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Can We Become A Zero Waste Planet? - Facts & Infographic

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Understanding Waste

"Waste includes all items that people no longer have any use for, which they either intend to get rid of or have already discarded" says the European Topic Center on Sustainable Consumption and Production. Often referred to as garbage or trash, waste is collected in most countries and the bulk is sent to landfills where it lies buried for hundreds of years till the waste decomposes completely.

The need for waste to be recycled has been increasingly felt in recent times. High quantities of waste production and the constant demand for raw materials, a space crunch (for more landfills), and the benefits of recycling, have given rise to a more environment-friendly approach to waste disposal. Zero Waste America defines waste as “a resource that is not safely recycled back into the environment or the marketplace”. Traditionally, however, waste includes all material that may be sent to recycling units or for composting. From recycling centers salvaged waste may be sent to manufacturing units to be ploughed back into the production process.


A Look at the US

The US alone produces about 250 million tons of trash each year – the quantity adequate to cover the state of Texas twice. It is estimated that 80% of the trash thrown away in the US is recyclable but only about 28% is sent for recycling. An average American household throws away recyclable paper worth 6 trees each year and as a whole the country sends more than 70 million tons of paper to the trash each year.

In the US, food waste is the largest waste that reaches the landfills. Of the 34 million tons of food that is wasted, a mere 3% is composted. The amount of aluminum in trash produced by the US is adequate to feed the country’s auto industry for an entire year. This is perhaps the reason that almost 66% of all metal waste in the US is recycled.

In all, over 31 million tons of plastics are discarded all over America each year but only 8% is sent for recycling. 8.4% of America’s trash is made up of textiles, garments, and rubber and leather works. Almost 85% of this reaches the landfills and is not recycled or composted. Over 16 million tons of wood are thrown out each year. Over 86% of wood waste in the country is sent to landfills and avoids being recycled.

An International Concern

China – Each year China produces over 254 million tons of trash, only slightly more than the US. China and the US together, account for almost two-third of the garbage production in the world. The situation in China is alarming, though, since the country’s population is pegged at 1.3 billion and landfills in the PRC can hold only 60% of the country’s garbage. The remaining waste is illegally dumped into the ocean.

Lebanon – The major concerns surrounding the subject of garbage or waste are the low rates of composting and recycling. Even a relatively smaller country such as Lebanon, which produces about 1.5 million tons of trash each year, only sees about 8% recycling and 9% composting. Over 51% of the country’s garbage is sent to landfills and the rest dumped into the sea.

Australia – By late 2007, estimates were that Australia was producing over 48 million tons of waste. Reports from 2011, however suggest that well over 14 million tons of garbage was sent for recycling and composting from across Australia. Environmental concerns have triggered a number of salvage drives across the country.

India – Trash management is a major concern in India. The urban regions of the country produce 61 million tons of municipal waste each year and this is expected to go up to 160.5 million tons by 2041. Only about 5% is salvaged for recycling or composting and the rest is dumped into landfills or even into the ocean. Rag pickers and small traders are involved in the miniscule recycling industry but neither the systems for waste management nor recycling and composting are well organized in the country.

Brazil – Compared to most countries, Brazil has a much lower rate of waste production and a much higher recycling rate. The country has a population of slightly less than 20 million and produces about 59 million tons of waste a year. By 2006, over 25% of the Brazilians were sorting their trash and the efforts of the Brazilian legislators in making effective waste management laws have been significant.

UK – Each year the UK produces over 80 million tons of waste. The people and administration of the UK, however, are more concerned with recycling, composting, and salvage of waste than in most parts of the world. By 2010, England alone reported 40% of recycling or composting of waste.

Canada – Canada produces more than 33 million tons of waste each year. 73% of the waste is send to landfills. The remaining garbage is sent to incineration facilities, burnt, or recycled. By 2008, the country saw falling rates of waste sent for disposal and an increase in government expenditure towards waste disposal.

Germany – Germany generates over 30 million tons of waste each year. The country has one of the best waste segregation and recycling systems in the world. Germans are punctilious when it comes to garbage disposal and waste is segregated in the households and collected separately. Over 70% of the waste produced in the country is recovered and reused.


The Cost of Waste

Worldwide, over 100 acres of rain forests are being felled every minute. While it takes a tree about 15 – 20 years to grow but is cut down within 10 minutes. On an average each tree can produce 700 paper bags. In an 8 hour day, an average supermarket is likely to consume well over 5600 such paper bags. Most of these bags do not get recycled, though. In a world grappling with scarcity of fuel and consequently soaring costs, about 100 million barrels of oil go into the production of plastic bags alone.

