Landfills and Incinerators in the CDM: Not Sustainable, Not Additional (Watch this! #1)

By Mariel Vilella, Climate Policy Campaigner, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA)

It is time to recognise that the CDM cannot ensure the environmental integrity of its waste sector projects, nor eliminate the social harm that they cause. Rather than continuing to support projects with negative social and environmental outcomes, the CDM should cease issuing CERs to solid waste disposal projects, including incinerators and landfills.

In the last few years, solid waste management (SWM) has rapidly emerged as one of the most problematic sectors in the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). SWM raises issues around further impoverishment of the urban poor, effective competition with recycling, and lack of additionality.

Case studies conducted by GAIA suggest that the CDM’s interventions in the sector are doing more harm than good. In particular, the Certified Emissions Reductions (CERs) issued by the CDM often do not represent real reductions at all.

Displacing the Poor

The most visible impact of the CDM’s SWM projects is the displacement of the informal recycling sector. In countries eligible for CDM projects, municipally-run recycling systems are a rarity, but they typically achieve high recycling rates thanks to a well-organised recycling sector of waste pickers. Waste pickers recover recyclable material from the waste stream, clean it, sort it, and sell it through middlemen back to manufacturers. In doing so, they provide a triple service to society: the municipality saves significant waste management costs, greenhouse gases and toxic pollution are dramatically reduced, and large numbers of the urban poor who would otherwise be destitute are able to earn a living.

The Timarpur-Okhla Plant in Delhi illustrates how the local recycling economy is threatened by the CDM’s incinerator projects. This incinerator depends on dry waste such as paper, plastic and cardboard that burns well and sustains combustion. However, these are precisely the materials which recyclers target and which support their livelihoods.

Perverse Incentives

A big problem is the perverse incentives created by the CDM. The Clean Development Mechanism awards carbon credits according to the amount of methane captured from landfills (as a result of the break down of organic waste) or the amount of waste that is incinerated. So the larger the amount of organic waste that goes into the landfill, or waste that goes into an incinerator, the greater the profit. This gives operators a huge incentive to maximise waste disposal rather than recycling it.

This issue is particularly problematic in the case of landfill gas projects, as they still leak methane. At the Bisasar landfill in Durban, South Africa, more than 60% of methane produced is escaping into the atmosphere, as GAIA’s case study shows. By crediting methane capture from landfill, landfilling is increased, which will likely lead to a significant increase in overall methane generation and leakage. More effective measures that do not generate methane emissions, such as source separation and composting, are then precluded.

Carbon Credits for Business-as-Usual

The additionality of municipal solid waste (MSW) projects under the CDM is questionable. Waste management has the lowest CER issuance rate of all sectors in the CDM, meaning investors are least likely to receive the CERs they expect. Sensible companies, therefore, will not rely on CER income to ensure profitability. This suggests that the projects which do go ahead are those that would happen with or without the CDM, and are therefore business-as-usual.

This suspicion is strongly borne out in China, where at least five of the incinerators registered by the CDM were up and running years before registration. The Chengdu Luo Dai incinerator, for example, had been operating for two years when it got the CDM approval. It’s social, environmental and public health impacts were already being denounced by the local communities. . Approximately 70 to 80 households have been forced out of the area, as they could not bear the pollution caused by the incinerator.

By approving projects which would have happened anyway, (or had already happened), the CDM is awarding CERs which do not represent emissions reductions.

CDM-backed Waste Projects

The majority of the CDM’s municipal solid waste (MSW) projects are landfill gas capture projects that intend to capture the methane generated inside landfills and either burn it or flare it.

Waste incinerators represent the second-largest category. They purport to generate energy by burning the waste, but because waste in developing countries is primarily wet, organic waste that does not burn well, they typically have to add diesel or coal. This raises questions about their claim to displace fossil fuel energy.

More information: