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In Southern India, Managing Waste Is a Government Failure

Claudia Baldwin



Welcome to the first of my two-part series on waste management in India. This week, we’ll explore the challenges. In the next part, on Oct. 21, we’ll explore some of the work being done to address them. This article originally appeared in our Circularity Weekly newsletter. Subscribe here.

There was a time, not so long ago, when I naively believed that governments could, no matter their level of dysfunction, provide basic services to their citizens. You all likely already know this, but I was wrong. These government failures have been in the news lately from the egregious (the Jackson, Mississippi water crisis), to the intermittent and frustrating (California’s energy restrictions during the recent heat wave), to the chronic (India’s inability to collect and manage its citizens’ waste).

The last, chronic failure has been on my mind a lot these last few weeks. I was fortunate enough to join rePurpose Global in September on its first “Plastics Reality Project” experience in Southern India. Let me start by saying that the people of Tamil Nadu and Kerala are some of the most welcoming I’ve met. If you have a chance to visit, the region is beautiful in so many ways.

The situation on the ground

Let’s start by acknowledging two things I think we all know:

The invention of fossil-based plastics has brought with it many technological advancements that the global population relies on every day
Plastic does not belong in nature

One major challenge is that we have not figured out how to make, use and cycle plastics in a sustainable way that keeps them out of nature. Our inability to address the plastic waste challenge in the Global North has led to massive problems in other parts of the world.

They are being consumed by their own consumption.

This challenge had not been as clear to me as it was when I arrived in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India. This city of nearly 5 million (sixth largest city in India) has trash on nearly every corner. It lines the streets, covers the banks of rivers and blows in the wind.

The plastic problem starts with consumerism and convenience, and ends with mountains of plastic waste in places such as India that bury informal waste pickers alive (see here and here) and catch fire spontaneously (see here and here). According to the United Nations Environment Programme, about 85 percent of all plastic ends up in landfills, incinerators, informal dump sites or the environment. I think Aditya Siroya, co-founder and chief impact officer at rePurpose, put it best when he said this of the cities in his home country, “They are being consumed by their own consumption.”

At this point in the piece, I was going to throw a number of statistics at you meant to hammer home how real the challenge is. The world produces [insert large number] millions of tons of plastic waste, some [slightly lower number of] millions of tons goes into the oceans, and so on. I’ve decided not to do that, however, because I think what I learned and saw on the ground in Southern India tells the story better. Instead, I’m going to write this piece from the point of view of my senses while I was on the ground in Chennai and Kozhikode.

If you read to the end, I’ll point you to a small number of sources where you can nerd out on data all you want.

The sights

So many sights are burned in my memory from just our first full day in Chennai. The traffic, the people, the stray dogs, the trees and the amazing food served in the most elaborate dishware. The one image that will stick with me forever, though? Cows and water buffalo in the middle of a city of more than 5 million people, eating trash.

Image courtesy of rePurpose Global.

Maybe it was the Minnesota farm kid in me, but this sight hit me very hard. What I quickly learned, though, is that it’s not uncommon to see images like this in Chennai. Nevertheless, as the trip went on, every time I saw a cow eating trash, it felt like a gut punch. You can tell when visiting that no one is OK with this, but it is the painful reality of a place where waste management is not sufficient and where the plastic crisis has fully set in.

The sounds

Few things can prepare you for the barrage of sounds in one of India’s big cities. The traffic (especially the horns) and the hum of people on the move is omnipresent.

The sounds I will remember most are the voices of the people we spoke to in the informal waste sector. These are the people on the front lines trying to keep any material with value from dying a very slow death in a dump site or being burned in an illegal burn pit.

We were able to speak with one man who until very recently was a farmer. When drought hit and the work dried up with it, he relocated his family to Chennai because he knew there was enough money in waste picking to survive. He told us how he spends 12 hours a day, at least six days a week, collecting glass bottles to sell to recyclers. It is backbreaking, dangerous work that garners little respect from society. The story could have very well sounded dire, but the overwhelming sense from this man that there was hope and value in the work he did made it sound almost triumphant.

