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How can emissions from waste be reduced?

Submit proposals:
Deadline:  July 20, 2014, at 11:59:59 PM U.S. Eastern Time
Rules:  All entrants must agree to the 2014 Contest Rules.
Prizes: Judges Choice and Popular Choice winners will be connected with and able to present to people who can support the implementation of their proposal, which may include policy makers, business executives, NGO and foundation officials, scientists, and others.  They will be recognized and publicized by the MIT Climate CoLab and invited to showcase their proposals at a conference held at MIT fall 2014, where a Grand Prize of $10,000 will be awarded. (See 2013 conference)

Related contests: Reducing Consumption


Guidelines from Advisors and Fellows


The IPCC projects that waste disposal will account for more than 1.6 gigatons (Gt) carbon dioxide equivalent (Gt CO2-eq) in greenhouse gas emissions in 2030, 3 percent of the global total. This includes emissions from the disposal of liquid waste through sewage treatment and solid waste through landfills and incineration.

IPCC outlines a range of possible strategies for reducing emissions from waste management:

Recycling, which diverts materials from the trash stream, can also significantly reduce emissions associated with the production process, and such savings can be considerable. For example, production of aluminum manufactured from recycled materials generates 90 less CO2 than production from bauxite.

Waste management can be a challenging topic in international climate negotiations because practices differ considerably from country to country.

The US relies primarily on landfills, while Europe and Japan rely mostly on incineration. Landfills generate methane, a very powerful, with twelve times more warming effect than CO2 over its lifetime.

The GHG footprint of incineration depends on whether the process is simple incineration, which only emits CO2, or part of a waste to energy system. The latter also emits CO2, but the energy produced reduces the overall demand for energy, most of which is produced by burning fossil fuels, which also emit CO2.

Finally, developing countries, often rely on open landfills.

On the other hand, many developing countries are lagging behind in waste management techniques and most cities rely on dumping in open landfills and releasing untreated sewage into waterways. While the average per capita waste generation remains below that of developed countries, rapid rural to urban migration and changing consumption patterns are causing rapid growth in waste production in developing countries. In addition to methane emissions, developing countries are faced with serious public health impacts resulting from the  lack of sustainable waste management.

Another important issue is accounting for emissions generated in waste management. There are flaws in the current accounting system, indeed, there is not even complete agreement on what should be accounted for: simply emissions generated in the course of waste disposal? or should emissions from the production process avoided through practices like recycling also be included?

Waste management is likely to be focus of international negotiations in coming years, so good ideas on policies that can be enacted in this realm, and how the accounting might actually work on the ground would be welcome.  This could include mandates for product and packaging manufacturers to use minimum amounts of recycled content in their products, which would encourage a more sophisticated system of recycling and create strong secondary markets for the recyclable materials collected.  This could also include more widespread use of “Extended Producer Responsibility” policies that are gaining acceptance in certain parts of the world.

Key issues

This contest seeks proposals that address any aspect of waste management: reducing emissions through better waste water/landfill/incineration practices; using GHGs generated from trash to generate energy via waste to energy systems; innovative recycling schemes that reduce the amount of waste; or other initiatives that either reduce consumption patterns or increase the use of recycled content in new products.

Also welcome are new approaches to international policy and accounting.



Contest photo source: Green Energy Futures - David Dodge