If we look at this planet from space, we can mostly see water and land areas. What we will increasingly see in the future is growing patches of garbage floating in the oceans as 12.7 million tonnes of plastic end up in our oceans each year, the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” being one of the biggest accumulations.

But not only the sea suffers from the increasing pollution of plastic. In many parts of the world, waste is openly dumped as no waste collection or waste disposal system exists.

Waste Generation

At the centre of this problem is the increasing amount of garbage that is produced worldwide. The 2018 World Bank report What a Waste 2.0: A Global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050, which presents an objective and global overview on data and trends on waste, estimates a global waste generation of 3.40 billion tons per year in 2050, compared to today’s 2.01 billion tons. A positive correlation between waste generation and income level indicates that the problem is going to be more severe in low- and middle-income countries. For high-income countries the increase of waste generation is projected to be “only” 19% by 2050, as great efforts are taken to reduce waste. Furthermore, economic development has reached a peak at which the consumption of materials is not as strongly linked to the gross domestic product growth anymore. For low- and middle-income countries the increase is estimated to be 40% or more. The problem is especially pressing in regions like East Asia and Pacific and sub-Saharan Africa, as growth in economic activity as well as population are at the root of the increase in waste generation.

In absolute numbers, the East Asia and Pacific region is generating most of the world’s waste (23%). However, on an individual base, the highest amount of waste generated per capita is in North America, Europe and Central Asia, with more than 1 kg per day.

As waste generation in South Asia and the Middle East and North Africa is expected to double, and even triple in sub-Saharan Africa by 2050, one fatal factor is that in these regions, more than half of waste is currently openly dumped. Without a properly functioning waste collection and disposal system, there will be severe implications for the environment, health and prosperity.

Waste Collection and Disposal

Waste collection is usually done by collecting on a door-to-door basis with a truck or some other vehicle, or by inhabitants bringing their waste to some form of central collection point. This is a basic service that most municipalities provide locally.

In high-income countries collection rates amount to about 96%, compared to 39%in low-income countries. At the top of the list is North America, with a rate of 100%, followed by Europe and Central Asia with 90%. The lowest collection rates are round in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa at 44%.

After collecting the waste from households or local collection points, it has to be transported to some sort of disposal site. Currently, most waste on this planet is dumped openly or disposed of in some form of a landfill, although more and more governments recognize the dangers and costs of this practise. Only 19% of global waste is recovered through recycling and composting, and 11% are incinerated.

Waste disposal practices also differ greatly by income level and region. In low-income countries, for example, open dumping is more frequently done, because landfills are not yet available in many areas. Appropriate waste disposal or treatment like controlled landfills or other operated facilities can almost only be found in high- and upper-middle-income countries. Incineration is a method that is used mostly in countries with high income or which are constrained in the space they have available.

Show me your waste and I’ll tell you…

But what do we actually throw away? The way our waste is compounded is related to the income level in our country. For all income levels, the highest portion of waste is food and greens. While this amounts to 56% of total waste generation in low-income countries, it is only 32% in high-income countries. But it illustrates the global problem of food loss and waste (FLW). Not only is around 30% of all food globally wasted, but also the resources used to produce the food, including land, water, labour and energy. Even the greenhouse gases that are transmitted in production and distribution are basically wasted in vain.

Through the composition of waste, the difference in consumption is reflected. In high-income countries, the waste consists of more dry materials that can more easily be recycled, like plastic, paper, cardboard, metal and glass. Together they amount to 51% of waste. The fraction of recyclable materials in low-income countries accounts to only 16% of total waste.


Where are we going from here?

Over the last few years, since the last report from the World Bank in 2012, some positive trends have been identified. A change in the composition of waste in low-income countries shows changes in consumption patterns as the share of organic waste has fallen from 64% to 56%. A rise in the collection of waste from 22% to 39% was noted in low-income countries as well, indicating that the countries indeed increasingly see the urgency to make waste collection a higher priority.

Globally speaking, an overall trend of increased recycling and composting was identified as well. As we reflect for ourselves, hardly a day goes by without some kind of information or call to action on plastic reduction and recycling reaches us via social media. There is an increasing amount of resources intended to help us tackle this challenge. But this should not be the end. The need for action indeed starts at the individual level, but needs to aim higher as well, reaching government levels and policy makers.

With Global Pioneers, we want to make a step towards a joint force in recycling and waste management. We want to identify great ideas in countries that may not yet be known for their efforts in recycling and help them apply these ideas to other countries.

Tell us about your idea and be part of Global Pioneers!