Waste Management: How to Handle the Waste We Produce

Waste Management: Why we should not only focus on zero waste, but also on how to handle the waste we do produce.

By Susanne van Gendt

While going zero waste is becoming more and more popular, the trash-avoiding movement leaves behind a majority of the population that is less preoccupied with their waste. Although some people may be intimidated by the zero waste movement and its restrictions, those of us without the ability to ‘go zero’ can also do their part. Even more so; every bit of waste avoided helps, since the world has become a crowded place.

In April 2019, the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations estimated that the world population has reached 7.7 billion people. Their medium-variant projection indicates that the global population could grow to around 8.5 billion in 2030, 9.7 billion in 2050 and a staggering 10.9 billion in 2100. Unfortunately, the growth of our population brings another dangerous development to the table: an enormous amount of waste being produced.

According to the World Bank’s report What a Waste 2.0: A Global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050, the world is expected to generate 3.4 billion tons of waste on an annual basis in 2050, a drastic increase from the annual 2.0 billion tons that were produced in 2018. World Bank researchers Daniel Hoornweg, Perinaz Bhada-Tata and Chris Kennedy warn that waste reduction will be outpaced by population growth and urbanization without drastic action. Using business-as-usual projections they predict that by 2100, solid waste generation rates will exceed 11 million tonnes per day – more than three times the rate in 2013.

Volunteer working in landfill
The Jardim Gramacho landfill, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

One of the key factors of the waste management problem is that the responsibility for solid waste management operations is typically controlled on a local level in most countries. That is, if solid waste management operations are controlled at all, as only about 70 percent of countries have established institutions that are responsible for policy development and regulatory oversight in the waste sector. That leaves an amount of nearly 30 percent of countries where waste management is not in control.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that adequate disposal or treatment of waste, is almost solely within reach for high- and upper-middle-income countries, such as through kerbside collection or dumpster rental. In lower-income countries it is most common to openly dump the waste, which happens to 93 percent of waste in those countries, as compared to a mere 2 percent in high-income countries. So in which countries is waste actually sufficiently managed? Let’s start by looking at the different angles on waste management across the globe. 

For EU Member States, the drawing up of a waste management plan is an obligation and is required by Article 28 of the Waste Framework Directive. The Directive sets recycling and recovery targets to be achieved by 2020: 50% of certain household waste should be prepared for re-use and recycling and 70% of construction and demolition waste should be re-used, recycled or recovered. Besides the introduction of a waste management plan, a waste prevention program should be adopted by all Member States.

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates household, industrial, solid and hazardous wastes under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Its Solid Waste Program encourages states to develop comprehensive waste management plans and sets criteria for solid waste disposal facilities, while prohibiting the open dumping of solid waste.

According to Chapter 15 of the in 2017 published book Sustainable Asia, Sustainable Societies and Municipal Solid Waste in Southeast Asia by C. Curea, many Asian countries have waste management policies in place, but those efforts are typically fragmented and therefore not easy to coordinate. In contrary to waste management policies in EU and US, Asian waste management policies focus mostly on downstream solutions (i.e. disposal fees) instead of on re-use and recycling of materials. The fragmentation of waste management systems is also shown in the Regional Study on Mercury Waste Management in the ASEAN countries, that was published in 2017 and supervised by the International Environmental Technology Centre of the United Nations. The study focuses on the different mercury (i.e. light bulbs, thermometers, medical equipment) waste management systems and practices of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Phillippines, Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam.

Meanwhile in China, waste management couldn’t be more in motion than it is today. According to a statement published by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment of the People’s Republic of China in 2019, China is in the process of revising its Solid Waste Law. The statement followed an earlier publication (2018) which stated that China is intensifying their waste management and recycling systems at this very moment. They aim to have carried out mandatory garbage sorting by the end of 2020 in 46 cities. Shanghai was the first city to be faced with the new policy that took effect on July 1, 2019.

Australia – while currently facing one of its worst wildfire seasons in history – believes that management of waste is primarily the responsibility of state and territory governments. Those governments need to regulate and manage waste according to their legislation, policies and programs. On a national level, the National Waste Policy is in place, that was updated in 2018 to put more focus on recyclable waste and the circular economy as a whole.

