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A planet of waste: Where does it all go?


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Paul De Maeyer - published on 10/18/18

According to a recent report by the World Bank, in 2016 the world generated 2.01 billion tons of waste.

“Without urgent action, global waste will increase 70% by 2050 compared to current levels.”

This is the message presented by The World Bank in its new report on the global waste disposal challenge, published Thursday, September 20, 2018 under the title What a Waste 2.0: A Global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050.

The new document, which is almost 300 pages long (with appendices and tables), expresses concern over the alarming increase in the amount of garbage on a global scale. “Waste that has not been collected and waste that has been poorly disposed of both have significant impacts on health and the environment. The cost of tackling these impacts is many times higher than the cost of developing and managing simple and adequate waste management systems” according to the lead author of the report, Silpa Kaza.

Here are some of the facts:

According to a report funded by the Japanese government, which is presented as the continuation of the document already cited, in 2016 the world produced 2.01 billion tons of waste, an amount which will in fact increase to 3.4 billion tons around the middle of the century.
 Of this huge mass just over a third, 34 percent or 683 million tons, is generated in high-income countries, even if these make up less than one fifth of the planet’s population (16 percent). However, according to the report, more than a third of waste in rich countries is in turn recovered through recycling and composting methods.
The data collected by the World Bank shows that every inhabitant of the planet generates an average of 1.63 pounds of rubbish every day, with local differences ranging from a minimum of 0.24 lbs. to a maximum of 10 lbs. While the average per capita output of municipal waste will rise by 20 percent in high-income countries by 2050, the World Bank expects an increase of about 40 percent or more in medium to low income countries.

Collection and disposal

A critical step in the waste management cycle—the report continues—is the garbage collection phase. For example, poor or low-income countries collect almost half (48 percent) of municipal waste, but this percentage drops to just over a quarter (26 percent) in rural areas. Globally, sub-Saharan Africa accounts for less than half of the waste—44 percent—while in the regions of Central Europe, Asia and North America this share rises to at least 90 percent.

Again, on a global level, about 37 percent of garbage is disposed of in some type of landfill, 33 percent ends up in illegal or uncontrolled landfills (so-called dumping), another 19 percent is recovered through recycling processes and composting, and the remaining 11 percent is incinerated.

The report highlights that the largest category of waste is global food waste and green waste: organic waste is in fact almost half (44 percent) of the total mass. Another 38 percent is solid recyclable waste, namely plastic, paper and cardboard, metal (for example aluminum cans), and glass.

East Asia and the Pacific

This region of the world, which is home to 2.27 billion people and is made up of 37 countries, including Australia and several island states of the Pacific Ocean, is the one that in 2016 produced the largest mass of waste: 468 million tons, or almost a quarter of the world total. While 46 percent of waste ends up in controlled landfills, just over one fifth is incinerated. Incineration is widespread in countries with low land availability, such as Japan (80 percent) or Singapore (37 percent).

While the daily average per capita amount of waste is 1.23 lbs., almost half of the waste (47 percent) of the region is created in China. In addition to being the most populous country in the world, the Asian giant makes up almost two-thirds (61 percent) of the population of the entire region. However, daily production per capita in China is below the regional average: 0.94 lbs. According to the report, this data reflects the very small amount of waste generated by the “significant” rural Chinese population.

Europe and Central Asia

The 912 million inhabitants of the European and Central Asian region, made up of 57 countries, including Greenland and the Russian Federation, produced a total of 392 million tons of waste in 2016, a daily average of 2.6 lbs. per capita. In the urban areas of the region this figure is slightly higher: 2.82 lbs.

Europe and Central Asia recycle and compost almost one-third (31 percent) of their waste, but according to The World Bank, the region has a much higher recycling and composting potential: about three quarters. The percentage of waste collected in the region is quite high: 90 percent. This proportion decreases to 55 percent at the rural level, but instead rises to 96 percent at the urban level.

Latin America and the Caribbean

In 2016, the 638 million inhabitants of the 42 countries of Latin America and the Caribbean produced 231 million tons of waste, a daily average per capita of 2.1 lbs. While the production of waste is higher in island states with a high tourist activity, the beaches of the Caribbean islands are invaded by plastic waste transported by the sea.

