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Load of rubbish

Posted 02/08/2012 by cgodfrey

Working out what to do with the world’s growing rubbish mountain is not a job for the fainthearted. A report this week from Washington-based Worldwatch Institute predicts that growing prosperity and urbanisation could double the volume of municipal solid waste (MSW) annually by 2025, to 2.6bn/t year – a level at which environmental and public health officials in the world’s cities will struggle to cope.

Inevitably, the report points out that the bulk of this waste is produced by the planet’s wealthiest nations: the 34 countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) generate a staggering 1.6m t MSW/day – against some 200,000 t/day for sub-Saharan Africa. The US alone has an MSW output of 621,000t/day followed closely on its heels by China – already at 521,000t/day.

Tackling the world’s wastebasket of rubbish has already got under way, with roughly a quarter now diverted to recycling, composting and digestion by bacteria. Recycling in particular has been a major focus, with the recycled share of MSW in the US growing from 10% in 1980 to 34% in 2010 – and similar increases seen in several other developed countries, the report continues.

However, to effectively ‘green’ the waste sector, rates of MSW recycling would need to increase 3.5-fold globally, according to the UN Environment Programme, which puts the current market for waste management, from collection through recycling, at around $400bn worldwide.

Here in the UK, the amount of waste being sent to landfill – traditionally the main disposal route for MSW – has been steadily declining since the introduction of the European Landfill Directive, which requires that no more than 8mt of MSW are landfilled by 2012/13 and 5.5mt by 2019/20. Initiatives such as the Ineos facility to convert MSW into energy in Runcorn, Cheshire, and others like it, are part of the solution, by helping to divert some of the waste burden way from landfill and incineration. However, they don’t go nearly far enough.

If we are to make real inroads, the report highlights the ‘circular economy approach’ already adopted as a national priority in Japan, whereby policies to reduce and reclaim or recycle materials are on track to more than double resource productivity – defined in terms of tons of material used per yen of gross domestic product (GDP) -  by 2025.

And perhaps in the end, with resources already becoming more limited, we all need to get used to the idea of doing more with less.

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