Now that we’ve mapped the waste management policies and legislations around the globe, that leaves us with an important question: how much waste do we actually produce worldwide?

According to Eurostat’s Municipal waste statistics, 486 kg of municipal waste were generated per capita in the EU in 2017 with 46,3 percent of waste being recycled (material recycling and composting) in the same year.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency reported 4.51 pounds/day of municipal waste were generated per capita in the US in 2017, which converts to 747 kg based on the whole year. Of the municipal solid waste that was generated in total that year (267.8 million tons), 67 million tons were recycled and 27 million tons composted.

According to the United Nations report Waste Management in ASEAN countries that was published in 2017, the per capita municipal solid waste generation was 1.14 kg/day, which converts to 416 kg based on the whole year. Of those countries, Indonesia generated the highest quantity of municipal waste with 64 million tons per year, while Laos generated the lowest quantity at 0.07 million tons per year. At the moment it’s not possible to put a number on the amount of waste being recycled, as in most ASEAN countries recycling takes place in the informal sector.

Zooming in on China, South China Morning Post reports that, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics (which has not published those numbers at the moment of writing) the country generated 215 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2017, which is equal to 0.72 kg/day per urban resident (note: not per capita), which then converts into 263 kg based on the whole year. They aim to have 35 percent of waste recycled by 2020, but have not disclosed current recycle rates. However, the Chinese economic data system is quite complex and its reliability has been an ongoing topic of discussion for years, specifically in relation to GDP and economic growth reports.

In Australia, 13.8 million tons of municipal solid waste were generated in 2017 by households and local government activities, which comes down to 560 kg per capita, reports the Australian government in their National Waste Report 2018. This is equal to 1.53 kg/day. Of all waste that was generated, 58% was recycled across Australia in 2016-2017. However, the report does not go into detail about the exact recycle rate of generated municipal solid waste and only reports an increase of 1.5 million tons of municipal solid waste being recycled over the last 11 years (until 2016-17). This comes down to about 11% per capita.

Indication of waste management by country
Image Credit: Eunomia

Now that we have looked at the waste management legislation and policies and recycle rates across the globe, it seems like Europe is still leading in terms of recycle rates. Let’s take a closer look at a few countries that are seen as an example. Germany for instance, has the world’s best recycle rate of municipal solid waste (56,1%), according to a report published by Eunomia in 2017, which is the most recent report on a global scale. Austria comes in second (53,8%) with South Korea (53,7%) and Wales 52,2% not too far from that. According to the report we should be paying special attention to Wales, who could be outperforming Germany’s recycle rates by 2018 due to their ambitious waste management targets; they aim to achieve zero waste by 2050. According to the report Local Authority Municipal Waste Management 2018-19, published by the Government of Wales, the country reached a recycle rate of 62,8% in 2018-2019. So did Wales actually outperform Germany? We can only wait to find out, as no new numbers of Germany’s recycle rate have been released yet.

When focusing on recycling methods around Wales, we found out that the systems across the country seem to vary, with 5 out of the 22 councils adopting a co-mingled method, which means all general recycling is put into one container before collection. The remaining 17 councils have separated kerb-side collections. Some households even have up to ten containers in order to separate plastic, paper, cardboard, glass, metal, textiles, small electrical items, food waste, garden waste and nappies. Because the separated kerb-side collection system can be quite extensive, not all residents are fan of the newly introduced method, reports the BBC in their article Recycle: why do collections vary around Wales?

In Germany, waste is typically divided into different colored bins in order to dispose of plastic, paper, food waste, garden and park waste and remaining household waste. Bulky waste is collected from the kerb-side. Besides that, small amounts of other wastes (metals, textiles) and small electronic waste are also separately disposed, reports the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety in their report Waste Management in Germany 2018. Germany is also known for their waste prevention system, as they have an extensive deposit return scheme for bottles and cans.

For more information: Simple Germany has a fantastic guide on how to separate trash in Germany.

