When we think of the current environmental concerns, most often climate change or loss of forests come to our minds. As opposed to global warming, something we almost feel every day, the problem with waste is not as obvious. Why? Because it is an “out of sight, out of mind” issue. We go about our daily lives buying groceries, coffee and food to go, etc., consume them, chuck the packaging into a bin and walk away.
How many of us actually give it a thought? Do we know how much waste we generate, what happens to the waste when it leaves our homes, how it is collected and transported, and where it ends up?
In 2015, 1.45kg of waste is generated per person per day, i.e., more than 1.3 million tons of municipal solid waste generated every day in the world and this number is set to double by 2025. Despite significant advancements in recycling technology and years of efficient waste management systems in place, waste continues to be a problem in most countries. Because, the real issue is generation of waste in the first place. And, if waste amounts continue to rise as projected, solving the issue will be a farfetched task!
Waste management is defined as the collection, transportation, separation and treatment of waste. The waste management community has proposed the concept of waste hierarchy. Which as mentioned in the European Union’s Waste Framework Directive stresses on minimization of waste, followed by reuse, recycle, recovery and safe disposal.
If our understanding of the problem is so clear, where are we going wrong? The answer, staring right at our faces – Reckless Consumption! Watching the Story of Stuff, a 20 minutes video that sums it up very well, was a real eye opener for me. According to the author of the book, The Total Beauty of Sustainable Products, nearly 30 tons of waste is generated for every ton of stuff we use. And there’s more to it. Nearly 50% of these products are tossed away in less than 6 months. Even though such studies can only provide approximate numbers, the scale is simply frightening.
A relatively small amount of waste is collected for recycling and only a percentage of that waste is actually recyclable. My work at a community waste management project two years ago made obvious the various challenges in this regard. Improper segregation of waste at source was the single biggest barrier. The reasons for this are lack of know-how and understanding of the importance of segregation among public. Adding to that are products made of different inseparable materials, prints and colours that often reduce recyclability. Which means, such products can only be down-cycled* a few times or maybe just once after which they will also need to be disposed.
Nearly 70% of world’s waste is sent to dump sites and sanitary landfills. Both receive municipal and industrial waste that also contain hazardous waste like toxic chemicals, sanitary and medical waste, and electronic waste.
What goes around comes around…
Leachate, an obnoxious liquid often laden with toxic chemicals, is released from any waste dump sooner or later. When this leachate trickles through the ground, it finds its way easily into ground water systems, affecting fresh water sources, agriculture, aquatic life, etc. Waste dumps are significant causes for emissions of GHGs like carbon dioxide and methane, and other toxic pollutants that deteriorate air quality. Pollutants from waste directly increase health risks due from emissions and indirectly by entering food chain. . Watch this video about the life of a plastic bottle to understand better.
The impacts of waste are enormous and diverse! Waste affects health of human and other life forms, leads to climate change, degrades land and air quality, resource depletion and seriously jeopardizes societies living close to disposal sites.
Waste is an indicator of lifestyles. It is regarded as a by-product of civilization. However, waste ultimately results from individual choices. Throw away culture, fast food and fashion, mindless consumption are major contributors to this epidemic.
Having lived a fairly conscious life myself, when I started noticing the amount of waste I was responsible for, I felt miserable. That is the first step!
By simply carrying a shopping bag instead of getting a new plastic one every time, switching from one time use coffee cups to reusable mugs, giving up on bottled water, choosing durable products and many other such simple yet effective ways one can reduce the amount of waste generated. This new year, take the challenge by making a resolution to erase one wasteful product from your life. Observe the difference it can make.
Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Recycle and first of all, Rethink!
By Snehal Munot
*Downcycling is the process of converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of lesser quality and reduced functionality.