Over a million marine creatures die each year due to entanglement in waste and garbage and according to Save the North Sea Project a study on 600 fulmar birds revealed that about 95% of them had plastic bags in their stomachs.

Reports from the US estimate that the production of water bottles produced over 3.25 million tons of carbon-dioxide in 2011. The cost of environmental damage as a result of waste is undeniably very high. One of the major concerns faced by most countries is also the lack of space for more landfills.

The disposal of nuclear or radioactive waste is also a major environmental concern. Disposal of nuclear wastes in the oceans is illegal according to many international agreements but still in practice. In many impoverished parts of the world, garbage scourging for food is also a known practice with many adverse side effects.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Apart from landfills, huge quantities of garbage and waste have found their way into our oceans severely affecting marine life. There are about five ‘Garbage Patches’ in the oceans of our world. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch or the Pacific Trash Vortex is perhaps the most popular among these. This vortex of floating garbage has been amassed and is held in place by the North Pacific Gyre - circular currents of the ocean. Located roughly from 135°W to 155°W and 35°N to 42°N, this garbage patch has a very high degree of plastic concentration. This region has been referred to as a Plastic Soup, primarily because the lighter disintegrated plastic objects float up to a depth of 10 meters from the surface and the heavier objects form a layer on the ocean bed. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is estimated to be 6,79,540 sq miles large – over three times the size of Spain and Portugal combined. According to a UN Environment study, there are over 46,000 pieces of floating waste objects for each square mile in this region.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch causes much destruction to marine life. Birds and fishes choke on bits of plastic. Nets and fishing equipment entangle marine animals dragging them down. Apart from this, the carcinogenic effects of marine garbage on fishes and consequently on human beings is being studied by researchers across the world. It is estimated that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has over 100 million tons of garbage, trash, and debris from North America, Asia and Hawaii. Over 80% of it is brought from land by sewer systems but 20% is trash discarded by ships and boats.

The Truth about Plastics

Plastic are among the most the resistant to decomposition. In a landfill, plastic bottles take over 700 years to decompose. Over 50% of the recyclable waste that gets dumped is plastic bottles. Over 1 million sea creatures die each year due to the dumping of plastics in the sea. Over 80% of the plastic bottles used to package water, soda etc are not recycled but plastic bottles account for 90% of the cost of packaged drinking water. On an average, Americans consumes a little less than a billion bottles of water each week and the country dumps almost four-fifth of the 51 billion plastic bottles each year. Here are five easy tips to reduce your plastic consumption –

  • Carry your own bright cloth bag when you shop. Say No to plastic and paper bags at the supermarket and other shops.
  • Use your own silverware – say no to plastic spoons & knives. You may want to leave a set at your workplace.
  • While buying dish soaps and detergents buy boxes not bottles; buy large refill packs for the hand wash and reuse the dispenser.
  • Use a sleek metal lighter which can be refilled instead of a disposable plastic one. Use matches where available.
  • Use cloth diapers. They are inexpensive, reusable, and do not leave diaper rashes – besides reducing your plastic footprint.


Waste Trade – Big Business

Trade in trash or garbage has taken on huge proportions in the world. By 2010 trash came to be regarded as the biggest US export to China. China’s import of scrap metal, electronic waste, and discarded paper went up by 916% between 2000 and 2008. The movie The Trash Trade is a well-documented commentary on salvage of Japanese trash by China to recycle into raw material to feed the production process. The annual turnover of FEAD, the waste management industry of the European Union, is pegged at €75 billion.

Waste Reduction – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle may well be the mantra of the modern world. Active effort on the part of individuals and collective efforts to reduce waste shall be the single deciding factor that determines the future of the world, environmentalists believe. Reusing plastic bottles or containers to grow plants, glass jars for storage, used or printed paper for packaging and many such initiatives are being taken up by environmental protection groups.

It is estimated that almost 70% - 80% of all waste can be recycled. Recycling about 1 ton of plastics is likely to save about 7.4 cubic yards of landfill space. The benefits of recycling go far beyond environmental protection. Recycling helps in saving the constant demand for natural resources. Every pound of aluminum when recycled instead of being dumped reduces the demand for four pounds of bauxite. Segregation of garbage or trash at the time of disposal is an important factor influencing the likelihood of the waste being recycled.

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