What do you do when consumption is consuming your city?

We also heard a different perspective from our visit to a second dump site. The women we spoke to there had come to the dump site as the last hope of pulling any material of remaining value from the piles of waste that had already been picked over by countless individuals. Their job there was to take mixed waste and sift it multiple times through large drums to sort anything that could be sold and ultimately collect compost from the pile that could be used in farming. They lived in a small makeshift village on the edge of the site and told us how they had refused offers for different accommodations because they knew their work in the place would be short-lived, and then it would be time to move onto the next site that needed to be remediated. Their story left me with a feeling of endlessness for the people working these jobs in the informal sector.

The smells

There are very few places in India where you won’t smell something amazing. It may be the cooked food and fresh fruits, or any number of things that draw you in. I fell in love immediately with the constant inundation of my olfactory receptors.

That was until we visited our first open dump site. The location we visited was originally intended as a transfer station. Trucks picking up waste from households and businesses in the surrounding area would bring their loads of waste there, dump them, and then larger trucks would load that waste and take it to a more formal site. Unfortunately, that was not the reality on the ground. Because of the inconsistency and failure of the local authorities, the waste piled up at the site for years.

Now might be a good time to draw a distinction between a landfill and a dump site.

Image courtesy of rePurpose Global.

A landfill, by definition, meets certain environmental criteria, is generally located a safe distance from residential areas and bodies of water, and maybe most important, is built to contain run-off and leachates so the pollution does not escape into the environment. A dump site, on the other hand, has none of the features in most cases. The dump site we visited was in the middle of a residential neighborhood, very close to a school and adjacent to a small lake. Waste was simply piled on an open plot of land. For an in-depth review of some issues related to these dump sites, you can check out this article from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

The feels

I must admit that at the end of the first two days in Chennai, I was ready to throw in the towel on the whole human experiment. At that point, I felt like I had seen enough. The scale and the severity of the problem seemed an insurmountable challenge.

That was, of course, until I realized two things:

This is a relatively short-lived problem in the scope of human history. Plastics have only been around in their current form for less than a century, and they found their way to India even more recently. With that in mind, it is possible to imagine a scenario where the problem could be cleaned up almost as quickly as it was created. That gave me hope.
A lot of very smart, very passionate people are working to solve the plastic waste problem.

More on No. 2 in my next newsletter.

To view some wild statistics about our current plastic waste problem, check out these sources:

U.N. Environment Programme Beat Plastic Pollution page
Our World In Data feature on plastic pollution
Jambeck et al. Sciencepaper on plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean
Resource Recycling Inc. story on U.S. plastics exports story on China and its plastic pollution crisis
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Mixed Momentum on Methane Mitigation

Claudia Baldwin



One big topic of conversation at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, was the launch of a Global Methane Pledge coordinated by the U.S. and European Union and embraced by more than 100 countries. That number has since swelled to around 130. China — the world’s largest methane emitter — isn’t on the list, although it has been sending hints that a preliminary plan is in place.

So far, the COP26 methane moment has failed to turn into a movement with strong momentum, even though the pledge wasn’t all that ambitious to begin with, calling for cuts of 30 percent by 2030. For all the rhetoric 12 months ago and last week at COP27, there are still very few actual reduction policies in place.

We can credit corporate lobbying by the oil and gas, and agricultural sectors at least partially for the slow action on strict policies, according to a new InfluenceMap website launched to track the issue. “Many of the companies involved in this lobbying effort are the same companies that have made public comments about the need to reduce methane emissions,” said Vivek Parkeh, senior analyst with InfluenceMap, in a press release about the research.

The focus on methane is important because it’s a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide — it traps heat at 80 times the rate of CO2 during its first two decades in the atmosphere. According to an analysis by the International Energy Agency, methane is responsible for about 30 percent of global temperature rises since pre-industrial times.

