Let’s reuse our waste

Today, climate change and waste generation are fairly addressed issues, not just by environmentalists, but by the general public. However, little is known about their relationship and the nexus between the two issues.

First, waste is a global problem. The generation of municipal solid waste that the world generates according to the latest World Bank report, What a Waste 2.0 (2018), reaches 2,010 million tons annually. This means more than 10 times the amount that was produced a century ago. In addition, estimates from the same report claim that these figures will increase by 70% by 2050, given population growth and changes in the consumption patterns that occur as a result of economic growth.

On the other hand, the main source of greenhouse gases remains to be the energy sector. According to the World Resource Institute’s climate analysis indicators in 2017, much of the total anthropogenic greenhouse gas comes from some sort of energy consumption, covering 72% of total emissions, of which 31% comes from electricity and heat generation, 15% of the transport sector, 12.4% of the manufacture and construction sectors, 5.2% of fugitive emissions and 8.4% from other fuel combustion. The remaining 28% greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture (11%), from the change in land use and forestry (6%), from industrial processes (6%), from bunker fuel (2%), and 3% from waste or solid waste.

In other words, to the surprise of many, the waste problem is not only found in soil pollution, the drowning of oceans, lakes and rivers, the negative impact on biodiversity, the significant effects on people’s health since the gases they emanate affect the respiratory tract and have carcinogenic effects, among others conditions. But also, the solid waste decomposition emits greenhouse gases, like methane and carbon dioxide.

However, this biogas can be captured and used as fuel and/or electricity. Thus, using certain waste treatment methods, such as anaerobic digestion, it is possible not only to reduce the polluting organic matter but by producing energy through biogas, there is also a reduction in greenhouse gases.

These reductions are due, on one hand, to the capture and combustion of methane and carbon dioxide contained in biogas, and on the other, to the replacement of fossil fuels used to generate the same amount of electricity that will be generated from biogas.

In the case of Bolivia, although the main source of carbon dioxide emissions comes from deforestation, accounting for more than 80% of the total emissions, more than 11,500,000 tons of carbon dioxide are annually produced by diesel, gasoline, electricity and petroleum liquid gas consumption, representing approximately 2 tons of carbon dioxide per person every year. These figures are high compared to El Salvador or Paraguay, who both emit approximately one ton per person annually (6,305,000 tons and 4,122,000 tons respectively).

From another perspective, according to reports from the Bolivian Ministry of Environment and Water, by 2016 Bolivia generated approximately 2 million tons of solid waste per year, the equivalent of 5,400 tons per day, a figure that is 20% higher in comparison to 2010. In addition, according to data from the 2012 Population and Housing Census, just under 60% of households dispose of waste in a container or through the public collection service. the remainder is removed in alternative ways, such as burning, throwing it into the river or some wasteland or by recycling it.

Likewise, it is necessary to mention that not all the waste generated can be used for the generation of biogas. In the case of Bolivia, according to the last Diagnostics of Solid Waste Management in Bolivia, published by the Vice-Ministry of Potable Water and Basic Sanitation, approximately 60% of the total waste generated is organic matter and paper/cardboard which could be used for the generation of biogas.

Considering that the consumption of domestic electricity in Bolivia was 3,217,315,730 kWh for the year 2016 and that the energy potential can be 550 kWh per ton of incinerated waste, Bolivia could produce approximately 15 to 20% of its electricity consumption by generating it from its solid waste. Figures similar to those of Denmark, one of the world leaders in biogas electricity production.

While there are several factors that need to be considered technically, economically, and as management issues, this alternative, as a way to reduce waste and greenhouse gas emissions, is one of the most beneficial applications in economic, social and environmental terms.

Latin American countries such as Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, have already considered this solution. Bolivia, despite the conditions it offers and although it does not generate large greenhouse gas emissions by energy production, should also consider this measure taking into account the latest waste problems such as the case of Alpacoma.


* Alejandra Gonzáles, Assitant Manager, SDSN Bolivia

The viewpoints expressed in the blog are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of their institutions. These posts are part of the project “Atlas of the SDGs in Bolivia at the municipal level” that is currently carried out by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) in Bolivia