How Effective & Efficient Are Waste Management Carbon Offsets? Here Are the Facts

How Effective & Efficient Are Waste Management Carbon Offsets? Here Are the Facts

By
Grace Smoot

Read Time:17 Minutes

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In order to mitigate climate change in the long term, we will need to effectively and efficiently manage the billions of tons of waste we create every year. Waste management carbon offsets aim to do just that. So, we had to ask: how effective and efficient are waste management carbon offsets?

Waste management carbon offsets are effective as they reduce methane emissions and overall pollution; however, they can lack additionality. They are efficient as they are cost-effective; however, they also do not reduce your own carbon emissions.

Keep reading to find out how efficient and effective waste management carbon offsets are, how you can offset your carbon footprint with them, what their pros and cons are, how they can mitigate climate change, and what better alternatives to waste management carbon offsets are. 

The Big Picture of the Effectiveness and Efficiency of Waste Management Carbon Offsets

Carbon offsets are reductions in carbon emissions that are used to compensate for carbon emissions occurring elsewhere. They are measured in tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalents and are bought and sold through international brokers, online retailers, and trading platforms on what is known as the global carbon offset market. 

Carbon Offset: a way for a company or person to reduce the level of carbon dioxide for which they are responsible by paying money to a company that works to reduce the total amount produced in the world, for example by reforestation”

Oxford Dictionary

Everyone and everything on Earth creates waste, which is defined as an unwanted or unfavorable byproduct of certain processes. 

Waste: unwanted matter or material of any type, especially what is left after useful substances or parts have been removed”

Cambridge Dictionary

Waste can be classified as solid, hazardous/nonhazardous, agricultural/animal, medical, radioactive, extraction/mining, oil/gas production, and fossil fuel combustion-waste as well as construction/demolition debris and sewage sludge. Population growth, consumption, and economic activity influence the amount of waste generated.

Because we all create waste, managing it is important to the overall health of our planet. Waste management is a broad term that refers to the handling of waste in ways that minimize its impact on human, animal, and environmental health.

Waste Management: The management of waste materials, usually based on the management of wastes at all stages (production, handling, storage transport, processing, and ultimate disposal) in such a way as to minimize the risks to human health, wildlife, and environmental systems.”

Oxford University Reference

Some of the most common types of waste management carbon offsets involve:

  • Landfill gas capture/combustion
  • Landfill gas to renewable energy
  • Biodigesters 
  • Biogas
  • Recycling
  • Food Rescue
  • Composting

One of the main goals of waste management carbon offsets is to reduce the total amount of methane (CH4), the second most abundant greenhouse gas (GHG) behind CO2 with a global warming potential 25 times more potent than CO2. Even a little CH4 can greatly exacerbate global warming and its effects.

Related: Are you interested in learning more about the big picture of waste management carbon offsets? Check it out in this article here: “What Are Waste Management Carbon Offsets and How Do They Work? The Big Picture
How Do Waste Management Carbon Offsets WorkWaste management offsets are a specific type of carbon offset that focuses on handling waste in ways to minimize its impact on human, animal, and environmental health. Projects can include landfill gas, recycling, composting, and food rescue.
Waste management projects reduce greenhouse gas (CO2 and CH4) emissions associated with various types of waste by reducing the amount or capturing emissions from waste.
How Efficient Are Waste Management Carbon Offset Programs at Reducing CO2 EmissionsWaste management projects reduce methane emissions
Waste management projects reduce land, water, and air pollution
Waste management projects can lack additionalityWaste management projects do not reduce your own carbon emissions
How Effective Are Waste Management Carbon Offsets at Mitigating Climate ChangeWaste management projects are relatively cost-effective
Waste management projects are not yet scaled to compensate for our global waste emissions

Here’s How Effective and Efficient Waste Management Carbon Offsets Are

In terms of effectiveness, waste management carbon offsets reduce methane emissions and land, water, and air pollution; however, they can also lack additionality and do not reduce your own carbon emissions. 

In terms of efficiency, waste management carbon offsets are relatively cost-effective; however, they are not yet scaled to compensate for our global waste emissions.

How Effective Are Waste Management Carbon Offset Programs at Reducing CO2 Emissions

Effectiveness involves completing a task with a desired outcome, typically a successful one. 

Effective: producing the result that is wanted or intended; producing a successful result

Oxford Dictionary

Waste management carbon offsets reduce methane emissions and land, water, and air pollution; however, they can also lack additionality and do not reduce your own carbon emissions. 

