What a waste!

What a waste!

While many First World countries are doing an exceptional job of managing their waste, some countries in the BRICS group (comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) are, quite literally, drowning in their waste. And, as CHARLEEN CLARKE reports, the problem is only going to get worse…

We really are a messy, wasteful species. According to the World Bank, cities are currently generating about 1,3-billion tonnes of solid waste per year. This is expected to increase to 2,2-billion tonnes by 2025.

It costs an awful lot to manage this waste – and these costs will rise exponentially. “Globally, solid-waste management costs will increase from today’s annual $205,4 billion (R2 941 billion) to about $375,5 billion (R5 377 billion) in 2025.

Cost increases will be most severe in low-income countries (more than five-fold increases) and lower-middle income countries (more than four-fold increases),” reveals Rachel Kyte, vice president and head of network, sustainable development, at the World Bank.

Of course, waste management (or a lack thereof) doesn’t only have financial implications. “The global impacts of solid waste are growing fast. Solid waste is a large source of methane; a powerful greenhouse gas that is particularly impactful in the short-term. Uncollected solid waste contributes to flooding, air pollution, and public health impacts such as respiratory ailments, diarrhoea and dengue fever,” Kyte contends.

Which countries are the biggest culprits when it comes to waste generation? According to the World Economic Forum, small island nations produce the most municipal solid waste (MSW).

These include Trinidad and Tobago (14,40 kg/capita/day), Antigua and Barbuda (5,5 kg) and St. Kitts and Nevis (5,45 kg), Sri Lanka (5,10 kg), Barbados (4,75 kg), St Lucia (4,35 kg) and the Solomon Islands (4,30 kg). Guyana (5,33 kg) and Kuwait (5,72 kg) also score highly. The worldwide average is 1,2 kg.

New Zealand (3,68 kg), Ireland (3,58 kg), Norway (2,80 kg), Switzerland (2,61 kg) and the United States (2,58 kg) are the top five producers in the developed world.

While these countries generate a lot of MSW per capita, it is emerging countries with high populations that are the biggest problem. Take India, for instance, which generates a whopping 14-million tonnes of garbage each and every day – and the management thereof is woefully inadequate (83 percent of that waste is collected, but only 29 percent is treated).

In fact, the Hindustan Times claims that Mumbai is “fast becoming one huge garbage dump”. Ironically, municipal rules in Mumbai state that residents must separate their waste – but then it ends up all being dumped in the same landfill anyway…

Sudhakar Yedla, professor at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, says India’s situation is unusual. “Traditionally, less economically developed countries suffer from poor-quality waste management services, due to their lack of infrastructure, but their waste generation rates are usually low and, hence, issues related to scale do not tend to arise.

“On the other hand, richer economies enjoy very efficient waste-management services, owing to their superior infrastructure and community awareness of sustainability issues, but they grapple with issues of scale, including problems such as scarcity of land for disposal and disposal technologies.

“India suffers from both inefficient waste infrastructure and increasing rates of solid waste generation per capita, due, in part, to the country’s service-sector-driven economic growth,” he notes.

However, the situation in India is far from unique. In China, municipal solid-waste collection surged from 31-million tonnes in 1980, to 157-million tonnes in 2009, to a projected 585-million tonnes by 2030, triggered by rapid urbanisation and population growth.

China is also doing a spectacular job of polluting our oceans. Along with Indonesia, it is responsible for more than a third of the plastic bottles, bags and other detritus washed out to sea.

Judy Li, a Princeton-in-Asia fellow with Natural Resources Defense Council, Beijing’s China Sustainable Cities Programme, explains that the growth in waste is indicative of a changing lifestyle.

“The massive shifts to consumerist lifestyles by millions of Chinese have produced tremendous quantities of waste, while underdeveloped public waste management services have become severely stressed,” she explains.

Sadly, separated waste faces the same fortune as in Mumbai. “Currently, Chinese urban waste-management services generally collect unsorted MSW to be disposed of in landfills or waste incinerators around the periphery of the city, or further out into the countryside.

“Even if separate bins are available for recyclable and non-recyclable waste, government waste services do not have the capacity to operate a recycling system; the separated waste is bundled together into one truck all the same,” she tells SHEQ MANAGEMENT.

Brazil has huge waste-management challenges, too; recycling is very limited and some 42 percent of waste is deposited in sites that lack the systems and procedures necessary to protect the environment against damage and degradation. Despite all legal determinations and efforts, improper disposal continues to be common practice throughout Brazil.

Russia also has waste-management woes; in fact, it is considered to be one of the most critical economic and environmental problems in Russia. MSW treatment in Russia is inefficient; 92 to 96 percent of MSW is neither recycled nor re-used, but simply transported to landfills or piled in illegal dumps.

MSW also remains a significant challenge in South Africa, where only ten percent of waste is recycled. The most recent figures from the Department of Environmental Affairs pertain to 2011 and it states that the country generated approximately 108-million tonnes of waste that year.

A whopping 98-million tonnes were disposed of at landfills. As is the case in many other BRICS countries, the country needs to move away from landfills (even though they appear to be the most cost-effective proposition).

So there you have it; if there is one thing that BRICS countries have in common, it’s a problem with their waste. Of course, looking forward, this problem could always be turned into an opportunity.

According to market analyst Grand View Research, the global market for turning rubbish into power is expected to reach US$ 37,64 billion (around R542 billion) by 2020. So maybe, in the future, our tonnes of rubbish won’t be a real waste after all…

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