Global waste will double unless circular economy becomes priority

Global municipal solid waste arisings are set to double by 2025 unless materials are incorporated into a circular economy approach whereby they are reclaimed or recovered.

The stark warning from Worldwatch Institute stems from fears that fast-growing levels of prosperity and urbanisation will lead to huge volumes of municipal solid waste (MSW) that could spiral out of control unless world cities get to grips with the problem.

Although some of this is recycled, the doubling of that waste under current projections would hike the volume of MSW from a level of 1.3bn tonnes per year to 2.6bn tonnes.

According to a Worldwatch Institute study, MSW tends to be generated in much higher quantities in wealthier regions of the world where urbanisation and income levels tend to determine the type of waste generated.

As people grow wealthier and move to cities, the proportion of inorganic materials in the waste stream such as plastics, paper and aluminum often increases.

In contrast, waste flows in rural areas are characterized by a high share of organic matter, ranging from 40% to 85%. Similarly, organic waste accounts for more than 60% of MSW in low-income countries, but only a quarter of the waste stream in high-income countries.

According to the UN Environment Programme, greening the waste sector would require a 3.5-fold increase in MSW recycling globally, including near complete recovery of all organic material through composting or conversion to energy.

Worldwatch Institute states that the “gold standard for MSW” would be to integrate it into a materials management approach which involves a series of policies to reduce some materials use and to reclaim or recycle most of the rest.

It points to Japan, which has made the circular economy a national priority since the early 1990s through a steady progression of waste reduction laws.

In that country, resource productivity (tons of material used per yen of gross domestic product) is on track to more than double by 2015 over 1990 levels, recycling rates are projected to roughly double over the same period, and total material sent to landfills will likely decrease to about a fifth of the 1990 level by 2015.

Maxine Perella

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