Waste Management Carbon Offsets Reduce Methane Emissions 

One of the most common waste management carbon offset projects involves landfill gas, specifically landfill gas capture, combustion, or conversion to energy. CO2 and methane (CH4) comprise 90-98% of landfill gasses, which are produced when bacteria break down organic waste (e.g., food, paper, wood, sewage sludge, and yard waste). CH4 is 25 times more potent than CO2 at trapping heat in our atmosphere, which exacerbates global warming. 

The amount of CO2 and CH4 emissions varies depending on the age, size, and location of the landfill, but landfills can continue to emit these gasses for over 50 years. For example, food waste emits mostly CH4 and is responsible for 6-8% of global GHG emissions alone, equivalent to 32.6 million cars worth of GHG emissions.

Waste management offsets involving CH4 gas capture, combustion, or conversion-to-energy prevent CH4 from entering our atmosphere. Because CH4 is more potent than CO2, removing it is a quick way to slow the rate of global warming, at least in the short term.

In short, waste management offsets reduce CH4 emissions via landfill gas capture, combustion, or conversion to energy projects.

Waste Management Carbon Offsets Reduce Land, Water, and Air Pollution

Waste management carbon offsets can target land, air, or water pollution depending on the project. 

  • Land pollution: the deposition of solid or liquid waste materials on land or underground in a manner that can contaminate the soil and groundwater, threaten public health, and cause unsightly conditions and nuisances”
Britannica
  • Air pollution: the presence in or introduction into the air of a substance which has harmful or poisonous effects”
Oxford Languages
  • Water pollution: the release of substances into subsurface groundwater or into lakes, streams, rivers, estuaries, and oceans to the point where the substances interfere with beneficial use of the water or with the natural functioning of ecosystems”
Britannica

Every year, we contaminate the biosphere by dumping over 2 billion tons of waste including electronics (e-waste), hazardous chemicals, food, and plastic. 50 million tons of e-waste, 400 million tons of hazardous waste, 1.3 billion tons of food, and 350+ million tons of plastic end up either rotting in landfills or polluting our ecosystems.

Waste management carbon offset projects can help reduce pollution because they aim to reduce the amount of waste entering our landfills and ecosystems. Food rescue and recovery projects reduce food waste, recycling projects reduce and repurpose plastic, and landfill gas projects either eliminate CH4 or convert it to renewable energy.

In short, different waste management projects target different types of pollution (land, air, water) and aim to reduce it. 

Waste Management Carbon Offsets Can Lack Additionality

To be beneficial, waste management offsets must be additional. This means the carbon emissions reductions would not have occurred without intervention.

But waste management projects are often not additional because many projects receiving revenue now would have been built regardless. 

The global waste management market is expected to grow to $2.5 billion by 2030 due to the increasing rate at which and the amount of waste we generate annually. As the market grows, there has been a push for waste management projects involving food rescue, landfill gas capture, and recycling. The large demand for waste management in general means that the infrastructure could have been built independently of waste management carbon offsets.

In short, additionality is not guaranteed with waste management offsets because many projects are already in high demand and could have been built regardless.

Waste Management Carbon Offsets Do Not Reduce Your Own Carbon Emissions

In general, one of the main limitations of carbon offsetting is that purchasing a carbon offset does not directly reduce your carbon footprint. It only makes others reduce their carbon footprint to compensate for your carbon footprint. 

If emissions are only offset and not reduced from the source, this could lead to greenwashing, when the consumer is deceived into thinking they are offsetting their emissions but in reality, they are not. Companies accused of greenwashing either invest in non-verified credits, do not prioritize in-house emissions reductions, or double-count carbon credits. Or sometimes, all of the above.

In short, because waste management carbon offsets do not reduce your own carbon emissions, they could lead to greenwashing.

How Efficient Are Waste Management Carbon Offset Programs at Mitigating Climate Change

Efficiency involves performing a task while using the least amount of resources and producing the least amount of waste possible.

Efficient: working in a way that does not waste a resource (= something valuable such as fuel, water, or money)

Cambridge Dictionary

Waste management carbon offsets are relatively cost-effective; however, they are not yet scaled to compensate for our global waste emissions.

Waste Management Carbon Offsets Are Relatively Cost-Effective

Sustainable Development Goal 12 (SDG 12), ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns, is an expensive undertaking. It involves reducing waste generation, halving the per capita global food waste, and responsibly managing chemicals, waste, and natural resources. 

