Every year the world produces approximately 2.01 billion metric tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) worldwide. In the coming years as consumerism grows, the World Bank predicts the overall waste generation will increase to 3.40 billion metric tons by 2050. Sadly only 13.5% of today’s waste is recycled and 5.5% is composted. 59% of the waste in the world end up in the landfills which results in the release of toxins, contamination of soil and groundwater and emission of dangerous greenhouse gases. The US alone produces 230 million tons of waste yearly. While it represents only 4% of the world’s population, it’s responsible for 12% of global municipal solid waste. In comparison, China and India make up more than 36% of the world’s population and generate 27% of that waste.
Poor management of waste affects every living being on this planet. Tiny particles of plastics are thought to be present in the bodies of most people. We do not know the health hazards of this as yet. With truckloads of plastics flowing into the ocean every minute over one million seabirds are killed by ocean pollution each year. Three hundred thousand dolphins and porpoises die each year as a result of becoming entangled in discarded fishing nets, among other items.
We don’t know if we can ever undo these damages but we can at least reduce them. The challenge lies on the government of the day and the individual. All governments, all political leaders are aware of the repercussions of poor waste management but few have had the political will do something about it. Non-cooperation from certain countries are disheartening to say the least. The US didn’t include itself to a global agreement seeking to slow the flow of poor-quality plastics to developing nations. Thailand is becoming the garbage bin of the world, tons of waste is being flushed onto their beaches, waste that is not been taken care of properly by people or companies. Or worse, in Vietnam the government allows companies to throw waste into the water.
Sweden and South Africa are two examples of a positive kind of difference a strong political will can make on managing and reducing waste. Sweden recycles 100% of its household waste. And this hasn’t happened overnight. Since 1984, Sweden has had a can and bottle deposit system that gives people money back when they recycle. Each year Swedes recycle 1.8 billion bottles and cans that would otherwise be thrown away. In 2017, the Swedish government reformed the tax system so that people could get cheaper repairs on used items, and Swedish clothing giant H&M operates a recycling scheme where customers get a discount upon handing in old clothes. In 2018, the Swedish government even established a special advisory group to help it make circular economy a key part of its policy.
South Africa’s largest waste management company called EnviroServ, is leading the way with environmentally responsible supply waste management. It uses ethical methods and utilizes the best practices in the disposal of waste recycling. It also advises their customers on how to consume, how to recycle and how to manage their own waste.
Kamikatsu, a small town in Japan, has successfully managed 80% of its waste purely through cooperation of its residents. The inhabitants have to wash, clean, sort and then bring all the material to the city’s recycling centre. Signs tell the residents what their waste is going to turn into, how much it’s going to cost or earn the community. They can buy recycled items for free and also buy products made from recycled waste at a low cost.
While most governments and individuals are still taking baby steps, private companies have realized the potential in turning trash into treasure. The industry has grown leaps and bounds in the last decade. It is now worth 285 billion dollars and is all set to double in the next five years. In Sweden, the waste management industry runs so well that it imports waste from other countries, turns it into energy and electricity and exports it to countries like UK and other European countries.
Private companies and large corporations are incorporating environment friendly laws and also providing funds to improving the efficiency of their business. Last year, Amazon announced new recycling and green energy initiatives, including an investment of 10 million dollars into the Closed Loop Fund, a recycling project which invests in the Circular Economy to help improve recycling infrastructure in the US and a solar energy project to help power Amazon’s fulfillment centers across UK.
We are living in a time of an ongoing environmental crisis. Waste management is only one of the many problems we must quickly resolve. There are signs of urgency in most parts of the world. We are likely to see greater participation, more robust funding in building the necessary infrastructure in the future. But if we are to see any true changes taking place we must simplify our lives, consume only what’s needed, produce only what’s sustainable and never give in to the ever increasing demands of material greed.