OPINION: ‘Why sustainability strategies can’t afford to exclude waste’

In this opinion piece, Ambarish Mitra, co-founder & CPO AT Greyparrot takes a look at sustainability strategies and explains why they can’t afford to exclude waste.

OPINION: Despite representing 20% of global methane emissions, it’s rare to see waste receive the same attention as fossil fuels, agriculture and transport at climate summits like COP.

But as the global waste crisis becomes harder to ignore,  sustainable production, consumption and disposal must become a pillar of emissions reduction strategies.

Ambarish Mitra, co-founder of Greyparrot

With AI, we’re finally able to fill decades-long gaps in our understanding of waste material that have hidden the full scope of post-consumption emissions, and no longer have an excuse to ignore the threat they pose to our planet.

Sustainability targets

Landfilled and incinerated waste releases CO2, methane, ethylene and nitrous oxide, representing 3.4% of the world’s total greenhouse gases. By trapping 86 times more heat than CO2 over 20 years, methane in particular poses a serious threat to targets like the 1.5 degree warming threshold.

Waste flows and their emissions are growing: resource consumption skyrocketed over the last five years, while global circularity fell by 28%.

As climate milestones approach, waste management’s vital role in the emissions equation is finally gaining the recognition it has long needed outside of the sector. Extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation is tightening in the UK, EU and USA, driving climate summits like Sustainability Week 2024 to feature key topic areas like “Supply chains and circularity”.

For the brands, packaging producers and regulators attending those summits to make a meaningful impact on circularity, they’ll need data on the material we’re currently throwing away.

Waste data

Until now, there has been no scalable way to gather detailed data on waste material. The results have been both financially and environmentally damaging.

For every emissions risk, waste data reveals a circular opportunity — if waste management receives the attention it needs from policymakers and producers.

  • The threat: Emissions from landfill and incineration

With the typical recovery facility monitoring just 1% of its material, a significant amount of recyclable resources bypass manual and mechanical sorting processes. That material finds its way to landfills and incinerators via the residue line, turning from a valuable circular asset to an environmental threat.

In 2023, our own Greyparrot Analyzer units revealed that as much as 65.6% of global residue line material was recyclable fibre, plastic and metal.* In individual facilities, we regularly find that lost resource value exceeds $1m a year.

  • The opportunity: Less volume in landfills

The arrival of AI waste analytics has unlocked data on the 99% of material that was previously invisible. Aside from uncovering potential value and avoidable emissions in the residue line, the technology is being used to guide operations.

Waste professionals have access to real-time streams of waste data to adjust sorting processes, recover the resources they’d otherwise have lost, and create detailed compliance reports to help the wider supply chain keep track of waste-related emissions.

As our understanding of waste material scales, the volume of material sent to landfills and incinerators will shrink.

  • The threat: Unbalanced circular supply and demand

Recycling rates need to rise if we hope to support a more circular, sustainable economy. McKinsey research has shown that demand for recycled PET will grow by 15% a year if brands deliver on their recycled content promises by 2030.

There’s no time for anything other than data-backed improvements to resource recovery and recycled product quality: if today’s recycling rates persist, by 2030 demand will be three times larger than supply.

  • The opportunity: More high-quality circular material

In the US alone, a lack of visibility into waste streams contributes to $120b worth of plastic packaging being lost every year. Aside from boosting recovery and recycling rates, waste data enables recycling professionals to track and adjust for the quality of their output in detail.

Today, recyclate quality certifications are often determined manually. By providing detailed insight into the precise composition of every bale, though, AI is removing human bias and automating the quality assurance process.

Meeting demand in 2030 and beyond isn’t just about volume. A truly sustainable supply chain requires high-quality recyclates that provide a compelling alternative to virgin materials. In the case of PET alone, that means a 67% decrease in emissions.

  • The threat: A post-consumption “abyss”

Brands and packaging producers keep a close eye on their products, until they’re thrown away. The post-consumption life of products is “an abyss”, and even those that design products with technically recyclable material have learned the hard way that their packaging is difficult to recover in practice, and ends up in landfills.

The same goes for alternative packaging like compostable plastics and Tetra Pak. Many seem better for the environment, but data reveals that they require specific conditions to break down, or specialised recovery processes.

Without insight into how they perform today, we can’t encourage investment and realise the “transformative potential” of sustainable packaging spoken about by WRAP chair Sebastian Munden at Sustainability Week.

  • The opportunity: Sustainable production and concrete policy action

EPR laws mean that brands and packaging producers have a vested interest in making their products more sustainable, and are incentivised to prove their sustainability claims.

The world’s first global-scale waste datasets give them a detailed look at how their products are performing post-consumption. The same brands that struggled to design recyclable packaging in the past are now applauded for new, more sustainable designs guided by data from recovery facilities.

Regulators are looking to the same datasets to enforce policies like EPR and measure their impact. With statistically-significant amounts of recovery and emissions data, policymakers can target future legislation to the products and materials that pose the greatest threats to net zero targets.

With more investment in data-driven waste management, governments have the opportunity to increase recycling rates, reduce emissions, and craft more impactful sustainability policies. Many have yet to match a sense of urgency with the scale of the opportunity, though.


Until recently, waste has been sidelined in conversations surrounding emissions and net zero targets. Those fast-approaching milestones mean we no longer have the time to ignore the waste crisis, and no longer have the time to make decisions without data.

Detailed insight into waste is creating the feedback loops needed to increase recycling rates, guide recyclable packaging design, target waste regulation, shape consumer behaviour campaigns — and reduce waste’s environmental impact.

Discussions at climate summits now need to translate into concrete investment, and concrete legislation.

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