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Cutting methane: the low hanging fruits of waste management

Updated: 4 days ago

In this new map series, we partner with The Energy Mix, a leading energy transition publication based in Ottawa. Monthly, we unveil an interactive map that delves into climate change's causes and effects, enriched with insights from Canadian experts and spotlighting Indigenous and First Nations' narratives and solutions on climate change. Contact us to recommend a map!

Why methane, and why now ?

Methane—a greenhouse gas far more impactful than carbon dioxide—is a major player in the climate crisis, responsible for up to 45% of the global warming we're experiencing today, as per the latest IPCC Report. A recent revealing research by the EPA underscores a staggering underestimation of methane emissions from municipal solid waste, suggesting a 40% greater impact than previously thought.

As the third-largest source of human-caused methane pollution, solid waste represents not just a challenge, but a significant opportunity for quick, effective climate action.

It seems "easy". Tackling methane emissions from landfills can leverage existing, cost-efficient technologies, making it a critical front in the fight against global warming. This approach doesn’t require reinventing the wheel but deploying proven strategies that curb emissions swiftly and effectively.

Global anthropogenic methane emissions by source, 2020 [GMI]
Global anthropogenic methane emissions by source, 2020 [GMI]

Unlike carbon, methane's not hard to track down

Recent advances in tracking technology are quickly reshaping our ability to monitor methane. NASA's AVIRIS-NG instruments, mounted on aircrafts, detect methane by measuring how it absorbs light reflected from Earth, offering more precise data on concentrations and enabling fast leakage detection. Building on such data, platforms like CarbonMapper play a key role ensuring that this new intelligence is accessible and actionable. It’s increasingly difficult for high-emission activities, especially those from open-air dumpsites, to go undetected.

A global map to level the waste methane game

Believing in the opportunity for emission reduction at scale and equipped with this new data,  Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) set out to work on a tool that could be a gamechanger for waste methane mitigation. The innovative platform leverages a diverse array of data sources to provide a comprehensive view of global emissions:  quantitative data from Climate TRACE, satellite imagery from Carbon Mapper and SRON, and emissions estimates from entities such as UNFCCC and EDGAR (the Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research). Bringing together these robust data sources creates an unprecedented level of detail and accuracy in emissions tracking at the country, city, and site levels.

Beyond its role as a data aggregator, WasteMAP Serves as a crucial decision-making tool for municipalities. It allows local governments to assess their current waste management practices and explore various mitigation strategies tailored to their unique circumstances. The platform models potential outcomes based on different levels of investment in technologies and practices, ranging from basic waste segregation to advanced anaerobic digestion techniques.

Dr. Rose Wang, the manager for analytics and data science at RMI and a key figure behind WasteMAP, emphasizes the platform’s ambition and the opportunity at hand. "Waste management is now recognized as a readily accessible area for quick wins in methane reduction," says Dr. Wang. She highlights the triple benefits of improved waste management:

"Not only can we significantly cut down emissions, but we can also enhance the life of communities near landfills by reducing odor through gas capture. On top of that, captured landfill gas and biogas generated from diverted organic waste in enclosed anaerobic digester tanks can produce heat and electricity , helping cities diversify their energy mix and reduce dependency on fossil fuels"

Dr. Wang further discusses the transformative potential of adequate waste management practices in growing urban centers, particularly in the developing world. "The opportunity to mitigate future emissions in these rapidly expanding cities is vast. By implementing better waste management practices now, we can prevent significant methane emissions in the future."

Reflecting on the early impact of the WasteMAP initiative and RMI’s on the ground programs, Dr. Wang shares enthusiastic feedback from initial deployments: "Although it's still early days, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. We are hopeful that WasteMAP can be a conversation starter with municipalities worldwide, to set them on a trajectory to virtuous waste management policies.

RMI's Ground Play: Enhancing Waste Management Globally

RMI’s country engagement initiative complements its WasteMAP tool by implementing practical, on-the-ground strategies for improved waste management and methane reduction. Focused on some of the world's fastest-growing urban areas, such as Lagos, Nigeria, RMI’s team brings its expertise directly to local officials and stakeholders. The initiative involves developing a detailed playbook that allows cities to assess their waste management maturity and outlines steps towards more effective waste utilization and emission reduction. “Our goal is to bring our waste expertise and decision support tools to places where it can make the biggest difference,” says Dr. Wang.

North Arrow cover WasteMAP : Global Municipal Solid Waste Management Archetypes : RMI’s methane mitigation playbook
Global Municipal Solid Waste Management Archetypes : RMI’s methane mitigation playbook

For Canadian cities, more talking than acting

Despite Canada's environmental leadership aspirations, cities like Vancouver, Toronto, and Ottawa rank poorly compared to other developed cities,, with per capita emissions exceeding those of their US counterparts by over 25%. This is due in part to US nationwide requirements for gas capture at landfills of certain sizes, which are only enforced in some Canadian provinces (Quebec, Ontario & British Columbia). As per the largest Canadian cities, WasteMAP data places them in the upper quartile of emissions per citizen, with Vancouver leading at more than 10.5kg of CH4 per person annually. Vancouver's ambitious Zero Waste 2040 (full document here) initiative aims to drastically reduce waste but has struggled to meet its targets. In 2020, the city's landfills received 305,000 tons of waste, missing the year's reduction target by a rough 27%. The continuous shortfall in meeting these goals raises questions about the effectiveness of current strategies and the feasibility of future targets. 

North Arrow covers WasteMAP : Vancouver Zero Waste 2040
Vancouver Zero Waste 2040 Ambition (Source:

North Arrow covers WasteMAP : Vancouver Waste Stats
Vancouver self reported landfill waste, data stops at 2020 (Source:

In 2023, far from showing success in dealing with waste locally, the city announced the decision to spend $150 million to transport excess trash to the inner provinces and even to neighboring US states. This contradiction illustrates one of the key challenges in methane emissions responsibility tracking, emphasized by Dr. Wang: “It’s extremely hard to get accurate catchment areas for landfills. Some cities might share one site or even sometimes ship their trash to other parts of the country, or even abroad”. 

Optimizing Methane Reduction in Vancouver with RMI's Tool

RMI platform reports that today, a shy 12% of Vancouver’s waste is treated via composting. The Decision Support Tool  shows that with treating 10% more with Anaerobic Digestion and 20% more with Incineration, the city could curb 45% of its waste methane emissions by 2050.

Obviously, reality is a bigger beast than simplified projections on a decision support one-size-fits-all tool. But it’s a starting point for municipalities, and RMI’s hope is that with more local collaborations and hence more granular data, the model will get better and better.

North Arrow covers WasteMAP : Mitigation Scenarios
Waste Emissions Mitigation Scenarios

Indigenous Wisdom in Waste Management

As cities like Vancouver seek effective strategies to manage waste and reduce methane emissions, exploring Indigenous waste management practices offers valuable insights. Indigenous communities excel in sustainable waste practices through deeply ingrained cultural traditions. Many communities -like the Peguis First Nation in Manitoba and Heiltsuk Nation in British Columbia- have utilized circular economy principles long before they became a thing, emphasizing reuse and resource maximization. Techniques such as zero-waste cooking, material repurposing, and communal resource sharing not only deal with the problem upstream but also foster a strong community bond and respect for the environment. Integrating these age-old practices through public awareness campaigns can reduce the amount of waste produced and complement actions taken downstream, such as those being put in place by RMI. 

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