The two largest sources are oil and natural gas production (where it is tied to the burning of natural gas related to oil extraction and pipeline leaks) and agriculture (mostly from raising livestock). Agriculture is actually the larger of the two, accounting for about 25 percent of all methane emissions, according to the IEA. Decomposing organic waste related to landfills comes in third, accounting for approximately 18 percent of “human-caused emissions globally.”

Addressing methane from the agricultural and waste sectors will be particularly difficult, said Daphne Wysham, CEO of nonprofit Methane Action, during a briefing at COP27 calling for fast tracking of methane action. “We need to cut methane emissions however and wherever we can, but where we can’t, we’ll also need to develop methane removal capability,” Wysham said.

We need to cut methane emissions however and wherever we can, but where we can’t, we’ll also need to develop methane removal capability.

The fundamental revelation from all this math: We need to address both the short-term impact of methane and the long-term nature of CO2, simultaneously, and climate plans need to account for that. “One of the things we mean when we say ‘net zero done right’ is all greenhouse gases. It’s not just CO2, it’s everything that is relevant for your supply chain,” Keven Rabinovitch, global vice president of sustainability and chief climate officer for the food company Mars, told me at COP26 when we spoke about this issue.

So where do things stand? Here are some methane-related commitments made over the past year and during COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.

The EU, U.S., Canada, United Kingdom, Japan, Canada and Norway built on last year’s methane pledge with a new commitment to prioritize reducing emissions associated with fossil fuels production, including methane.
Colombia became the first South American country to regulate “fugitive” methane emissions that escape from pipelines and production, a process that took five years of policy development. Mexico is working with the U.S. on an initiative, and Ecuador is undergoing an assessment.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency updated its proposed standards for cutting methane, including a “Super-Emitter Response Program” that would require oil and gas companies to respond to “credible third-party reports of high-volume methane leaks.” The agency estimates the policy would reduce 36 million metric tons of methane emissions from 2023 to 2035, the equivalent of the annual emissions from U.S. coal-fired electricity generation in 2020. A fee on methane emissions was imposed as part of the Inflation Reduction Act.
The EU has proposed rules for governing methane from the energy sector, but it excludes imported fossil fuels — which account for 90 percent of Europe’s fossil fuel consumption.
Canada is updating its existing guidelines to deliver a 75 percent reduction in methane related to oil and gas by 2030, compared with a 2012 timeframe.
Nigeria, among the top 10 national emitters, is stepping forward as the first African country. Among other things, it will require companies to adopt leak detection and repair messages for oil and gas infrastructure, and improve the efficiency of gas flares.
New Zealand has announced a plan to tackle methane from the agricultural sector, with a proposed tax that would apply to sheep and dairy farmers.

For those keeping counting, yes, that is significantly less than 130 countries, and many projects referenced above are still at the proposal phase. One estimate suggested that only 10 percent of countries have any sort of methane target, although an updated fact sheet released by the White House suggests about 50 countries have a methane target one or are working on one.

Apparently, they aren’t getting significant policy support from corporations. In its report, InfluenceMap notes that in the U.S. and European Union, most corporate engagement related to methane has been “unsupportive or outright oppositional.” When I spoke with Parekh for more detail, he noted that the methane fee ultimately included in the Inflation Reduction Act was attempted at least three times previously before it was able to pass. “It really shows the pressure that policymakers are under,” he said.

Approximately one-quarter of the corporate lobbying around these regulations in both jurisdictions was positive in nature, the InfluenceMap research found.

A number of positive developments related to methane were trumpeted during events surrounding the climate negotiations in Egypt. Among them, the United Nations announced the launch of the Methane Alert and Response System, which uses satellites to detect emissions and notify businesses and governments about them. The system will start with emissions from “large point sources” in the energy sector and will add data for coal, waste, livestock and rice production over time. Funding for the technology came from the Global Methane Hub and the Bezos Earth Fund.