At the urban level, in countries such as Uruguay and Colombia the share of waste collection exceeds 95 percent, but in the capital of Haiti, Port-au-Prince, this proportion drops to 12 percent. Regarding garbage collection, the World Bank’s report mentions so-called waste pickers or collectors. While in Cuzco, Peru, there are for example 175, this figure rises to 20,000 in the metropolis of São Paulo, Brazil.

The Middle East and North Africa

The region with the lowest production of waste from around the globe is that of the Middle East and North Africa. The approximately 437 million inhabitants, spread across 21 countries, from Morocco to Iran, generated 129 million tons of waste in 2016, in other words, an average of 1.78 lbs. per person per day.

However, it is expected that this amount will double in the middle of the century, the authors of the report warn. In fact, in the cities of the region the garbage production already reaches a daily average of 3.03 lbs. per capita and in the rich oil states of the Persian Gulf, such as Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, already exceeds 3.3 lbs. per capita. For a comparison: in Morocco, Djibouti and Yemen this figure is less than 1.32 lbs per person per day.

North America

Although the North American region—made up of only three nations: Bermuda, Canada and the USA—has 359 million inhabitants, less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it still produces 14 percent of the planet’s waste: 289 million tons, a daily average of 4.62 lbs. per capita. The disparities are striking: the inhabitants of Seattle, in the State of Washington, generate on average per capita up to 6.9 lbs. of waste per day, while those of the capital of Canada, Ottawa, do not even reach one third of that, in other words, 2.09 lbs.

In the region, about one third of the waste is recycled, about 12 percent incinerated and less than 1 percent composted, but the situation is very different in Bermuda. Being an island nation in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, with a very small area (just 33 sq. miles), a waste-to-energy plant was built in 1994, where 67 percent of waste is incinerated.

South Asia

With a total of 334 million tons of waste, the approximately 1.68 billion inhabitants of South Asia produce an average of 1.14 lbs. of waste every day. Besides the demographic giants India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, this area includes also some very small countries (Bhutan and the Maldives have together 1,2 million inhabitants). This is a very low figure but it is projected to double by the middle of the century, according to The World Bank.

While more than half (57 percent) of the region’s garbage consists of organic waste, about three quarters of the total mass is discharged outdoors or dumped, that is, not properly treated and deposited in controlled landfills. However, projects designed to improve the situation are not lacking. In more than 4,000 cities and rural areas of India, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan initiative was launched in 2014 (translated: “Clean India Mission”). The goal is to clear the streets of garbage and improve the health and hygiene of the country.

Sub-Saharan Africa

The last region is that of sub-Saharan Africa. Composed of 48 countries, including Nigeria (over 190 million inhabitants), and Ethiopia (just over 100 million inhabitants), the region with 1.03 billion inhabitants is the one with the greatest growth. According to projections, more than half of global population growth will occur in this region in 2050.

In 2016, Sub-Saharan Africa produced 174 million tons of waste (that means a daily average of 1.01 lbs. per capita), of which more than two thirds (about 69 percent) are still dumped outdoors. It is expected as a result of population growth and less traditional lifestyles, that the total mass of waste will triple by 2050 in the region.

Waste collectors

The report—in addition to devoting space to various initiatives aimed at reducing “food losses and waste” (FLW) including the French law of 2016 which requires supermarkets with a sales area of ​​almost 4000 sq. ft to donate unsold food to charitable associations, and the BAMX project (Mexican Food Bank)—also focuses on a figure widespread in various regions of the world: waste collectors or waste pickers. For example, in some large cities in Latin America and the Caribbean there are on average almost 4,000 recycling workers.

As the report reveals, to date, more than 15 million people worldwide earn their living informally as waste pickers. This is a “vulnerable” category, often composed of women, children, the elderly, unemployed or migrants. In the cities of Laos, Vientiane, and in Cuzco, Peru, women make up 50 percent and 80 percent respectively of waste collectors.

Thanks to the apostolate of Soeur Emmanuelle among the garbage collectors in the suburbs of Cairo, the world has become aware of the dramatic conditions of life of the zabbalin or scavengers. According to the report, in the Egyptian capital, which now has 10 million inhabitants, about 96,000 informal gatherers still perform their humble and undervalued work, disposing of 10 percent of the city’s waste.

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