Society 04/11/2021

Mariel Vilella, Global Strategy Director, Zero Waste Europe: "The amount of plastic we put on the market is unsustainable, even if we improve recycling techniques"

3 min
Mariel Vilella, none of Global Strategy at Zero Waste Europe

LondonMariel Vilella is global strategy director of Zero Waste Europe (ZWE), the network of communities, organisations and local leaders calling for the elimination of waste in society. ZWE was founded in 2014 as the European branch of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA).

What do you expect from the Glasgow summit?

—  Let this be a wake-up call. All countries are trying to show that they have done their homework. The private sector is also presenting plans on how to get to carbon neutrality. But we know, after the IPCC [International Panel on Climate Change] report on the emissions gap, that all the plans presented are insufficient. And we see this very clearly in the waste sector.

What is the problem?

— That zero waste solutions have not been considered in terms of waste management despite the fact that, according to the IPCC, it is one of the three sectors with the greatest potential to reduce temperature increase in the next ten to twenty years.

Why do we need to move towards zero waste?

— Because waste is a big polluter. And because if we only measure emissions from incinerators and landfills, the proportion of greenhouse gases they produce is small relative to that of other sectors. And that is how the IPCC accounts for it. But if we understand that waste is part of a production and consumption pattern, the emissions involved in supplying and supplying products to society as a whole, the level is much higher, up to 63%.

So recycling is not enough?

— No, because recycling has limitations. And also because the trade in plastic waste is very problematic. So far we have exported waste, first to China and now to Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, and the recycling infrastructures are overwhelmed. We must therefore insist on the idea that the amount of plastic we put on the market is unsustainable, even if we improve recycling techniques. There is no infrastructure that can cope with the amount of plastic that is put on the market today. And everything that can no longer be recycled ends up in landfill. And this brings us to another problem, also of emissions.

What kind of emissions?

— Methane. Methane has much more impact than CO2. In the waste sector, methane emissions come from landfills, from organic matter. If we set up systems that make a selective collection of organic matter, we can very easily avoid all these emissions. These are key opportunities that we cannot miss. And we see in the 99 national plans that we have looked at so far that only half include adequate methane mitigation measures. But half include technologies that contribute to climate change such as waste incineration. Only eleven countries propose bans and restrictions on the use of plastics.

On Tuesday nearly 100 countries pledged to reduce methane emissions to 30% by 2030.

— Although this is a step in the right direction, it is not enough: methane emissions have to be reduced to at least 45% by 2030 to have a fighting chance of staying below 1.5 degrees of global warming, according to the assessment made by the United Nations Environment Programme, published earlier this year.

So nothing is expected from Glasgow?

— What we hope is that it will make it clear that climate policies on waste and plastic are insufficient, and that governments will increase commitment and ambition to reduce them and seize the opportunities available to us. There is still time to stop some of the impacts of climate change, we must not be fatalistic and we must not relax. The summit has to be, at the very least, a wake-up call that makes the limitations of these negotiations obvious. We cannot expect it, even if it is annual, to solve the problem of climate change. The summit is useful for settling accounts, to see how and to what extent we are progressing. And, in this respect, it is obvious that progress is insufficient.

What we don't do, governments won't do?

— Exactly. And even if governments' responses are insufficient, the climate change movement is catching on with the younger generation. And it is the young people who are educating the adults. Because they realise that they are inheriting a burning planet if we don't reduce emissions.