Waste management carbon offsets could help finance this process because they are typically more cost-effective than other categories of carbon offsets. For example, waste management carbon offsets from leading providers (e.g., Carbonfund, Terrapass, and Native) cost less than $20 per ton of CO2 offset. Compare this to direct carbon capture offsets which can cost anywhere from $100-$1,200 per ton of CO2 offset. 

In short, waste management carbon offsets are relatively cost-effective when compared to other methods of carbon emission reduction.

Waste Management Carbon Offsets Are Not Yet Scaled to Compensate For Our Global Waste Emissions

Carbon offsets in general are currently not sufficient to compensate for all of our carbon emissions. We emit more than 37 billion tons of carbon annually, but carbon offset credits for only ~1 billion tons of CO2 have been listed for sale on the voluntary market. The number of sellers also exceeds the number of buyers by about 600-700 million tons. Because waste management offsets are only a small subsection of the larger carbon offset market, they are also inadequate in terms of offsetting emissions from our global waste generation.

In addition to the 37+ billion tons of CO2 we emit every year, we emit approximately 570 million tons of CH4. We also generate over 2 billion tons of waste including electronics (e-waste), hazardous chemicals, food, and plastic. Experts predict the world’s population will increase by 2 billion people in the next 30 years, which means the rate of waste generation and subsequent GHG emissions from waste will continue to increase. 

Finding a way to handle and dispose of waste will be crucial to keeping climate change in check, but waste carbon offsets are not currently scaled enough to handle that load. Increasing the number of landfill gas capture plants while reducing overall waste generation can help, as outlined in Sustainable Development Goal 12

In short, waste management offsets occupy a small part of the carbon offset market and are not yet scaled to compensate for the billions of tons of GHG and waste we emit annually.

How Could You Offset Your Own Carbon Footprint With Waste Management Carbon Offsets

The voluntary carbon offset market (VCM) is where everyday consumers can purchase carbon offsets to offset their carbon emissions. The market for carbon offsets was small in the year 2000, but by 2010 it had already grown to represent nearly $10 billion worldwide

The Ecosystem Marketplace predicts the VCM could grow to $50B by the year 2050. And because we dump over 2 billion tons of CH4 and CO2-producing waste each year, waste management carbon offsets could prove crucial in the fight against climate change.

Waste Management Carbon OffsetsQuick Facts
CoreZeroAbout: Purchases support waste management projects including food rescue, upcycling, waste-to-energy, and composting.
Costs: Costs are determined after initial contact
GreenTechAbout: They take plastic (e.g., plastic bottles) and sort, grind, wash, and process it into sustainable recycled flakes to make products (e.g., PET flakes, PET straps, and r-PET granules).
Costs: $40 per 1,000kg of CO2
CarbonfundAbout: Purchases support waste management projects including landfill gas to renewable energy and landfill gas capture. 
Costs: $16.25-$17.16 per 1,000kg of CO2 for individuals, $390-$1,560 per year for small businesses, determined after initial contact for large businesses
TerrapassAbout: Purchases support waste management projects including landfill gas combustion in Virginia and hydrofluorocarbon recovery/repurposing in Ohio (US).
Costs: $16.51-$17.63 per 1,000kg of CO2 for individuals and $16.99 per 1,000kg of CO2 for businesses.
South PoleAbout: Purchases support waste management carbon offset projects including biodigesters in Vietnam and wastewater biogas in Thailand.
Costs: Costs are determined after initial contact
3DegreesAbout: Purchases support waste management projects including landfill gas capture in Colorado and landfill gas-to-energy in Montana (US).
Costs: Costs are determined after initial contact
Native EnergyAbout: Purchases support waste management projects including landfill gas to energy in New York, US, and methane digesters in Pennsylvania, US.
Costs: $15.50 per 1,000 kg of CO2
Cool EffectAbout: Purchases support waste management projects including biodigesters in India and China.
Costs: $8.79 – $21.97 per 1,000 kg of CO2
Co2nsensusAbout: Purchases support waste management projects including landfill gas to energy in Turkey.
Costs: Costs are determined after initial contact
myclimateAbout: Purchases support waste management projects including composting to avoid CH4 emissions in India, converting waste to fertilizer in Nepal, and plastic recycling in Romania. 
Costs: $23-$30 per 1,000kg of CO2
ClearAbout: Purchases support waste management projects including landfill gas recovery in Tanzania and CH4 capture in Thailand.
Costs: $18.99-$25 per 1,000kg of CO2

What Are The 5 Pros and 3 Cons of Waste Management Carbon Offsets

Waste management carbon offsets reduce methane emissions, reduce land, water, and air pollution, protect the biosphere, are relatively cost-effective, and allow us to reduce emissions in ways we wouldn’t be able to accomplish individually.

