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Our thoughtless throwaway culture

It’s a well-publicised topic: Mountains of waste are swamping the planet and the solutions are neither sufficiently comprehensive nor dynamic. It appears certain that within 30 years, solid waste will increase by 70%, with severe economic and environmental consequences.


María Julia Mayoral


This projection comes from a study by the World Bank (WB), whose report, What a waste 2.0: A Global snapshot of solid waste management to 2050, supports the causes for alarm. United Nations agencies, non-governmental organisations, scientists and authorities in a number of countries are also calling for urgent containment measures and changes to production and consumption patterns.

According to WB estimates, waste generation caused by rapid urbanisation and population growth, could rise from 2.01 billion tonnes in 2016, to 3.40 billion tonnes by 2050.

Although high-income countries only account for 16% of the global population, they generate more than a third (34%) of the world’s waste, the report warns.

It predicts that by 2050, waste generation in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia will more than triple and double, respectively, compared to present rates.

Plastic waste management is a particularly concerning issue, as the high resistance of plastics prolongs their potential polluting effects on land-based and marine ecosystems. According to the report, in 2016, 242 million tonnes of plastic waste were generated, accounting for 12% of global solid waste.

Australian scientists Denise Hardesty and Chris Wilcox estimate that there are nearly 7.5 million plastic drinking straws along the United States’ coastlines, based on litter collected from the country’s beaches over a five-year period. They calculate that there are between 437 million and 8.3 billion straws littering the world’s shorelines; and that’s just one small example.

According to Hardesty, seabirds can consume up to 8% of their body weight in plastic, which for humans “is equivalent to the average woman having the weight of two babies in her stomach.”

For every half kilogram of plankton in the sea, there are three kilograms of plastics. The UK-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation warns that there are 18,000 pieces of floating plastic waste per square kilometre.

On average, in high-income countries more than a third of waste is recovered through recycling and composting, while in low-income countries the proportion hovers around the 4% mark.

The WB has said that in 2016 alone, waste treatment and disposal released 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere, or around 5% of global emissions.

According to WB Vice President for Sustainable Development, Laura Tuck, “unfortunately, it is often the poorest in society who are adversely impacted by inadequate waste management. It doesn’t have to be this way. Our resources need to be used and then reused continuously so that they don’t end up in landfills.”

The WB believes that it is essential to build a circular economy, in which products are designed and optimised to be reused and recycled. This would ensure the efficient use of resources and minimise environmental impact.

Assessments by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) insist that smart recycling is key to tackling this problem, at a time when electronic waste is also tending to increase.

“In our thoughtless throwaway culture, this may not seem like a big deal. It is. The metals and other materials studded in the Earth’s crust are not finite, yet we throw them away like they are. Coffee machines, fridges, electric cables, computers, televisions and old analogue radios are piling up in landfills across the world,” the UN agency has said. The challenge of reusing, recycling and adequately disposing of electronic waste is huge, and it will keep on growing on a global scale – be it in the private sector or in individual households.

“We need to think carefully about, and implement solutions for, e-waste as we continue to benefit more and more from electronic goods and services,” it adds.

United Nations research shows that between 60% and 90% of electronic waste is illegally traded or dumped, often with the involvement of transnational criminal gangs.

Research by the International Resource Panel demonstrates that recycling rates are consistently low. Of the 60 metals studied, only a third have a recycling rate above 50%, and the marker was below 1% for 34 of the elements included in the study. (PL)

(Translated by Rebecca Ndhlovu – Email: – Photos: Pixabay

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