Waste management: Does the OECD practice what it preaches?

You don’t want to know what they do with the bottles

Today’s post is from Liisa-Maija Harju, Environmental Coordinator in the OECD Operations Service

Each year OECD countries generate over four billion tonnes of waste. By 2020, we could be generating 45% more waste than we did in 1995.

OECD’s work on waste management focuses on promoting sustainable materials management in order to limit waste generation in the first place. According to the recent report Greenhouse gas emissions and the potential for mitigation from materials management within OECD countries, in most OECD countries, at least 4 percent of current annual GHG emissions could be mitigated if waste management practices were improved. The report focuses on municipal solid waste that forms only a portion of total waste generation across OECD countries.

Typically GHG emissions from the waste sector have accounted for 3% to 4% of total emissions in OECD member countries’ GHG emission inventories. This approach might be outdated because it only considers direct emissions primarily from landfill methane emissions and incinerators.

A systems view would be needed to assess GHG emissions associated with materials and waste because materials production, consumption and end-of-life management are so closely linked together. Looking at the whole life cycle would allow for the inclusion of GHG emissions from the acquisition, production, consumption, and end-of-life treatment of physical goods in the economy.

When viewed from a life-cycle perspective, GHG emissions arising from materials management activities are estimated to account for 55% to 65% of national emissions for four OECD member countries studied. This suggests that there is a significant opportunity to potentially reduce emissions through modification and expansion of materials management policies. The report also reminds us that basic recycling and source reduction are effective tools to reduce total GHG emissions.

How about us here at the OECD itself? The OECD Secretariat’s total  GHG footprint amounted to approximately 9332 metric tonnes CO2-equivalent in 2010. Our GHG Inventory tool does not include waste management directly, and we don’t yet have the means to calculate the real GHG emissions savings of our waste management efforts.

Since 2008 we have sorted paper, and in the past four years the total amount of waste produced has gone down by 45%, although the baseline was exceptionally high because we moved offices over 2007-2009 when our headquarters buildings were being refurbished and the new conference centre built. In 2011 the Secretariat produced 477 tonnes of waste (of which 274 tonnes was paper waste) compared to 861 tonnes of waste in 2008 (of which 363 tonnes was paper waste). Last year we installed a machine that allows for the compression of bottle, can, cardboard, and paper waste at our facilities before transportation, cutting down the number of truck trips needed to take away the waste.

To further improve our waste management infrastructure, we will install a comprehensive sorting system for bottles and cans this June. Hopefully we will be able to switch our focus to sustainable materials management and the prevention of all the waste in the first place so that by 2020 we will be generating at least 45% less waste than we did in 2011.

Useful links

OECD work on greenhouse gas mitigation and materials management

OECD work on sustainable materials management

OECD work on material flow analysis