The average American produces 1,704 pounds of garbage per year, roughly three times the global average, according to a new report by the research firm Verisk Maplecroft.
Across 194 countries, the researchers found that the world produces 2.3 billion tons of municipal solid waste each year, which is enough to fill 822,000 Olympic-sized pools. Of this waste, just 16% is recycled, while 46% is disposed of unsustainably in ways that harm the environment.
The main drivers of the global surge in waste generation are the growing population, economic growth, and urbanization. These trends are expected to intensify in the years ahead. By 2050, the global population could reach nearly 10 billion people, while the proportion of people living in cities could reach 68%. The authors also note that food waste is a major source of global inequality, with one-third of all food being wasted or thrown away, while 821 million people are chronically hungry.
The report highlights the growing environmental toll that waste production has on the planet and urges countries to improve their ability to process garbage.
In recent years, mounting evidence has shown that poor waste management leads to air, water, soil, and food pollution.
Plastic waste, which enters the ocean at a clip of 9 million tons per year, has become a menace to marine animals. Poorly contained industrial waste sites regularly leach toxic chemicals into waterways and farms. Irresponsible waste burning facilities can turn the air toxic in affected communities. And the lack of systems for processing electronic waste exposes people to hazardous substances.
As countries exceed their capacity to manage waste, geopolitical tensions could arise.
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Countries like the US and Singapore are reaching their landfill capacity, while countries like China and Malaysia have refused to continue accepting trash exported from Western nations.
Although the United States accounts for 4% of the global population, it’s responsible for 12% of the municipal solid waste that’s created, and historically would ship a lot of trash to other countries.
China and India, meanwhile, account for 36% of the global population, but generate only 27% of all waste.
Unless major changes are made in the way garbage is generated and managed, then the world will likely face a waste crisis in the years ahead, the report suggests.
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One possible solution, the authors write, is to tax or fine the companies that create the bulk of the materials that end up getting thrown away to incentivize a shift toward a circular economy.
If multinational companies stopped producing so much single-use and hard-to-recycle materials, then countries might be able to improve their sustainable waste management rates.
Otherwise, the environment will continue to degrade in ways that increasingly harm humanity.
“With the world’s attention firmly fixed on the problem of waste, we expect governments to act, with businesses footing the bill,” said Niall Smith, senior environmental analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, in the report. “Beyond the potential financial impacts, the reputational risks for business are high if they ignore intensifying interest in the issue from consumers and investors.”