Waste management carbon offsets are not yet scaled to compensate for our global waste emissions, can lack additionality, and do not reduce your own carbon emissions.

Related: Are you interested in learning more about the pros and cons of waste management carbon offsets? Check out the full article here: “Waste Management Carbon Offsets: All 5 Pros and 3 Cons Explained

What Are the 5 Pros of Waste Management Carbon Offsets

Waste management carbon offsets have various pros that make them effective at avoiding carbon and methane emissions.

5 Pros of Waste Management Carbon OffsetsQuick Facts
#1: Waste management carbon offsets reduce methane emissionsWaste management offsets involving CH4 gas capture, combustion, or conversion-to-energy prevent CH4 from entering our atmosphere. Because CH4 is more potent than CO2, removing it is a quick way to slow the rate of global warming, at least in the short term.
#2: Waste management carbon offsets reduce pollutionWaste management carbon offset projects can help reduce land, air, and water pollution because they aim to reduce the amount of waste entering our landfills and ecosystems.
#3: Waste management carbon offsets protect the biosphereWaste management carbon offsets remove GHG emissions from the atmosphere and cut down on pollution, thereby improving air quality and protecting the biosphere.
#4: Waste management carbon offsets are relatively cost-effectiveWaste management carbon offsets from leading providers (e.g., Carbonfund, Terrapass, and Native) cost less than $20 per ton of CO2 offset. Compare this to direct carbon capture offsets which can cost anywhere from $100-$1,200 per ton of CO2 offset. 
#5: Waste management carbon offsets allow us to reduce carbon emissions in ways we wouldn’t be able to accomplish individuallyWaste management carbon offsets allow us to reduce emissions from activities where sustainable alternatives are not yet widely available. 

What Are the 3 Cons of Waste Management Carbon Offsets

Understanding the drawbacks of waste management carbon offsets is important in order to effectively mitigate climate change.

3 Cons of Waste Management Carbon OffsetsQuick Facts
#1: Waste management carbon offsets are not yet scaled to compensate for our global waste emissions Because waste management offsets are only a small subsection of the larger carbon offset market, they are also inadequate in terms of offsetting emissions from our global waste generation.
#2: Waste management carbon offsets can lack additionalityThe global waste management market is expected to grow to $2.5 billion by 2030 due to the increasing rate at which and the amount of waste we generate annually. The large demand for waste management in general means that the infrastructure could have been built independently of waste management carbon offsets.
#3: Waste management carbon offsets do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashingIf emissions are only offset and not reduced from the source, this could lead to greenwashing, when the consumer is deceived into thinking they are offsetting their emissions but in reality, they are not. 

How Can Waste Management Carbon Offsets Help Mitigate Climate Change

Climate change is a severe and long-term consequence of fossil fuel combustion. Waste management offsets can help mitigate climate change because they eliminate fossil-fuel-derived CO2 and CH4 from our atmosphere which has a higher warming potential than CO2 and, if left untreated, can remain there for tens of thousands of years and exacerbate the negative effects of climate change.

How is Climate Change Defined

Climate change is arguably the most severe, long-term global impact of fossil fuel combustion. Every year, approximately 33 billion tons (bt) of CO2 are emitted from burning fossil fuels. The carbon found in fossil fuels reacts with oxygen in the air to produce CO2

Climate change: changes in the earth’s weather, including changes in temperature, wind patterns and rainfall, especially the increase in the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere that is caused by the increase of particular gasses, especially carbon dioxide.

Oxford Dictionary

Atmospheric CO2 fuels climate change, which results in global warming. When CO2 and other air pollutants absorb sunlight and solar radiation in the atmosphere, it traps the heat and acts as an insulator for the planet. Since the Industrial Revolution, Earth’s temperature has risen a little more than 1 degree Celsius (C), or 2 degrees Fahrenheit (F). Between 1880-1980 the global temperature rose by 0.07C every 10 years. This rate has more than doubled since 1981, with a current global annual temperature rise of 0.18C, or 0.32F, for every 10 years. 

