Kadir van Lohuizen writes: Since early 2016, I have traveled to six major cities around the world (Jakarta, Tokyo, Lagos, New York, Sao Paulo and Amsterdam) to investigate how they manage — or mismanage — their waste. There are some remarkable differences. And a question emerges: Is this just garbage, or is it a resource?
The world generates at least 3.5 million tons of solid waste a day, 10 times the amount a century ago, according to World Bank researchers. If nothing is done, that figure will grow to 11 million tons by the end of the century, the researchers estimate. On average, Americans throw away their own body weight in trash every month. In Japan, meanwhile, the typical person produces only two-thirds as much. It’s difficult to find comparable figures for the trash produced by mega-cities. But clearly, New York generates by far the most waste of the cities I visited: People in the broader metropolitan area throw away 33 million tons per year, according to a report by a global group of academics published in 2015 in the journal of the National Academy of Sciences. That’s 15 times the Lagos metropolitan area, their study found.
With a sharp increase in the world population and many economies growing, we are producing more waste then ever. In Europe and the United States our trash is largely invisible once it’s tossed; in other parts of the world it is more obvious, in the form of waste dumps, sometimes in the middle of cities.
Dumps are a problem because they release methane, a potent greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere. Burning trash outdoors is also harmful, to the environment and people’s health.
Landfills and waste dumps are quickly filling up — with many of the largest receiving on average 10,000 tons of waste per day.
As a country becomes richer, the composition of its waste changes — more packaging, electronic components, broken toys and appliances, and relatively less organic material.
New York and San Francisco now have a goal of “zero waste” to be achieved by a reduction in trash and more recycling, but they still have a long way to go. In New York, plastic shopping bags are still provided in almost every store. The world produces over 300 million tons of plastic each year, of which only a small fraction is recycled.
By 2050, there will be so much plastic floating in the ocean it will outweigh the fish, according to a study issued by the World Economic Forum. Scientists estimate that there are at least 5.25 trillion plastic particles — weighing nearly 270,000 tons — floating in the oceans right now. [Continue reading…]