Under the streets of Vancouver lies the Great Marpole Midden, an ancient landfill site once used by the Coast Salish people. The 4,000-year-old dump is a reminder that for as long as humans have existed, we have left behind waste. However, with the global population projected to exceed 11 billion by 2100, new strategies in waste management are needed to address present and future sustainability challenges.
In 2015, the United Nations Environment Programme reported that the global population generates 2 billion tonnes of solid household waste annually, with roughly four times as much commercial, industrial, and construction waste added to that pile each year. Since household waste generation per capita is strongly tied to national income, different countries take different approaches to waste management, often depending on their economic output, or Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Low-income countries (LICs) tend to rely on informal waste collection and community initiatives with lower community coverage than high-income countries (HICs), which often subsidize formal municipal waste collection. LICs also tend to produce more organic waste and less paper waste than HICs, though HICs notably produce more “avoidable” organic waste than LICs. Often lacking formal municipal waste collection, LICs are compelled to innovate new strategies for disposing of hazardous electronic waste, the fastest-growing waste stream in the world. For example, entrepreneurs in Nairobi, Kenya, have partnered with American tech companies to build “e-waste” disposal businesses to safely convert used electronics into raw materials that can be re-used locally or traded globally.
Among the countries with formal waste collection practices, some currently have a limited capacity for technological innovation and instead turn to legislative action to maintain waste management standards. The city of Bogotá, Colombia, uses a formal waste collection system but has worked with informal waste collectors since 1992. That year, Bogotá introduced organizations that protect the legal status of the 20,000+ waste collectors that use hand-pulled and animal-pulled carts to collect the waste that the formal system misses. By establishing standardized wages and improving health and safety conditions for their recyclers, the city has become a success story for improving waste management capacity through inclusivity.
On the other hand, some HICs are able to push the limit of technological innovation by creating a circular economy that reverts waste back into energy and raw materials. A waste management company partially owned by Malmö, Sweden, uses incineration, composting, and biogasification (which uses microbes to create methane from waste) to recover energy from trash that cannot be reused or recycled. This company, Sysav, uses waste to meet 60% of the heating demand in Malmö, create 25,000 tonnes of fertilizer annually, and produce the equivalent of 2 million litres of gasoline in methane.
While national or municipal waste management strategy is usually tied to a country’s GDP, innovative communities have come up with new ideas that expand their ability to manage waste beyond their financial means. It remains to be seen, however, if new ideas for waste management can keep up with the rapidly growing global population. If not, we may be in store for a future where everyone is down in the dumps.
Silpa, K. et al. What a Waste 2.0 : A Global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050. Urban
United Nations Environment Programme. Global Waste Management Outlook. 2015. Retrieved
November 4, 2022, from https://www.unep.org/resources/report/global-waste-management-outlook
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