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 avalanche of garbage. And even appear as pioneers. Like Rwanda, which has just inaugurated the first electronic scrap dismantling and recycling plant in East Africa.
Or like the Philippines which, in 2000, passed a law obliging local authorities to set up sustainable waste management systems. And since then, municipalities such as Quezon City, in Greater Manila, have a recycling rate of 39%. But it is clear that most of the planet still has to deal with open dumps. With often derisory means. In countries where the collection and treatment of waste by public services is weak, informal collectors play a crucial role. For example in Cairo, Egypt, where more than 66% of waste is taken care of by little hands who act as garbage collectors and recyclers. These men, women and sometimes children who have made rubbish their livelihood are estimated to be around fifteen million worldwide, according to the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers.
This network, established in twenty-eight countries, particularly in Latin America, Asia and Africa, tries to unite these recycling craftsmen to better defend them. Especially because they run great risks.
The challenge of garbage collection
Of course, the challenge of garbage collection gives rise to many projects. The most newsworthy of the moment: a system of floating traps intended to capture surface detritus accumulated in the oceans. Its inventor, Boyan Slat, a 23-year-old Dutchman, has raised more than twenty-one million dollars through his foundation, The Ocean Cleanup. As the testing phase draws to a close, he expects to be able to collect half of what floats off the South Pacific within five years. But for some specialists, given the impressive increase in litter, this type of action is derisory. These are commendable initiatives in principle, but which we can doubt from a technical point of view. Banning plastic bags seems a much more effective measure than collecting millions of fragments from the open sea.
Today, 95% of plastic packaging ends up in waste after a very short period of use. With a terrible record: by 2050, if the current trend is confirmed, the production of this material will be responsible, in the world, for 15% of greenhouse gas emissions and 20% of oil consumption. So go plastic!
Alerted by the images of the carcasses of marine animals (turtles, sperm whales, etc.) stranded each year following the ingestion of kilos of this material, developing countries reacted quickly. Especially against the most aberrant of objects: the single-use checkout bag. Bangladesh, several states of the Indian federation, China, Rwanda, Gabon, Togo, South Africa, Chad, Mali and Mauritania were the first to ban the famous pockets.
Wouldn’t it be better then to consider waste as a resource
To lose nothing of the materials used in consumer goods by recycling them ad infinitum? Manufacturers and engineers are beginning to make this alchemist’s dream come true. In Brussels, you can drink beer brewed from unsold bread in supermarkets. London is running some of its double-decker buses on biofuel made from coffee grounds. In Paris, Le Relais, a specialist in the collection of old clothes, produces thermal and acoustic insulation (Métisse). And in Eskilstuna, near Stockholm, the first shopping center in the world entirely dedicated to second-hand products has just been inaugurated, with a rubbish deposit and sorting center and above all decoration, electronics and toy stores… to stop wasting, this concept of circular economy has another advantage: it creates jobs and generates money. According to the International Bureau of Recovery and Recycling, the growing formal recycling sector already employs 1.6 million people worldwide, who process more than 600 million tonnes of reusable materials each year, for a global business of 170 billion euros.
But not all materials are equal when it comes to recycling: glass can be reused infinitely and paper up to six times, but plastic can only be recycled two or three times. And still it is necessary that, in the same object, the material is pure. However, most of the time, different plastic molecules are mixed in the same product. For each type, the properties, such as the melting temperature, are specific.
Reusing polymer blends is very difficult. A bit like wanting to reconstitute eggs when you have already made an omelette. To realize this, just look at a pot of yogurt. Generally made of polypropylene (PP), it rarely ends up in the bin reserved for selective sorting. But even when this is the case, it still most often ends up in the landfill or the incinerator: far too light and too little recoverable, say recycling manufacturers. In short, not profitable enough. If it is not burned, perhaps this pot will become the new habitat of a Pacific crab… In the world of waste, the miracle solution does not exist. The absolute priority is the reduction of waste, that is to say the reuse of materials and reuse, without transforming the material.
The only good waste would ultimately be the one that is never produced! First brought to the United States by citizens campaigning against the opening of incinerators, the zero waste movement is spreading to all continents. More and more municipalities are taking up the concept. Capannori, 46,000 inhabitants, near Pisa, Italy, is a pioneer in this field. This city has managed, in less than ten years, to reduce its production of household waste by 40% (and to recycle more than 80% of what was left).
Some of its followers push the concept to the extreme. Like a woman living in California, who travels around the world to preach the good word. Before her ‘conversion’, the 43-year-old fashion design graduate’s family of four filled a 240-litre bin every week. She details the method used by zero waste enthusiasts: extending the lifespan of goods, recycling and, above all, consuming less. Which means adopting a new way of life: weighing your garbage to really measure it, refusing packaging, buying in bulk, repairing objects, bartering, composting organic residues.
It remains to be seen whether these individual or collective initiatives can become large-scale public policies, and if we can make the world greener. Our domestic trash only represents, alas!, only 3% of our waste production, according to junk disposal experts at Dumpster HQ Santa Ana. Bulky waste from construction or agriculture should be tackled. But these approaches have at least one virtue: that of making us look our waste in the face. To hopefully change our (bad) habits before the planet turns into a landfill.