How poor waste management is accelerating climate change

Kabagarame garbage collection site in Bushenyi-Ishaka Municipality, Western Uganda.  PHOTOS | ZADOCK AMANYISA

What you need to know:

  •  Waste comprises biological material, such as food, paper, wood, and garden trimmings. After waste is deposited in a landfill, microorganisms begin to consume the carbon in organic material, which causes decay,  writes Zadock Amanyisa

Half a kilometer from Bushenyi District’s famous weekly pork market – Kabagarame - sits a dumping site for all the weekly garbage collected from the Bushenyi-Ishaka Municipality.

The site is no reasonable distance away from the Ruharo wetland, posing danger to the ecosystem in the lower resource because the waste causes a bad odor, pollutes the water, covers the bottom of the wetland, damages aquatic insects, and brings about hazardous substances such as mercury, lead, and zinc, among other threats.

The Bushenyi-Ishaka Municipal Local Government recently put in place solid waste collection services. But they are not utilised.

The mayor, Mr Richard Byaruhanga, says the site came into place after the one that they were using was taken over by a banana processing factory. No compensation was given.

On the other hand, the Environment Officer, Mr Abbot Tumwebaze, says the site was chosen by the then authorities without putting in mind its impact on the environment.

What is happening at Kabagarame is a picture of what happens in many growing urban centers in Uganda.

What’s the reason to worry?

On a global scale, climate change is in the spotlight and has become a dominant global issue of discussion. From September 4-6, African Climate Summit in Nairobi, Kenya to the 2023 SDG Summit in New York, there are indicators that governments and international organisations are taking significant actions to respond to and address the crisis.

Today, the world collectively emits around 50 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year. Every year, an estimated 11.2 billion tons of solid waste are collected worldwide, and the decay of the organic proportion of solid waste contributes about 5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

“Poor waste management, ranging from non-existing collection systems to ineffective disposal, causes air pollution, water contamination, and soil contamination. Open and unsanitary landfills contribute to the contamination of drinking water and can cause infection and transmit diseases. The dispersal of debris pollutes ecosystems, and dangerous substances from electronic waste or industrial garbage put a strain on the health of urban dwellers and the environment,” says United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Recently, the consequences of climate change have become more serious and visible.

Children pick burnt mosquito nets dumped with debris and other waste at Calvary Chapel Christian School in Nakiwogo, Entebbe.

Almost every year, a record is broken. Of the last 22 years, 20 have been the hottest on record. Scientists have suggested that the only way to tackle this problem is to decrease collective emissions as soon as possible.

The natural resources that used to be a source of awe and beauty, causing the ultimate thrill of creation, are dwindling.  Global warming is drastically hurting every corner. The impact of climate change is manifesting itself in extreme events like torrential rains and floods, devastating droughts, and other occurrences.

 Link between waste management and climate change

The 2010 United Nations Waste and Climate Change Global Trends and Strategy Framework says sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) methane discharges from landfills are generally considered to embody the major source of climate impact in the waste sector.

 Waste comprises biological material, such as food, paper, wood, and garden trimmings. After waste is deposited in a landfill, microorganisms begin to consume the carbon in organic material, which causes decay. Under the anaerobic conditions prevalent in landfills, the microbial communities contain methane-producing bacteria. As the microbes gradually decompose organic matter over time, methane (approximately 50 percent), carbon dioxide (approximately 50 percent), and other trace amounts of gaseous compounds are generated and form landfill gas.

 As with any ecological system, optimum conditions of temperature, moisture, and nutrient source (i.e., organic waste) result in greater biochemical activity and, hence, greater generation of landfill gas. The gradual decay of the carbon stock in a landfill generates emissions even after waste disposal has ceased. This is because the chemical and biochemical reactions take time to progress, and only a small amount of the carbon contained in waste is emitted in the year this waste is disposed of. Most are emitted gradually over a period of years. Methane and carbon dioxide (CO2) are greenhouse gases (GHGs) whose presence in the atmosphere contributes to global warming and climate change. (United Nations Waste and Climate Change Global Trends and Strategy Framework 2010).

 The increase in average global temperature is caused primarily by an increase in greenhouse gases. Predominantly, carbon dioxide but also other gases such as methane, nitrous oxide, and other fluorinated gases are relevant in waste management discussions. Methane is 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide is even 298 times more potent.

 Dr. Christian Zurbrugg, an environmental engineer from the University of Brescia, Italy, argues that globally, waste, including wastewater, contributes only 3-5 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions.

“This is mainly through methane emissions from landfills, methane and nitrous oxide from wastewater, and some minor carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide from the burning of fossil carbon,” he explains.

