Waste in the world: it’s an overdose
Every day, on earth, four million tons of household waste are produced, the equivalent of 400 Eiffel towers! Getting rid of it is a headache.
While the United Nations assembly was being held, the secretary general of the organization received a petition signed by 190,000 Internet users from all over the world, who had been invited to become citizens of the Trash Isles, literally the trash islands. At the same time, in a spot broadcast on the Web, Al Gore, the former American vice-president, lent his voice to a symbolic request for recognition by the UN of this new State.
Graphic designers have even imagined the design of a passport, a flag and banknotes of a currency called debris… Not without black humor, this awareness campaign, led by the news and entertainment site LADBible and the American NGO Plastic Oceans Foundation, wanted to draw attention to a worrying phenomenon: the persistence of a pile of plastic rubbish the size of France in the middle of the Pacific.
Waste in the ocean
A continent whose existence has been attested for two decades already: a certain Captain Charles J. Moore made this unappetizing discovery in 1997, during a nautical race between California and Hawaii. And since then, scientific expeditions have revealed and studied four other giant formations of this type, in all the oceans. The researchers describe them as plastic soups in suspension.
Under the effect of salt water and the sun, the scrap breaks down into microfragments, most with a diameter of less than five millimeters. Carried by the currents, they form large whirlpools. An international study conducted jointly by a dozen research centers relied on twenty-four missions conducted between 2007 and 2013 to estimate the extent of the damage: these monstrous masses would consist of at least minus 5,250 billion particles, for a total weight of 269,000 tonnes!
And this is only what floats on the surface. We cannot quantify what is accumulating in the seabed. The only certainty: it is much more! Because every year, in the world, eight million tons of plastic, escaped from the sewers, carried and vomited by the rivers and dispersed by the currents, come to feed these submerged dumps. To the delight of microorganisms – especially bacteria and microalgae – which cling to these residues and end up forming, with their artificial rafts, a new ecosystem, called plastisphere. And which could have serious repercussions on the natural balances.
Plastic, this extremely long-lasting material, has become the symbol of our ready-to-throw society. Will our planet be engulfed in garbage cans? Even the most isolated and deserted corners of the globe are susceptible to becoming dumping grounds. Like the small uninhabited island of Henderson, between Chile and New Zealand, more than 5,000 kilometers from any city or any industry, which is home to the highest density of plastic waste on the planet (excluding official landfills).
Like what is happening on the coasts of this atoll, the presence of our waste is everywhere so massive that it is on the way to becoming a geological marker. In the 1970s, geologists jokingly proposed a classification of the most recent stratigraphic layers, distinguishing the Upper Poubellian (after the appearance of plastics) from the Lower Poubellian (the previous period). Research carried out on Kamilo beach, in southern Hawaii, and made public in 2014 by the Geological Society of America, sadly proves them right: this work has revealed the existence of plastiglomerate, a new rock composed of a large concentration of plastic residue melted and agglomerated with sediments, fragments of basaltic lava and organic debris.
This material therefore now competes with aluminum, concrete and artificial radioactive particles to become the marker of our industrial era. Will it be the fossil of our time? The symbol of a new geological era? Only the stratigraphers, who are responsible for defining the geological time scale, can officially decide. The answer should come in a few years, when the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) will give its verdict and announce, perhaps, that the Earth has left the Holocene, a period that began more than 10,000 years ago, to enter the Anthropocene (the era when humans irreparably modify the earth’s ecosystem). Dating back to the mid-twentieth century when the planet was turned into a giant trash can.
Waste management crisis
Since 1945, with economic growth, the amount of waste has exploded. What frightens the team of researchers led by Daniel Hoornweg, professor at the University of Ontario and specialist in urban development at the World Bank, is the speed at which the planetary dump is swelling. According to their projections, household waste should increase from four million tons per day today to more than eleven million in 2100. Almost three times more.
The mass of waste is growing faster than any other environmental pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions. The conjunction of three factors: population growth, galloping urbanization and the overall increase in the standard of living. At the same level of income, a city dweller generates twice as much garbage as his neighbor in the countryside, who uses less packaging and wastes less food. But since city dwellers are statistically wealthier than rural dwellers, an urban citizen is actually responsible for an average of four times as much waste.
In summary, the bigger the cities get and the more their occupants reach the wealthy and upper middle classes, the more the garbage cans overflow. The OECD countries, the richest in the world, thus generate ten times more garbage than the poorest nations. On the other hand, the garbage cans are better managed there. More than 40% of municipal waste is buried there, while more than 20% is recycled, approximately 20% incinerated and more than 10% composted.
However, still according to the World Bank, it is the least developed countries which, because of their demography and their urbanization, will produce the majority of tomorrow’s waste. Fortunately, some of them are already preparing to face this …Read more