Besides following laws and regulations, some countries and/or cities have come up with extraordinary interesting and creative waste management ideas. A few examples:

  • In Osaka, Japan, a huge amount of the generated waste is burnt in high-tech plants that use the heat to produce electricity for over 125.000 of their households. The remaining ash, which is about 5 percent of its original volume, is used for a variety of purposes, from building artificial islands to ash landfills being turned into a solar park, the UN environment programme reports in ‘Solid approach to waste: how 5 cities are beating pollution’.
  • The same article names Penang, Malaysia as another good example, where the leftovers at food stalls of its bustling Chowrasta food market are turned into fertilizer for use on farmers’ fields by Bio Regen food processing machines.
  • According to the World Bank blog ‘From plastic to pavement: another example of creative waste management’, various cities in India use plastic waste to create roads, with replacing up to 15% of more expensive bitumen with plastic waste in the mix to lay pavement.
  • Meanwhile in Rome, Italy, people are able to buy metro tickets with the collection of plastic bottles. The Recicli + Viaggi initiative enables citizens to get EUR 0.05 off their next journey for every plastic bottle they recycle. Special machines collect and compact the bottles and add the credit to the user’s metro travel application, reports the World Economic Forum in their article ‘In Rome you can swap plastic bottles for metro tickets’.
  • In Paraguay, the talented children of the Orchestra of Recycled Instruments of Cateura constructed musical instruments from recycled materials, reports the World Bank in their article ‘From garbage to music: inspiring creative waste management’. If you are curious to hear what their music sounds like, the orchestra can be found on Youtube.

Those inspiring ideas leave an important question: how can we as individuals easily improve waste management in our own household, taking the leading examples into account?

  • Groceries: it all comes down to being adequately prepared when going shopping. Write down the groceries you will be needing in the next week a few days before you start shopping, and note how each item is packaged. Start by defining the items that are wrapped in single-use plastic and try to find alternatives. For instance: if you are used to buying cheese in supermarkets, buy containers to store your cheese in, bring them to your weekly market or farmers market, and ask the vendor to not wrap the cheeses, but simply to put them in your box. A sustainable net bag can store fruit and vegetables you pick up at the market, while cling film used for protecting (open) foods and vegetables in your fridge can be replaced by organic bee wax wrappers. For buying bread, use a reusable and eco-friendly bread bag that you bring to your bakery. Ingredients like rice, pasta, flour and oils are usually available at package free stores. Metal containers and glass bottles do the job of storing. If there’s no package free store near you, try to find the stuff at a local market, farmer’s market or mini market near you.
  • The same principle goes for personal care: if there is a package free store near your house, you can usually pick up sustainable cosmetics from there. For instance, shampoo and conditioner bars and toothpaste tablets are commonly available in stores like these. If you like to use liquid soap and shampoo, you can usually get those without packaging from the same store; just use glass jars for storage. Laundry detergent and other household items go into metal reusable containers or glass bottles. You can also check out in this guide to eco-friendly disinfectants.
  • If you happen to travel or commute a lot, make sure to have your travel essentials with you whenever you leave your house. A basic travel kit could hold a reusable coffee cup, bamboo straw, reusable cutlery and a foldable food container.
  • Vermiculture is the keyword when you want to take your efforts one step further and help compost the organic food waste you have produced. Vermiculture means the using of earthworms to convert organic waste into fertilizer. This way you can create your own worm hotel. The United States Environmental Protection Agency points out what you might need for this in How to create and maintain an indoor worm composting bin, but there’s more creative ideas around. Find a more complete guide to composting here.
  • If you like to wear something new every now and then, look for second hand clothing stores, or just simply store a part of your wardrobe away for a season, and rotate every few months. You will see that you’ll appreciate the stored-away clothes much more after they’ve been away for a while. Another idea would be to organise a clothing swap moment with a few friends. This way you don’t even need to buy in order to wear something new.
  • Swapping also works with furniture or home accessories; simply organise a moment and invite some friends. If your own place is not big enough to host the event, check if one of your friends has a garage or storage room available that you can use. This way, you not only avoid packaging of large items, but also the whole furniture production chain, which often involves factories abroad (in low income countries) and international shipping. If the swapping idea is not feasible, look for online marketplaces to sell or buy second hand. Make sure to pick one in your country, ideally which (re)sellers near you, to avoid unsustainable shipping methods.