Speaking of money, at least $23 million in funding for global methane mitigation related to the waste sector was announced during COP27 by organizations including Carbon Mapper, Global Methane Hub, RMI, Clean Air Task Force and C40. The move represents the expansion of the Global Methane Pledge focus beyond the oil and gas sector to emissions associated with agriculture and waste from landfills. So far, with the exception of New Zealand, those sources of methane pollution haven’t received as much attention in terms of policy.

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Disappointed by COP27? You Expected Too Much

Claudia Baldwin



Another COP has come and gone, and the best response to what transpired is a shrug.

For starters, much of the conversation among delegates during the climate change conference hosted annually by the United Nations focused on staying within the limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels. Most scientists already agree 1.5C is unattainable, and we should admit as much.

The biggest outcome of conference is the vague agreement on a “loss and damage” fund to be set up for developing countries hit hardest by climate change. Developed nations agreed to create something, but it’s not clear what it will be or how it will be funded. In essence, an empty bank account has been created to maybe do something, someday. The devil will, of course, be in the details, but I am skeptical such a fund will in the end be raised. Consider that in 2010, developed nations pledged $100 billion a year to poorer countries by 2020 to help them adapt to climate change. That $100 billion threshold was not met in any year between 2010 to 2020. Why should we expect a “loss and damage fund” to be any different?

The cold reality remains that under current policies the world is on track for about 2.7C warming, with the promises behind yet-to-be-implemented Nationally Determined Contributions and all net-zero commitments getting us down to about 2.1C by the end of the century. Still catastrophic.

Unfortunately, COP events have become little more than noisy, expensive and polluting media events where much is said and only incremental progress happens. At this year’s COP, fossil fuel lobbyists outnumbered the delegates from almost every country. It’s hard not to roll one’s eyes and think of the gathering largely as a photo-op and a marketing opportunity for business and governments. There were about 40,000 people attending COP27 and related surrounding events. That is not a conference to save humanity. That is a festival. That is a college football game in America or a Premier League game in England. That is Burning Man.

We have had 27 COPs. Is the problem solved yet?

Lesson learned

Don’t expect a bunch of governments without a clear mandate to do anything revolutionary.

Politicians are many things. They are not courageous. They are not often leaders, though we call them that. They are primarily temperature takers. No pun intended.

If you put any large group of people in a room, it is hard to gain consensus on anything that is not obvious, easy to decide or desperately needed to mitigate an immediate disaster. We shouldn’t expect transformative leadership from COP or any other large gathering like it. Expect platitudes. Expect snappy soundbites meant to play well in the news cycle.

If you want something to change? Well, you have to do that yourself.

A meeting such as COP will only deliver a meaningful message that advances climate when the politicians attending that meeting know it is obvious what course they need to take.

A meeting such as COP will only deliver a meaningful message that advances climate when the politicians attending that meeting know it is obvious what course they need to take. What do these leaders need to make such bold decisions?

They need permission, they need cover. That’s where you come in.

They need their people at home demanding they not come back without a deal. Your consumer choices do that. Your votes do that.

Stop yelling at me, I’m just the messenger

I can hear some of you screaming at your computer, tablet, phone or piece of paper (if you are a monster and printed this out). “How could it be more obvious! We are in a climate crisis! The world is on fire!”

The average citizen in whatever country you are in now probably doesn’t share that sentiment. Sure, they know what climate change is, and that it’s bad. But it isn’t at the top of their list of concerns. The year 2100 is a long way away, so an abstract discussion about 2.7C of warming in 78 years just doesn’t move most people. Yes, there is flooding and fires and extreme weather from climate change now, but most of the rhetoric around impacts throws around dates such as 2050 or 2100. If a problem isn’t at someone’s front door today, it tends to be pushed back as an action item.

During the midterm elections that just happened in America, where I live, climate change came in a consistent sixth or seventh on the lists of concerns that were driving votes. A Gallup Poll from October saw climate change come in seventh on the list of voter concerns, with well under half of voters surveyed saying climate change was extremely important or very important. That is not an emergency to politicians. That is more a “we’ll get to it when we get to it” indicator for politicians. Younger voters do tend to put climate higher on their list of concerns. But the problem needs to be addressed before their generation takes the reins of power.

