Plastic wrappers, old shoes, leftover food scraps — trash like this gets tossed into bags and hauled to landfills, incinerators, and recycling facilities.
An estimated 3.5 million tons of solid waste is generated around the world on a daily basis, with the average American producing their body weight in trash each month. Not only are countries running out of space to manage waste, but current waste management practices sicken communities, harm the environment, contribute to climate change, and cost a lot of money, according to the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA).
Waste incineration facilities, for example, fill nearby areas with toxic exhaust, release more greenhouse gases than coal plants, and are up to five times more expensive to operate than common alternatives, GAIA notes in a new report.
“Incineration of waste is incredibly dangerous,” Claire Arkin, GAIA’s communication director, told Global Citizen. “When you burn waste, it doesn’t just disappear into thin air. The waste has to go somewhere. It turns into this hyper toxic waste.”
Even landfills are at best a last-resort option, she said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the dysfunctional nature of modern waste management, as personal protective equipment (PPE) and plastic takeout containers inundate landfills and waterways.
And the problem could get much worse. Based on current trends, 11 million tons of waste could be generated daily by the end of the century.
The scale of this challenge calls for a zero waste revolution, according to Arkin. She said that pandemic recovery plans, in particular, can pave the way for this transition.
“Now is the time to invest in solutions that will address these humongous challenges that we face as a society,” Arkin said. “Zero waste provides this opportunity for cities and municipalities to go beyond recovery to bring about economic stability and resilience, to seriously address and mitigate the problems of pollution and environmental injustice, and create green jobs and a more sustainable future.”
Achieving zero waste societies requires green policies and massive investments, but it’s also something that can be accelerated at the grassroots level.
Here are five steps you can take to kickstart the zero waste revolution.
1. Join a local zero waste organization.
Zero waste begins at the community level where waste is generated. There are many regional or local organizations such as GAIA you can join to take action to achieve zero waste. These groups organize educational events, provide zero waste resources, advocate for policies, protest harmful waste management, and plan clean-up events.
2. Support waste-pickers and workers.
The global waste management system depends on the underpaid and precarious labor of waste-pickers and workers who sift through garbage to retrieve recyclable and reusable items. There are up to 56 million people who work in the informal recycling sector worldwide.
“These are the people who really keep our cities running,” Arkin said. “Without waste-pickers, a lot of waste management systems would fall apart or not be in existence.”
You can support waste-pickers by acknowledging their contributions, advocating for their unions, and calling on governments to pay fair wages and provide worker protections. GAIA also launched an emergency solidarity fund to financially support waste-pickers through the pandemic.
3. Stand with impacted communities.
Landfills, incinerators, and other waste facilities are disproportionately located near marginalized and vulnerable communities who are exposed to toxic chemicals, exhaust, and runoff as a result. In the US, 80% of incinerators are located near low-income communities and communities of color, GAIA reports.
Around the world, communities often protest existing facilities and oppose the construction of new facilities. You can show solidarity with them by researching where community actions are taking place and supporting protests, while also advocating for governments to invest in zero waste solutions that improve the environment.
4. Talk to local decision makers.
Municipalities have to phase out harmful forms of waste management while also passing laws that prohibit the production of materials that cause excessive waste in the first place. In recent years, at least 127 countries have enacted some form of restriction on plastic production and momentum for further restrictions is growing.
You can help speed along this transition by reaching out to your local representatives and telling them to fight for zero waste efforts. The more people who join the zero waste constituency, the more likely it will become a political priority.
5. Pursue zero waste in your own life.
Zero waste is a political issue, but it’s also a personal journey. Everyone can do their part to minimize the amount of waste that gets sent to landfills and incinerators by simply being more mindful of what you buy and how you dispose of things. Shopping locally, avoiding single-use plastics, and composting are great ways to achieve zero waste.