A global garbage crisis is looming – it is time to rethink our production and consumption habits worldwide. Last year, driving in a heavy rain storm over the hills of the Amalfi peninsula north into Naples, we found ourselves not only fording impromptu rivers as the drains overflowed, but also the mountains of garbage that the rain had dislodged. The garbage crisis has been growing for years in Naples and has now reached the point where Italian citizens are taking to the street in violent demonstrations, against the situation and a new dump proposed near the residential area of Terzigno at the foot of Mount Vesuvius.
As Silvio Berlusconi and his advisors call crisis talks today, it is worth remembering that the situation in Naples has been going on for years, and that Berlusconi declared waste a national crisis in 2008. While that is not much help for Naples residents who walk through tons of uncollected garbage and fear the health risks and smells from dumps located near their homes, their situation is a stark reminder of a growing, often ignored, challenge worldwide as waste increases faster than our ability to handle it.
By the mid-2030s we will likely demand twice the amount of resources that the planet can supply (Source: Global Footprint Network). A rapidly growing global population and rising incomes in many parts of the world means more people, consuming more resources: Food, water, energy, as well as goods and services. The increasing demand for resources and consumption also means increasing waste problems, along with huge, negative environmental impact as waste disposal and recycling infrastructure cannot keep up. With an estimated growth rate of 1.3% per annum, the OECD area’s 1.4 billion residents are estimated to be generating 660 million tonnes per year of municipal waste by 2030. But this is a small part of waste generated globally, which the OECD estimated in 2002 to be 4.4 billion tonnes per annum. (Note: Waste figures are difficult to estimate as many countries do not report and standards are lacking.)
It’s not just on land where the problems of waste disposal hit. The seas are becoming the world’s largest garbage dump. Marine waste has a significant impact on the environment, e.g. degradation of coastlines and destruction of marine habitats such as coral reefs along with biodiversity, economic impacts including the cost of clean-ups and reduction of tourism, as well as negative health impacts. Consider these facts from the UNEP:
- About 6.4 million tonnes of marine litter is disposed of in the oceans and seas each year.
- Some 8 million items of marine litter are dumped in oceans and seas every day, approximately 5 million of which (solid waste) are thrown overboard or lost from ships.
- Over 13,000 pieces of plastic litter are floating on every square kilometer of ocean today.
The challenges are not just confined to the developed world. Despite lower per capita wealth and consumption, rapidly developing economies are also battling waste and associated environmental challenges. In 2005, the World Bank reported that China had surpassed the United States as the world’s largest municipal solid waste (MSW) generator. In 2004 the urban areas of China generated about 190 million tonnes of MSW and by 2030 this amount is projected to be at least 480 million tonnes. In addition, China imports large quantities of waste to generate raw materials for its industries, with the quantity of e-waste and other hazardous wastes growing significantly in the last two decades. No country has ever experienced as large, or as rapid, an increase in waste generation, the management of which will have huge implications for the country’s public spending budgets, as well as its environment and public health, as both land and waterways become increasingly polluted.
What’s the solution? Beyond the evident need for cleaning up, there is clearly a greater need for public awareness of the looming waste crisis, along with coordinated action on the part of citizens, businesses and governments to tackle the root causes of the issue. We all need to get a lot smarter about doing more with less, and recycling the waste we create. It’s not a question of being green or sustainable, it is about widespread behavior change based on a recognition of the risks of doing nothing – in terms of resources, health and the environment which our children will inherit. The planet is only going to become more crowded until we reach the estimated tipping point around 2050 when the global population is expected to decrease. In the meantime, we will add an estimated 2.2 billion more people – all creating waste.
Waste not, want not.* Time to rethink your recycling, packaging and consumption footprint…
*An English proverbial saying, first recorded in 1772, meaning that wise use of resources (i.e. not wasting resources) means you will not be in need (i.e. lacking resources).