You have to put it at the top of the list.

Hoping that people in power will make a decision to radically change the status quo has a win-loss record of about 0 to 1 billion. Don’t hold your breath on the status quo changing tomorrow.

We have advanced the conversation around climate change a great deal in the past decade, in the past year, in the past week. Awareness of the problem and discussion of solutions is happening. But it is not happening fast enough and not going far enough. There is more work to be done. A COP conference will help highlight the issue in the public consciousness for a time, but nothing revolutionary is likely to come from future COP meetings.

COPs 28-100 will not solve this

We can no longer ask politely to do something about climate change. That request needs to turn into a demand. Progress on climate is made between the COPs. Yes, we can still have them. But don’t expect much from them; and maybe scale down their ostentatious nature and don’t allow more fossil fuel lobbyists than participants. Just a thought.

We also need to understand that all of these U.N.-sponsored climate meetings, while well-intentioned, might not really be about solving climate change.

After 27 years of meetings with progress that is not fast enough for humanity, I wouldn’t argue with you if you reached the conclusion that COP is not really about climate change. I would politely nod in recognition if you said COP seems to be about keeping the system we have in place as long as we can and ensuring the energy transition we are undertaking is as smooth as possible. You might conclude that all this theatre might be designed to allow for powerful vested interests to slowly steer the status quo to something new that they can control and profit from.

Yeah, that sounds about right.

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Global Market for ‘nature Tech’ Poised to Triple to $6B by 2030

Claudia Baldwin



The global market for technologies designed to support nature-based climate solutions represents a “burgeoning market opportunity” that could triple to $6 billion by 2030, according to an analysis released last week.

Research led by the Nature4Climate coalition of green NGOs and investment platform Capital for Climate argues the nature tech market is set for significant growth in the coming years as more businesses seek investable, profitable and high-integrity means of meeting their climate and nature goals.

The report defines nature tech as “any technology that can be applied to enable, accelerate, and scale-up nature-based solutions” to combat the climate crisis and values the existing market at around $2 billion, but predicts it is on course to hit $6 billion by the end of the decade. It covers innovations such as satellite rainforest monitoring, tree-planting drones and carbon credit trading software.

Lucy Almond, chair of Nature4Climate — a 20-strong coalition that includes We Mean Business, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) — said she was “hugely excited” by the report’s findings.

Scaling nature-based solutions (NbS) such as forest, mangrove and peatland restoration are critical to delivering on global climate and nature targets, she argued.

“We need nature-based solutions to provide 30 percent of the mitigation required by 2030 in order to keep our global climate and nature goals in reach,” she explained. “The application of technology to NbS makes sense, both for the sake of the planet and financially, since an estimated $44 trillion of economic value relies on nature. It also has a huge role to play in giving people confidence in how nature can help us deliver on our climate targets.”

Global public and private flows of capital to nature-based solutions currently stand at around $133 billion per year, and investment levels need to increase fourfold in real terms by 2050 if the world is to meet its climate change, biodiversity and land degradation targets, according to the report.

But it argues that while the benefits of ‘climate tech’ and ‘clean tech’ are widely understood, awareness of the opportunities ‘nature tech’ presents is far lower, despite the latter being expected to play an increasing role in global climate efforts over the next decade.

The market for agricultural drones alone, which enable precision farming, has skyrocketed and is now expected to reach $5.9 billion by 2026, at least some of which will be targeted toward more climate and biodiversity-friendly farming initiatives, it notes.

Such technologies can help to de-risk investments in nature, boost crop yields, increase transparency and accountability and promote national and regional growth, the report argues.

However, the report warns that nature-based solutions still require substantial investment if they are to be deployed at the pace and scale required to meet global climate and nature goals.

Tony Lent, co-founder at Capital for Climate, described nature tech as “necessary, dynamic and investable.”

“Nature tech is critical to scaling and accelerating investment in nature-based solutions,” he said. “While emergent, the nature tech space also has substantial opportunities for investors.”

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