By Sharon Atieno

For the world to tackle the increasing waste menace, there needs to be a paradigm shift in its management from business as usual to a circular economic model, a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report says.

According to UNEP’s Global Waste Management Outlook 2024 report, municipal solid waste generation will increase from 2.3 billion tonnes in 2023 to 3.8 billion tonnes by 2050.

Additionally, the general cost of waste management including pollution, poor health and climate change is set to increase from USD 361 billion to a staggering USD 640.3 billion by 2050, if no urgent action is taken.

However, adopting and implementing a circular economy model, where waste generation and economic growth are decoupled by adopting waste avoidance, sustainable business practices, and full waste management, could lead to a full net gain of USD 108.5 billion per year.

“The global waste emergency is growing faster than ever so continuing business as usual is no longer an option… A paradigm shift is urgent. We need a forward-looking approach to tackle this problem. The only solution to solve the waste crisis is transitioning from waste as garbage to waste as a resource,” said Carlos Silva Filho, International Solid Waste Management Association (ISWA) President during the launch of the report.

“It is imperative to adopt a circular model with a holistic approach instead of siloed systems. To reverse the current trend, we need a global push with joint actions and integration between the many actors and stakeholders throughout the whole value chain under a collective commitment that brings social inclusion, a better sense of awareness and gender equality in decision-making. It is time to accelerate the pace to make the necessary shift, the planet we are willing to have tomorrow depends on the decisions we make today.”

The report notes that there is no one-size-fits-all approach or formula for systemic change. It recommends several pathways including the use of data and digitalization to prioritize waste prevention and management; banning problematic materials and implementing mandatory schemes to ensure that polluters pay; and adopting inclusive approaches and behavioral science to engage citizens in waste avoidance and waste segregation for recycling.

Others include integrating the principles of a just transition into decision-making, ensuring that the informal sector is valued and that programmes are gender-sensitive, and building national expertise to develop context-appropriate policies that maximize the benefits, for each country, of waste reduction and management.

“Waste generation is intrinsically tied to GDP, and many fast-growing economies are struggling under the burden of rapid waste growth. By identifying actionable steps to a more resourceful future and emphasizing the pivotal role of decision-makers in the public and private sectors to move towards zero waste, this Global Waste Management Outlook can support governments seeking to prevent missed opportunities to create more sustainable societies and to secure a liveable planet for future generations,” said Inger Andersen, UNEP’s Executive Director.

Zoë Lenkiewicz, lead author of the report noted that the world urgently needs to shift to a zero-waste approach while improving waste management to prevent significant pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and negative impacts on human health

“Pollution from waste knows no borders, so it is in everyone’s interests to commit to waste prevention and invest in waste management where it is lacking. The solutions are available and ready to be scaled up. What is needed now is strong leadership to set the direction and pace required, and to ensure no one is left behind.”

The report was launched at the sixth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-6), which is taking place from 26 February to 1 March at UNEP’s headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya.