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The Basel Convention - the sole global treaty on waste management, aiming to protect human health and the environment through control of transboundary movements and environmentally sound management of hazardous and other wastes – is not widely seen as an instrument towards this end. If at all, the role of waste management in combating climate change is seen primarily in the reduction of methane emissions resulting from landfills. Hazardous wastes rarely enter the picture.

However, a report published in December 2010 by UNEP, titled “Waste and Climate Change: Global Trends and Strategy Framework”[1], shows that the contribution of the waste sector to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is much more significant than commonly assumed. The Report provides a comprehensive analysis of the different ways in which waste management can contribute to combating climate change. It concludes that “the waste sector is in a unique position to move from being a minor source of global emissions to becoming a major saver of emissions”[2]. According to the Report, waste prevention, and recycling or resource recovery, result in the highest climate benefit compared to other waste management approaches. This benefit is achieved through avoiding the greenhouse gas emissions from the energy used to extract or produce the primary materials[3].

According to the Report, the Basel Convention's requirements to ensure environmentally sound management of hazardous wastes, and to protect human health and the environment against the adverse effects of such wastes, can be interpreted to include combating climate change[4]. There is thus a role for the Basel Convention to play.

Several developments are currently taking place at the international policy level that could help promote the actions advanced by the UNEP Report. As far as the Basel Convention is concerned, the publication of the Report coincided with a paradigm shift being advocated in the lead-up to the 10th Conference of the Parties to the Convention, to be held in Cartagena, Colombia, in October 2011: the Conference will focus on the theme of “minimizing wastes and re-using them." The Basel Convention was long considered primarily as an instrument for preventing and controlling transboundary movements of hazardous wastes. With the adoption of the Basel Declaration on Environmentally Sound Management,[5] on the occasion of its 10th anniversary in 1999, the Convention began to place more emphasis on its second pillar, namely the environmentally sound management of hazardous wastes and other wastes, wherever they are located. This more holistic view of the Basel Convention, increasingly embraced over the past decade, may provide the basis for the paradigm shift to be considered by the Cartagena Conference: wastes, including hazardous wastes, should no longer be viewed merely as a costly burden, but as a resource with economic value. If carried out in accordance with the principles of environmentally sound management enshrined in the Basel Convention, recycling and resource recovery have the potential to create green jobs and green business opportunities. At the same time, recycling and resource recovery have the potential to contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the relevant sectors of the economy. In order to achieve the obvious win-win situation, it will be crucial to recognize the potential of recycling and resource recovery, and to adopt the measures needed to realize this potential, both under the Basel Convention and the climate agreements.

Another significant policy development, to which both the findings of the UNEP Report and the paradigm shift under the Basel Convention can contribute, is the concept of a Green Economy, which will figure prominently on the agenda of the Rio 2012 Summit. Turning wastes into valuable resources through recycling and resource recovery while reducing greenhouse gas emissions could be one of the concrete ways of giving life to this concept.

Time is ripe to connect the dots: the potential of recycling and resource recovery to reduce greenhouse gas emissions identified by the UNEP Report; the “wastes to resources” approach under the Basel Convention; and the need to put the concept of a Green Economy into operation. Rio 2012 would be a prime opportunity for this.


[1] Available at www.unep.or.jp/ietc/Publications/spc/Waste&ClimateChange/Waste&ClimateChange.pdf

[2] UNEP Report, p. 4

[3] UNEP Report, p. 30 et seq.

[4] UNEP Report, p. 41

[5] Report of the Conference of the Parties to the Basel Convention on its fifth meeting, December 1999, UNEP/CHW.5/29, Annex II, available at www.basel.int/meetings/cop/cop5/cop5reportfinal.pdf.