World Environment Day: time to get real on urban waste management
This coming Sunday 5th June is World Environment Day, which is being co-hosted this year by the government of Sweden and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). It marks 50 years since the 1972 Stockholm Conference, which led to the creation of UNEP.
The theme of this year’s World Environment Day is ‘Only One Earth’, which highlights the need for people to live sustainably in harmony with nature by bringing transformative changes. This means by introducing policies and making changes to our lifestyles, we could help the planet to repair itself. ‘Only One Earth’ was the motto of the 1972 Stockholm Conference, and this still holds true today.
According to Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP: “In 2022, we hope to see a world turning the corner on the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic. But we do so with the knowledge that we continue to face the triple planetary crises of climate change, nature loss and pollution.”
One of the big challenges facing a planet with a growing population is how an increasingly urbanised society can reduce its impact on the environment. Cities are responsible for 70% of greenhouse gas emissions and are home to over half of humanity. The oncoming phase of climate breakdown is coinciding with the largest wave of urbanisation in human history, with hundreds of millions of people migrating into cities.
Minimising the impact of larger urban populations is a push and pull exercise. The management of waste, for example, is a focus area of World Environment Day. Management of the waste output of large urban populations is climbing up the agenda for governments.
Many governments are responding by introducing taxes on waste disposal into landfill or banning the import of waste from other jurisdictions. The UK government, for example, is under pressure to ban exports of plastic waste after Greenpeace revealed that seven major British supermarkets were exporting plastic waste to Turkey, where it was being burned or dumped rather than recycled.
According to Jessica Troni, head of UNEP’s Climate Change Adaptation Unit, “Cities are a hotbed of climate threats and a hotbed of climate solutions. More and more cities are developing adaptation plans, and we’ve seen cutting-edge innovations across the world, from rainwater harvesting systems to green infrastructure.”
Effective waste management can be an important part of any green urbanisation strategy. Converting waste into energy will require emerging and scalable technology like anaerobic digestion, which can provide communities, including larger urban communities, the opportunity to trade waste for green energy. It is an ideal carbon emissions management solution that can also help cities to get a grip on methane emissions, which is an early and easy win in the war against global warming.
Despite best efforts in many areas of the private sector, UK recycling of waste from households (WFH) has remained steady at 45-46% since 2015. This will likely be lower in many countries outside Europe. Indeed, the UK number slipped to 44% in 2020 and we are currently waiting on 2021 figures. This points to a pressing need for better waste management if the principles enshrined in World Environment Day are to be achieved.
 UN Environment Programme Sweden to host World Environment Day 2022 (unep.org)
 UK under growing pressure to ban all exports of plastic waste (The Guardian) – UK under growing pressure to ban all exports of plastic waste | Plastics | The Guardian
 United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction https://www.preventionweb.net/news/around-world-cities-race-adapt-changing-climate
 Department for Environment & Rural Affairs – UK statistics on waste – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)