The Washington Post

a world of waste

The mount­ing prob­lem that’s im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore

- STORY AND PHOTOS BY KADIR VAN LOHUIZEN • NOOR

Since early 2016, I have trav­eled to six ma­jor cities around the world (Jakarta, Tokyo, Lagos, New York, Sao Paulo and Am­s­ter­dam) to in­ves­ti­gate how they man­age — or mis­man­age — their waste. There are some re­mark­able dif­fer­ences. And a ques­tion emerges: Is this just garbage, or is it a re­source? ¶ The world gen­er­ates at least 3.5 mil­lion tons of solid waste a day, 10 times the amount a cen­tury ago, ac­cord­ing to World Bank re­searchers. If prac­tices aren’t changed, that fig­ure will grow to 11 mil­lion tons by the end of the cen­tury, the re­searchers es­ti­mate. On av­er­age, Amer­i­cans throw away their own body weight in trash ev­ery month. In Ja­pan, mean­while, the typ­i­cal per­son pro­duces only twothirds as much. It’s dif­fi­cult to find com­pa­ra­ble fig­ures for the trash pro­duced by mega-cities. But clearly, New York gen­er­ates by far the most waste of the cities I vis­ited: Peo­ple in the broader metropoli­tan area throw away 33 mil­lion tons per year, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by a global group of aca­demics pub­lished in 2015 in the jour­nal of the Na­tional Academy of Sci­ences. That’s 15 times the Lagos metropoli­tan area, their study found. ¶ With a sharp in­crease in the world pop­u­la­tion and many economies grow­ing, we are pro­duc­ing more waste than ever. In Europe and the United States our trash is largely in­vis­i­ble once it’s tossed; in other parts of the world it is more eas­ily seen in waste dumps, some­times in the mid­dle of cities.

Dumps are a prob­lem be­cause they re­lease meth­ane, a po­tent green­house gas that traps heat in the at­mos­phere. Burn­ing trash out­doors is also harm­ful, to the en­vi­ron­ment and peo­ple’s health.

Land­fills and waste dumps are quickly fill­ing up — with many of the largest re­ceiv­ing on av­er­age 10,000 tons of waste per day.

As a coun­try be­comes richer, the com­po­si­tion of its waste changes — more pack­ag­ing, elec­tronic com­po­nents, bro­ken toys and ap­pli­ances, and rel­a­tively less or­ganic ma­te­rial.

New York and San Fran­cisco now have a goal of “zero waste” to be achieved by a re­duc­tion in trash and more re­cy­cling, but they still have a long way to go. In New York, plas­tic shop­ping bags are still pro­vided in al­most ev­ery store. The world pro­duces over 300 mil­lion tons of plas­tic each year, of which only a small frac­tion is re­cy­cled.

By 2050, there will be so much plas­tic float­ing in the ocean it will out­weigh the fish, ac­cord­ing to a study is­sued by the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum. Sci­en­tists es­ti­mate that there are at least 5.25 tril­lion plas­tic par­ti­cles — weigh­ing nearly 270,000 tons — float­ing in the oceans right now.

On av­er­age, a per­son in the United States or Western Europe uses about 220 pounds of plas­tic per year, ac­cord­ing to the World­watch In­sti­tute, a re­search or­ga­ni­za­tion. The pack­ag­ing in­dus­try, grow­ing thanks to the rise of on­line stores and other

fac­tors, poses a huge chal­lenge.

About one-third of the food pro­duced in the world gets thrown away or oth­er­wise wasted, ac­cord­ing to U.N. data. The Dutch toss out the equiv­a­lent of over 400,000 loaves of bread per day, on av­er­age. The United States wastes by far the most food, due in part to fast-food restau­rants at which em­ploy­ees and con­sumers dump un­sold items or left­overs.

Most waste in Africa, the United States and Asia ends up in dumps, many of which are al­ready at ca­pac­ity. Europe sends less of its waste to dumps or land­fills and more to in­cin­er­a­tors. While some of them are rel­a­tively clean, many are a threat to the en­vi­ron­ment and pub­lic health. Tokyo has more than 20 garbage in­cin­er­a­tors in the metropoli­tan area. The city says they are not haz­ardous to pub­lic health, be­cause they burn mostly or­ganic ma­te­rial and use an ad­vanced sys­tem to fil­ter out dam­ag­ing gases.

But if the world is not pre­pared to think about waste re­duc­tion and ac­tu­ally treat garbage as a re­source, fu­ture gen­er­a­tions will drown in their own waste.

About the author Kadir van Lohuizen is an Am­s­ter­dam-based free­lance pho­to­jour­nal­ist and found­ing mem­ber of the so­cial doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phy agency Noor. For videos and more photos, go to wapo.st/global-waste.

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 ??  ?? The metropoli­tan area of Jakarta, In­done­sia, is home to about 31 mil­lion peo­ple. Most of Jakarta’s waste ends up at Ban­tar Ge­bang, one of the big­gest land­fills in the world. It cov­ers more than 270 acres and re­ceives over 6,000 tons of trash per day....
The metropoli­tan area of Jakarta, In­done­sia, is home to about 31 mil­lion peo­ple. Most of Jakarta’s waste ends up at Ban­tar Ge­bang, one of the big­gest land­fills in the world. It cov­ers more than 270 acres and re­ceives over 6,000 tons of trash per day....

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