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Building Sustainable and Resilient Cities Through Zero Waste Policy-Massachusetts Dwindling Landfills

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Adanna C. Kalejaye
September 25, 2023

The current world population is estimated at over 8 billion people, with a growth rate of 0.91% per year. 55% of the world’s population is estimated to be living in urban areas, and by the year 2050 the UN projects that the number will rise to 70%, approximately 2.5 more billion people living in urban cities. Although cities occupy just 3% of the total Earth land space, they however account for 70% of the carbon emissions and between 60-80% of energy consumption. This rapid growth in population comes with the growing need for solid waste management as vast amounts of resources (like, construction materials, food, clean water, gas, oil, electricity) are used up to meet the increasing need. As explained by Awasthi et al, the inevitable consequence of increased demand and consumption of resources are waste materials, wastewater and polluted air.

With the increasing amount of waste being churned out by cities annually, and landfills reaching their capacity necessitating some cities and states like Massachusetts to export their waste, solid waste management continues to be a growing concern for government and municipalities. The dilemma for most cities and government is how to balance the inevitable generation of waste with a cost effective, system efficient and sustainable means of disposal. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) reports that as it is, many cities are already struggling with environmental degradation, traffic congestion, inadequate urban infrastructure and a lack of basic services, such as water supply, sanitation and waste management. Among all key challenges, waste management is one of the most important challenges for planning sustainable cities. This is because generation of waste is intrinsic to urbanization and with urban cities occupying just 3% of the earth’s surface, the density in population makes the task of balancing the increasing city needs with its increasing waste generation herculean. In a study carried out by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, it estimates that by 2050 cities will account for 60% of global waste, making cities vulnerable to climate change due to methane emission and biodiversity loss.

Given the intricate connection between the social, economic and environmental issues, cities wield significant influence acting as either a protection or an imperilment for both the urban communities and ecosystem. Essentially, managing the rise in waste generation and its attendant challenges associated with population growth and consumption driven attitude will require sustainable city planning. Sustainable waste management has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% annually.

Every year consumers, businesses and municipalities in Massachusetts spend millions of dollars to dispose their solid waste which ends up in the landfill or being incinerated. The Massachusetts department of environmental protection reports that 60% of the state’s waste is incinerated while 40% is sent to the landfill. A snapshot of the solid waste disposal in Massachusetts shows that most landfills in the state have reached their capacity and have been closed. There are currently only 6 landfills from the 300 landfills operating in 1980. Thus, Massachusetts is forced to ship almost 20% of the waste it generates to other states, resulting in a costly and inefficient system. Essentially, the rising urban population and growing consumption levels equate to large amounts of waste which create huge pressure for the city authority to manage.

How do we achieve zero waste? Zero-waste to landfill as defined by the Zero Waste International Alliance is, “The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse and recovery of products, packaging and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water or air that threaten the environment or human health.”.

Massachusetts’ 2010-2020 Solid Waste Master Plan, Pathway to Zero Waste identified zero waste to landfill as a state-wide goal with both environmental and economic development benefits. In its updated 2030 Solid Waste Master Plan it outlined certain ambitious goals and created a Zero Waste Caucus with various stakeholders. However, it is still inundated with the issue of waste management and designing a truly sustainable city. Landfilling and incineration, two primary means of waste management practices used in Massachusetts, violates the very principle of zero waste because of the adverse impact it has on the physical and social environment and on public health. Zero waste requires that cities move from a design that is depletive of its resources and physical environment to one that encapsulates and mimics natures’ replenishing and conservatory principles. Massachusetts possesses a good foundation to progress towards zero waste, because it has a ready framework in its Solid Waste Master Plan which is a good place to start. Nevertheless, designing and creating a sustainable city requires a multi-disciplinary collaboration, involving urban planners, public works officials, engineers, policy analysts and sustainability professionals. This collaborative approach not only enriches the tapestry of ideas but it also incorporates the holistic principle of zero waste into the innovative framework of a smart city. The path to achieving zero waste is not only a practical necessity for sustainable cities and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also imperative for the well-being of current and future generations.

Author: Adanna Kalejaye is an internationally specialized lawyer in the fields of commercial law, environmental law, energy law and maritime law. She holds an LL.M (Master of Law) from Swansea University, Wales, UK. She is currently a doctoral student and research assistant in Public Policy at the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, University of Massachusetts Boston. She teaches courses on sustainable development and zero wasteat the Osher Life-Long Learning Institute (OLLI) in UMass Boston. Her research interests are in environmental law and policies, climate change, sustainable development, renewable energy, waste management, policy building and analysis at both national and international level. She can be contacted at [email protected],

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