What’s happening? We are producing an increasing amount of stuff and, without action, according to the World Bank, global waste levels will increase 70% by 2050 – from around two billion tonnes produced a year today to 3.4 billion tonnes annually by 2050. High-income countries are responsible for an oversize proportion of this. Despite representing 16% of the world’s population, they generate around 34% of global waste.
Where does it all go? Well, only around a third of waste in high-income countries is recovered through reuse, repurposing and recycling, or composting. This drops to 4% in low-income countries. Globally, the level sits at around 13.5%.
On top of this, the Ellen MacArthur foundation highlights that only 2% of all waste is “effectively recycled” – i.e. it is turned into an equally useful item – with the rest downcycled into something that has less utility. Incineration, which is a more favourable method of disposal than landfill – as energy can be recovered and it results in fewer emissions – globally accounts for around 11%. This method of disposal is still problematic however, as it creates local air pollution.
Waste entering landfill, a great deal of which is food waste, is a problem. It causes local pollution and is also a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, due to methane released as it breaks down.
Around 35% of global waste ends up in landfill, and 70% of this ends up in open landfills that have no methane controls. Around 33% is openly dumped. This can often be in lower-income countries which import waste, where it can often be not disposed of properly due to inadequate infrastructure. This affects the local environment and human health, and also results in waste leakages into the ocean.
Problematic plastic – Around 250 million tonnes of solid waste produced a year – or 12% of the total – is plastic. We are all familiar with nature documentaries highlighting this material’s prevalence in the oceans.
Around eight million pieces of plastic enter the ocean on a daily basis. These all add to the 5.25 trillion large and micro pieces of plastic that are already present in the world’s seas. This plastic is continually broken down in waves and tides and contaminates ecosystems – including ice in the Arctic – for hundreds and thousands of years. It is also increasingly appearing in animals themselves. Rivers are also the source of many of microplastic fibres and particles that are reaching the sea at an alarming rate.
NGOs are using creative methods to highlight what the sheer amount of plastic streams countries are producing looks like.
Not helped is the fact that around half of all plastic – up to 150 million tonnes – is produced for single-use purposes, highlighting the need for systematic and behavioural changes to move away from using this material for such means.
The pandemic hasn’t helped – A throwaway culture supercharged by Covid-19 has resulted in single-use plastic consumption surging. This is further bad news for the ocean – most of the plastic within it takes the form of takeaway packaging.
A substantial amount of medical waste, including personal protective equipment (PPE) and face masks, have also been created due to Covid-19. According to one estimate, around 1.5 billion Covid-19-related face masks may have entered the ocean by the end of 2020. Academics have argued disposed of PPE should be turned into biofuels to help mitigate the problem.
One form of waste is increasingly important… At 54 million tonnes in 2019 and growing, technological development cycles have resulted in e-waste emerging as the fastest growing waste stream worldwide. By 2030, the total amount of e-waste will be closer to 75 million tonnes a year. The majority of this is currently exported to poorer nations in Asia and Africa where there is a likelihood it is not treated correctly, leading to toxic chemicals and heavy metals leaching into the surrounding environment and water supplies.
It’s important to note that businesses are a significant contributor to the e-waste problem.
Waste is closely tied to climate change – Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and landfills represent one of the largest sources of global methane emissions. Therefore, one of the most direct actions you can take to reduce your emissions footprint is to reduce the amount of waste you’re sending to landfill. On top of this, reducing the consumption of single use items will lower emissions footprints by avoiding the CO2 associated with creating, shipping and disposing of this waste in the first place.
The need to act –Research indicates that, while sustainable waste recovery practices are set to increase by 2050, they are not forecast to be on a path aligned with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for waste reduction. The amount of additional recycling forecast by 2030 needs to double from the current projection in order to reduce pressure on natural ecosystems.
Mismanagement of waste is a big part of the problem. Businesses, which are responsible for a quarter of all waste in the UK, can help by acting as stewards of their waste streams, implementing effective waste strategies and considering moves towards a circular economy.
Beginning to understand your waste footprint is a good place to start.
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