As outlined in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, we must cut current GHG emissions by 50% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050

How Do Carbon Offsets Generally Help Mitigate Climate Change

Levels of carbon in our atmosphere that cause climate change have increased as a result of human emissions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in 1750. The global average concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today registers at over 400 parts per million. Carbon offsets can help prevent these levels from increasing even more.

When you hear the words “carbon offset”, think about the term “compensation”. Essentially, carbon offsets are reductions in GHG emissions that are used to compensate for emissions occurring elsewhere

Carbon offsets that meet key criteria and verified project standards, are additional and permanent, and are part of projects carried out until the end of their lifespan have the best chance of reducing carbon emissions and climate change. 

When we offset CO2 we also slow the rate of global temperature rise, which in turn minimizes the effects of climate change. 

How Do Waste Management Carbon Offsets Specifically Help Mitigate Climate Change

Waste management carbon offsets can specifically help mitigate climate change because they primarily target CH4 emissions, which are the second-most abundant GHG after CO2 and are 25 times more potent than CO2 at trapping heat in our atmosphere. Higher levels of CH4 speed up and exacerbate the effects of global warming (e.g., sea level rise, melting of glaciers, temperature rise). 

As outlined in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, we must cut current greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, including CH4, by 50% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. Waste management offsets are important to meet these targets because they curb CH4 and carbon emissions that, when emitted, can remain in our atmosphere for tens of thousands of years.

What Are Better Alternatives to Waste Management Carbon Offsets

If used correctly, waste management carbon offsets can provide environmental, economic, and social benefits beyond reducing carbon emissions. They have the potential to instigate meaningful environmental change and begin to reverse some of the effects of climate change. 

However, we can’t let this method be a guilt-free way to reduce carbon emissions. Waste management carbon offsets must be used in conjunction with direct carbon reduction measures to reduce GHG emissions long-term. 

These reduction measures don’t have to involve drastic changes either. Actions that may seem small can have a big impact because those small changes add up! You can reduce your carbon footprint in three main areas of your life: household, travel, and lifestyle. 

Reduce your household carbon footprint:

Reduce your travel carbon footprint:

  • Walk or bike when possible: The most efficient ways of traveling are walking, bicycling, or taking the train. Using a bike instead of a car can reduce carbon emissions by 75%. These forms of transportation also provide lower levels of air pollution.

Reduce your lifestyle carbon footprint:

  • Switch to renewable energy sources: The six most common types of renewable energy are solar, wind, hydro, tidal, geothermal, and biomass energy. They are a substitute for fossil fuels that can reduce the effects of global warming by limiting global carbon emissions and other pollutants.
  • Recycle: Recycling uses less energy and deposits less waste in landfills. Less manufacturing and transportation energy costs means fewer carbon emissions generated. Less waste in landfills means less CH4 is generated.
  • Eat less meat and dairy: Meat and dairy account for 14.5% of global GHG emissions, with beef and lamb being the most carbon-intensive. Globally, we consume much more meat than is considered sustainable, and switching to a vegan or vegetarian diet could reduce emissions. 
  • Take shorter showers: Approximately 1.2 trillion gallons of water are used each year in the United States just for showering purposes, and showering takes up about 17% of residential water usage. The amount of water consumed and the energy cost of that consumption are directly related. The less water we use the less energy we use. And the less energy we use, the less of a negative impact we have on the environment.

Because waste management carbon offsets are an indirect way and not a direct way of reducing emissions, they alone will not be enough to reduce global carbon emissions significantly. Direct measures of emission reductions, such as reducing individual energy use and consumption, are better alternatives to these offsets. 

Related: Are you interested in learning why reducing your carbon footprint is so important? Check it out in this article here: “4 Main Reasons Why Reducing Your Carbon Footprint Is Important

Final Thoughts

Waste management carbon offsets are effective at mitigating climate change because they reduce methane emissions and land, water, and air pollution; however, they can also lack additionality and do not reduce your own carbon emissions. Waste management carbon offsets are efficient as they are relatively cost-effective; however, they are also not yet scaled to compensate for our global waste emissions.

Carbon offsets can instigate meaningful change, but they should not be seen as the only solution to climate change. They are effective at reducing CO2 in the short term, but in the long term, they fail to reduce CO2 enough. We should directly reduce our own carbon footprint as much as possible first, and only then choose the most effective waste management carbon offsets.

Stay impactful,

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