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CDM waste methodologies in the spotlight. Guest Article by GAIA (Newsletter #15)

Guest article by Mariel Vilella – Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA)

The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives[1] (GAIA) has been closely examining CDM waste management projects. Most CDM municipal waste management projects are problematic for three main reasons:

  • They help perpetuate waste management strategies that prevent truly sustainable and more cost-effective options
  • They usually threaten the livelihoods of wastepickers[2] – some of the poorest people in developing countries’ cities
  • They overestimate the GHG reductions that can be attributed to these CDM projects.

Incinerators and landfills are not sustainable

The majority of CDM waste management projects focus on ‘downstream’ strategies. These include producing energy by incinerating waste (‘waste-to-energy’) or they capture landfill gas, which contains a large amount of methane (a strong greenhouse gas (GHG)). Landfill gas is either flared (burned) or the methane is captured to produce heat and/or electricity. There are currently 278 of these projects in the pipeline, 154 of which have been registered.[3]

Upstream waste management strategies such as recycling and composting, avoid waste from reaching landfills in the first place, saving resources and energy. Upstream strategies are environmentally preferable: they usually reduce more GHG emissions than conventional downstream waste management practices.[4] This has been widely acknowledged, both in the academic literature and by the CDM itself. As a result, the CDM has approved three small-scale methodologies: one for plastics recycling and two for composting projects.[5]

The plastics recycling methodology AMS.III-AJ attempts to incorporate the informal recycling sector. GAIA welcomes this recognition of the role of wastepickers, but highlights that this has not been extended to the methodologies for large-scale projects such as landfill-gas projects[6] (ACM0001) or waste projects (AM0025) other than landfills, including incinerators,[7] which continue to pose significant environmental and social threats.

Wastepickers lose their livelihoods

‘Waste-to-energy’ technologies threaten the livelihoods of people who make their living picking waste and selling what they have collected in the informal recycling sector. In most of the developing world, wastepickers recover recyclable material from the waste stream and return it to useful production via recycling and re-manufacturing. Incinerators compete directly with waste pickers. Municipal solid waste is low in calorific value and high in moisture, so incinerators need to maintain a high proportion of the materials that burn well, such as paper and plastic – which are the materials wastepickers seek for recycling. When these recyclable materials are incinerated they are no longer available as a source of income for waste pickers.

Projects overestimate emissions reductions

Both ACM0001 and AM0025 have flaws that lead to inflated credit generation. For example, projects rarely (if ever) account for recycling when calculating the baseline emissions. But recycling and composting, which reduce waste going to landfill, are prevalent in developing countries. In Cairo, for example, recycling rates have been estimated to be as high as 95% primarily due to the informal wastepicking sector.[8] If the recycling and composting that happened before the project was implemented were taken into account, the baseline emissions would, in many cases, be considerably lower and result in fewer credits.

Both methodologies underestimate project emissions and lead to inflated credit generation that does not reflect the actual emissions reductions achieved. In the case of AM00025, biogenic emissions from incineration do not have to be taken into account. Biogenic emissions are CO2 emissions from burning organic waste such as paper, food, wood, and non-synthetic textiles.) In the case of one CDM waste-to-energy plant that GAIA analysed, only 16% of its CO2 emissions from burning waste are included in the project emissions, the other 84% were assumed to be biogenic in origin.[9] This approach is flawed: the IPCC guidelines on how to calculate national emissions inventories explicitly state that in waste-to-energy plants, both fossil and biogenic CO2 emissions should be taken into account.[10]

The UNFCCC has recognised these flaws

Both methodologies are currently under revision.[11] The Practitioners Workshop on CDM Standards held in Bonn, 8-10 June devoted a half day to the problems with these project types.[12] GAIA welcomed the opportunity to present and discuss the issues with the CDM Secretariat and other stakeholders. GAIA together with the Indian Alliance of Wastepickers, REDLACRE and the South African Association of Wastepickers also submitted detailed comments to the CDM Secretariat about methodologies AM00025 and ACM001 and the “Tool to determine methane emissions avoided from disposal of waste at a solid waste disposal site”.[13]

GAIA eagerly awaits the results of the revision of these waste methodologies. We will be watching closely to see how the CDM Methodology Panel addresses the methodological flaws to stop undermining truly just and sustainable waste management strategies.

[1] GAIA is a worldwide alliance of more than 650 grassroots groups and NGOs in over 90 countries whose ultimate vision is a just, toxic-free world without incinerators, landfills, and other end-of-pipe interventions. Our goal is clean production and the creation of a closed-loop, materials-efficient economy where all products are reused, repaired or recycled.

[2] Wastepickers is the accepted English word to refer to the informal recycling sector amongst the wastepickers organisations. Terms like scavengers or rag pickers are considered pejorative.

[3] Projects under ACM0001 and AM0025 on the Risoe Database. Accessed 30th June 2010.

[4] See for example: US EPA (2006). Solid waste management and greenhouse gases: a lifecycle assessment of emissions and sink. 3rd Edition.  UNEP, Waste and Climate Change – Global Trends and Strategy Framework, December 2010.

[8] Drabinski, S. (2009), Domestic waste management in Cairo – a case study, Muell und Abfall 2/09, Erich Schmidt Verlag

[9] Estimates done by GAIA based on information provided in the project PDD, Annex 3.

[10]  Guedenhou S. et al., (2006) IPCC Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories; Chapter 5: Incineration and Open Burning of Waste, IPCC National Greenhouse Gas Inventories Programme, p.5.5.

[11] 60th CDM EB Meeting Report, Meth Panel Work Plan, p.6

[12] Practitioners Workshop on CDM Standards, Session IV on Waste Standards

[13] Full text is available at


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