 The waste question in Uganda

 In April 2023, President Museveni issued an executive order to all urban centers, tasking authorities to ensure that there is a garbage skip every 200 meters. The directive also pushes urban authorities to put in place clear plans for solid waste recycling.

 Expected to take effect after six months from the day of issuing, Ugandans are yet to see the directive get enforced, with a number of officials saying that the undertaking is too expensive to implement.

 According to the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA), solid waste generation increased from 407,890 tons in 2011 to 785,214 tons in 2017; three-quarters of the waste is organic and biodegradable. 28 percent of city-wide emissions come from landfills, waste incineration, and solid waste management collectively, making the waste sector the second biggest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in Kampala after energy generation, according to the Food Waste Baseline Survey Report 2021.


Remanufacturing, recycling

UNEP says the solution, in the first place, is the minimization of waste. Where waste cannot be avoided, recovery of materials and energy from waste, as well as remanufacturing and recycling waste into usable products, should be the second option. Recycling leads to substantial resource savings.

For example, for every ton of paper recycled, 17 trees and 50 percent of water can be saved.

Moreover, recycling creates jobs; the sector employs 12 million people in Brazil, China, and the United States alone.

It has been estimated that around 10–20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by the waste management sector. This can be done through projects that recover landfill gas to either flare it or convert it to electricity, or by adapting landfill management.

A heap of waste material in Kizinda town council along the Ishaka-Kasese Highway in Bushenyi district, Western Uganda. 

Mr Emmanuel Kweyunga, a conservation expert at Keirere Green African Agency in Bushenyi district, says garbage itself wouldn’t be a bad idea because it is produced by humans. Big issues surround its management and handling. In many areas, garbage disposal has become a payment scheme.

“The problem is that here we are still doing things in a backward way. We just create dumping sites and call them landfills, yet if these were real landfills, there would be proper ways of turning waste into gold. Some plastics can be recycled, kitchen waste can be used for biogas production, and we can also do sustainable composting. We need sorting compartments and digesters at dumping sites,” says Kweyunga.

There are different schemes that help regulate and control emission reduction units.

The Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM) are a market-based mechanism under the Kyoto Protocol where developing countries can earn carbon credits equivalent to the amount of carbon dioxide they have reduced or avoided. These units can be used by industrialized countries to meet part of their emission reduction targets.

Since the beginning of CDM, around 200 municipal solid waste projects have been registered worldwide. However, nearly 90 percent of registered solid waste projects involve landfill gas flaring and recovery, and most of these projects have been submitted by middle-income countries. The lowest-income countries have generally not yet benefited from this mechanism.

In 2007, after the Climate Conference in Bali, a new concept, the Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Action (NAMA), was introduced. NAMA is a set of policies and actions that countries undertake as a voluntary commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It recognizes that different countries may take different actions depending on their respective capabilities. It also emphasizes the need for financial assistance from developed countries to developing countries to reduce emissions. It can include a range of actions, policies, strategies, research or development, training, capacity development, and projects.

Eng. Jan Wilem Van Es, the Vice Chairman of the World Without Waste Environmental Consortium Initiative, says there is much to work on to reduce waste and tackle the climate change crisis.

 “There are two major contributions that each resident can start with today. Reduce, reuse, and recycle plastics; keep all organic materials separate; and start compost heaps, either at the personal or communal level. Those two activities in and of themselves have the potential to reduce landfill volumes by 80 percent. Refuse is never gold, but if managed cleverly and with dedication, at least the nominal costs charged to the residents for disposal and processing can cover the expenses of proper management of the landfills,” he asserts.

 “The Polluter Pays principle can help with the waste menace by explaining that the polluter has to pay, which is a fair principle. As much as they pay for supplies of water and power, Ugandans must be ready to touch their wallets for a safe and clean environment,” he adds.

 The national environmental watchdog, the National Environmental Management Authority Corporate Communications Manager, Ms Naome Namara Karekaho, says local governments are responsible for the management of their waste.

NEMA only gives them guidance on how to do it in a way that should not cause danger to the environment.

According to the National Environment (Waste Management) Regulations, 2020, local government shall  ‘put in place measures for the management of domestic and municipal waste generated within its jurisdiction, including collection, transportation, and disposal of the waste, segregation and re-use, control of open burning of waste, collection and transportation, and treatment or disposal of waste.’

The local governments are also mandated to undertake an environmental and social impact assessment in accordance with the Act and the National Environment Environmental and Social Assessment Regulations.

There is a need for sustainable consumption and production, which is mainly about doing more and better with less, decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation, increasing resource efficiency, and promoting sustainable lifestyles. The human race is currently consuming more resources than ever, exceeding the planet’s capacity for generation as waste and pollution grow, and the gap between rich and poor is widening. Health, education, equity, and empowerment are all adversely affected.