The garbage the world creates is only going to increase. In fact, the amount of municipal solid waste (MSW) generated globally every year is expected to double, according to new research by Worldwatch for its Vital Signs Online service. Doubling the amount of MSW would increase it from today’s 1.3 billion tons a year to 2.6 billion tons. There are two reasons why MSW is expected to double: increasing prosperity and urbanization.
Wealthier countries tend to generate much more MSW. The members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a group of 34 industrialized countries, lead the world in MSW generation at almost 1.6 million tons a day. By contrast, Sub-Saharan Africa generates less than one-eighth that amount, about 200,000 tons a day. OECD nations generate over two kilograms of MSW per person per day. In South Asia, the rate is less than a quarter of that amount with under half a kilo per person.
There is some variation within the top 10 countries for MSW generation. The U.S. generates almost seven times more than France, which is in the 10th spot. Some developing countries are starting to catch up. The top 10 list of top includes four developing nations (Brazil, China, India and Mexico). The four countries are on the list partly because of the size of their urban populations and partly because people in their cities are making more money and consuming more. The U.S. leads the world in MSW output at about 621,000 tons a day, but China is not too far behind at 521,000 tons a day.
The types of MSW generated include plastics, paper and aluminum, which tends to increase as prosperity increases and people move to cities. Only about a quarter of the world’s garbage is diverted from landfills through recycling, composting or digestion. MSW in landfills emits methane, a greenhouse gas with a warming potential 23 times greater than carbon.
There is a growing market for post-consumer materials, which could lead to more waste being diverted from landfills. The global market for scrap metal and paper is at least $30 billion a year. The market for waste management is about $400 billion globally. However, the UN Environment Program (UNEP) estimates that for waste management to become “green” it would require a 3.5 fold increase in MSW recycling globally, which would include almost a complete recovery of all organic material through composting or converting it to energy.
Americans need to reduce the amount of garbage they generate
The U.S. recycled only 34 percent of its MSW in 2010, up from 10 percent in 1980. Clearly, Americans need to recycle more, and consume less. American culture has an influence on the world. Americans can put that influence to good use by reducing the amount of garbage they generate.
One place to start is by reducing the amount of plastics we use, as the book “Plastic Free” by Beth Terry points out. Plastics never break down in landfills, and are made with petroleum, a fossil fuel. There are several easy ways to reduce the amount of plastic you use. Start carrying reusable bags to the grocery store and use them instead of those plastic disposable ones. Swap buying bottled water and use a reusable bottle filled with tap water.
Photo: Redwin Law