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Trash Talking the UNFCCC

Let’s talk trash. Your country is so screwed by climate change it probably won’t exist by the time negotiators figure out a balanced financing mechanism. Burned. Okay, that was a poor attempt at a joke. Reality is harsh. Just like your mom (for real though, that was the last one). Trashy jokes aside, trash is no joke when it comes to climate change. Approximately 5 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gases can be traced back to landfills and waste management. For a long while, this correlation was simply swept under a rug and ignored. In the past year or two, the term “Zero Waste” has entered the forefront of sustainability conversations. I admit, it took me a long while to recognize the relationship between the two. Not until I began my position as Luther’s Energy and Waste Fellow did I really process how much of a positive impact waste reduction can achieve. Zero waste was a hot topic at the AASHE Conference in October, and the YOUNGOs have quickly jumped on board with waste reduction as a key policy point. A zero waste commitment, however, comes down to many factors that I feel may be outside of the current scope of negotiations. Reforming the waste system requires a new paradigm in design and the recycling markets. The goal cannot just be to do bad things better, but rather, to do better things. In this train of thought, incinerating garbage does not equate to a zero waste future. Exploring opportunities for circular economies and cradle-to-cradle design, however, will pave the path to more resilient, stable, and sustainable economies.   I am a fan of taking immediate action to demonstrate sustainable choices and the concept of zero waste empowers me to vote for sustainability with each product I use. The COP organizers appear to have spent substantial effort to source low-impact tableware, but the reality of their effort leaves much to be desired. The brown, blue, and yellow recycling and garbage bins are so non-descript it is nearly impossible to decipher where I put my recyclables, and I spend 20 hours a week talking about recycling. While disposing of my seemingly recyclable takeaway lunch containers, I was told that products with any food contamination were trash; the opposite of Decorah’s accepted recycling. I was reassured, however, that every piece of discarded material would be sorted by hand off-site and sent to a proper recycling facility. I would have just preferred a nicer sign. Planning a zero waste event is difficult for 40 environmentalists, let alone 40,000 international delegates. More than 20 countries have already adapted waste management into their mitigation and adaptation strategies. I met with a Peruvian startup working to expand compost to restaurants in one of the culinary capitals of the world, and narrowly missed meeting with the Maldives negotiators to discuss their plans for waste management as an adaptation tool. The talk is their and it isn’t rubbish, but rather, about it.

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