State of Waste
How much waste do we produce?
Collectively, humans have a global trash problem. Annually, we generate 2.01 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) and that figure is predicted to grow to 3.40 billion tonnes by 2050. Also interesting to note, is that high-income countries are responsible for 34% of waste generated despite accounting for only 16% of the world’s population. Appropriate waste processing is essential, but at least 33% of MSW is currently dumped in mismanaged open landfills which release 1.6 billion tonnes of CO2 annually (5% of emissions).
These figures show the pressing need to institute locally relevant waste management and proper disposal solutions. Waste management is often the responsibility of local governments and represents the single highest budget item, between 20-50% of regional budgets. Because it’s so expensive to maintain responsible waste systems, over 90% of waste is dumped in open landfills in low-income countries, contaminating oceans, ecosystems and overwhelming the most vulnerable communities with toxic leakage and trash landslides. As low-income countries rapidly develop, trash produced is increasing without the proper infrastructure to process waste responsibly.
To implement effective waste strategies, we must maximize resource efficiency along the supply chain by developing earth-friendly production processes, creatively diverting waste for other uses, and implementing effective waste processing facilities.
Where does waste come from?
Around the world, food and green materials account for the largest share of waste (44%) followed by paper products (17%), and plastic (12%). The fact that food and green materials account for the largest amount of municipal waste is a clear example of why proper waste treatment is essential. When sitting in a landfill, this organic matter produces a lot of carbon emissions as it rots. Were it to be disposed of properly by composting and returning the humus (organic matter) to the soil, this decayed organic matter would feed plants, which would in turn sequester the released carbon. Scaling industrial composting facilities would not only reduce the emissions from decaying organic matter, it could provide municipalities some revenue from selling the compost to farmers and gardeners. Or they could use it to fertilize community greenspaces. Either way, accessible composting facilities for food and green materials will come a long way for reducing waste.
Paper follows organic waste as the second most common material thrown out. Paper is one of those materials that now gets branded as an eco-friendly alternative to plastic because it’s recyclable and biodegradable. But serious challenges still exist to manufacturing paper that must be overcome, primarily deforestation and excessive water use. To make paper more sustainable, we must implement comprehensive paper recycling initiatives which consume less water and prevent new trees from being cut. However, paper can only be recycled about six times before the fibers become too short to work with. Sourcing virgin materials from waste products in the food industry provides a great alternative to reduce the environmental impact and divert waste from other industries (pineapple, bamboo and hemp, we’re looking at you!).
The last significant contributor of waste is plastic. In 2016, the world generated 242 million tonnes of plastic waste or 12% of total waste. Although plastic makes up a smaller percentage of waste than green material and paper, it’s the most problematic because it’s the most intensive material to produce, has limitations for being recycled, and creates serious problems once it’s disposed of. There’s a reason why so many people are calling for the end of single use plastic. Have you ever tried to pick up a piece of plastic that has been sitting out in the rain and sunshine for months? Most likely it’s fallen apart in your fingertips as you tried to grab it. These are the same properties that make plastic release microplastics, pieces of plastic smaller than 5mm, into our waterways and almost every living organism on earth from whales to humans. Learn more about microplastics and their challenges here.
These leading contributors to waste show the importance of implementing effective waste management practices that reduce the environmental impact, finding ways to divert waste through circular economic models, and developing viable alternatives to problematic materials.
To move waste management in a sustainable direction, we need to focus on data, planning, integrated waste management, and citizen engagement. First, we need data to understand where waste is being generated. Then, we need to plan for circular value chains and inform integrated waste management. Finally, we must establish accessible waste infrastructure that is available in every country. To make this achievable, there must be a significant education campaign so people understand how to properly sort their waste and why this benefits them.