Effect of garbage on climate change

Engr Sabir Hussain

The plastic bags and bottles, garbage, and other waste materials we throw every day unconsciously and the dump of these waste seen everywhere is a colossal thread to our environment. The waste in solid form is one of the prominent factors of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In addition, trash and garbage are disposed in different parts of the earth due to which the waste is buried between the layers of earth called landfills. The organic material in landfills decomposes naturally and the byproduct of this decomposition is landfill gases.

Moreover, landfill gas is composed of a mixture of hundreds of different gases. By volume, landfill gas typically contains 45% to 60% methane and 40% to 60% carbon dioxide. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas 28 to 36 times more effective than Carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. Similarly, incineration and open burning of waste materials also produces carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide which is also a vital source of short-term greenhouse gas. According to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), waste management as one of three sectors with the greatest potential to reduce surface temperature rise in the next 10-20 years.

One of the most fast-growing constituent of waste material is plastic which is derivative of fossil fuel. Plastic production is currently growing at 3.5-4% per year. The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) estimates that if this trend continues, plastics will account for 20% of oil consumption by 2050. In addition, heat and sunlight cause the plastic to release powerful greenhouse gases. As the planet gets hotter more plastic in the waste breaks down into methane and ethylene which has direct impact on climate change. According to researchers, production and incineration of plastic will result to more than 2.8 billion tones emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by 2050. For instance, only 16% of the plastic is recycled and the rest goes to our rivers and landfills.

Furthermore, oceans are the main source of carbon absorption and half of the earth oxygen comes from oceans. The marine microorganism absorbs carbon through photosynthesis and release oxygen. The plastic in oceans decomposes into tiny particles called microplastic which affect the ability of these organism to grow, reproduce, and capture carbon dioxide. Alarmingly, at least 8 million tones of discarded plastic enters our oceans each year, and plastic pollution at sea is on course to double by 2030.

According to estimates, Pakistan consumes between 55bn to 112bn bags each year. In 2009, Pakistan imposed ban on plastic bags. The success of the ban depends on both ban and awareness among the people. The Ministry of Climate Change-led educational campaigns for citizens and manufacturers, the free distribution of alternative bags, and media coverage of strict enforcement measures taken by the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as well as access to cheap alternatives achieved by the identification of indigenously produced reusable bags. Although, these steps were limited to specific cities but still it convinced 80% participant to consume alternative products and avoid plastic usage.

In fact, waste management is an optimal solution to halt greenhouse gas emissions from solid waste. Waste management practices are collectively called zero waste which offers important opportunities to address poverty, environmental and social injustices, and structural inequalities. Moreover, recycling, and organic waste can create 50 times more jobs as waste disposal services like landfills and incineration. Recycling of paper, metals, and glass reduces emissions in the forestry, mining, and manufacturing sectors by displacing emissions-intensive raw materials has the potential to generate net negative emission. Thus, the long-term solution is to boost waste management startups to develop a sustainable waste management sector.

The writer is a satellite engineer by profession. He did BSc Electrical Engineering (Telecom) from the COMSATS University, Lahore Campus and MPhil in Space Science from the University of Panjab, Lahore. He can be contacted at: engineersabirhussain14@gmail.com.

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