The Washington Post
a world of waste
The mounting problem that’s impossible to ignore
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.