Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Drowning in garbage

Drowning in garbage

The world produces more than 3.5 million tons of garbage a day — and that figure is growing.
Since early 2016, I have traveled to six major cities around the world (Jakarta, Tokyo, Lagos, New York, Sao Paulo and Amsterdam) to investigate how they manage — or mismanage — their waste. There are some remarkable differences. And a question emerges: Is this just garbage, or is it a resource?
The world generates at least 3.5 million tons of solid waste a day, 10 times the amount a century ago, according to World Bank researchers. If nothing is done, that figure will grow to 11 million tons by the end of the century, the researchers estimate. On average, Americans throw away their own body weight in trash every month. In Japan, meanwhile, the typical person produces only two-thirds as much. It’s difficult to find comparable figures for the trash produced by mega-cities. But clearly, New York generates by far the most waste of the cities I visited: People in the broader metropolitan area throw away 33 million tons per year, according to a report by a global group of academics published in 2015 in the journal of the National Academy of Sciences. That’s 15 times the Lagos metropolitan area, their study found.
With a sharp increase in the world population and many economies growing, we are producing more waste than ever. In Europe and the United States our trash is largely invisible once it’s tossed; in other parts of the world it is more obvious, in the form of waste dumps, sometimes in the middle of cities.
Dumps are a problem because they release methane, a potent greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere. Burning trash outdoors is also harmful, to the environment and people’s health.
Landfills and waste dumps are quickly filling up — with many of the largest receiving on average 10,000 tons of waste per day.
As a country becomes richer, the composition of its waste changes — more packaging, electronic components, broken toys and appliances, and relatively less organic material.
New York and San Francisco now have a goal of “zero waste” to be achieved by a reduction in trash and more recycling, but they still have a long way to go. In New York, plastic shopping bags are still provided in almost every store. The world produces over 300 million tons of plastic each year, of which only a small fraction is recycled.
By 2050, there will be so much plastic floating in the ocean it will outweigh the fish, according to a study issued by the World Economic Forum. Scientists estimate that there are at least 5.25 trillion plastic particles — weighing nearly 270,000 tons — floating in the oceans right now.
Scavengers dig through the trash at Jakarta’s Bantar Gebang.
On average, a person in the United States or Western Europe uses about 220 pounds of plastic per year, according to the Worldwatch Institute, a research organization. The packaging industry, growing thanks to the rise of online stores and other factors, poses a huge challenge.
About one-third of the food produced in the world gets thrown away or otherwise wasted, according to U.N. data. The Dutch toss out the equivalent of over 400,000 loaves of bread per day, on average. The United States wastes by far the most food, due in part to fast-food restaurants at which employees and consumers dump unsold items or leftovers.
Most waste in Africa, the United States and Asia ends up in dumps, many of which are already at capacity. Europe sends less of its waste to dumps or landfills and more to incinerators. While some of them are relatively clean, many are a threat to the environment and public health. Tokyo has more than 20 garbage incinerators in the metropolitan area. The city says they are not hazardous to public health, because they burn mostly organic material and use an advanced system to filter out damaging gases.
But if the world is not prepared to think about waste reduction and actually treat garbage as a resource, future generations will drown in their own waste.

In Jakarta, nowhere to go but up

The massive Bantar Gebang landfill in Jakarta.
A smaller dumpsite in eastern Jakarta.
Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, has grown extremely fast in recent years, partly because of a national economic boom. Most of Jakarta’s waste ends up at Bantar Gebang, one of the biggest landfills in the world: It covers 272 acres and receives over 6,000 tons of trash per day.
The thousands of people who scavenge at Bantar Gebang work in dangerous conditions, navigating mountains of unstable trash at risk of toppling in avalanches of garbage.
Flattened motor-oil bottles are bound together at the PT Elastis Reka Aktif plastics plant in South Cikarang, Indonesia, outside Jakarta. Plastic pellets produced from recycled materials are used to make plastic bags at the factory.
Jakarta doesn’t have incinerators and has no space for another landfill. And the scavengers who work in the streets and at the landfill play an important role in recycling, in a city with hardly any formal recycling industry.
Waste flowing into the canals and rivers of Jakarta also causes issues. The waterways clog, causing extensive flooding. For the past two years, Jakarta has made a big effort to clean the garbage from its waterways.
Indonesia is one of the world’s biggest sources of plastic that is dumped into the oceans.
Plastics that have been collected, sorted and stored at the CV Majestic Buana Group facility in Jakarta. The plastic flakes the company produces from the material are shipped to China, where they are used to make new products.

A bold goal in the Big Apple: ‘Zero Waste’

Plastics carried by barge to a Brooklyn recycling plant.
Cardboard and other material piled up in Manhattan.
Recyclables compressed into blocks at a Brooklyn facility.
The New York metropolitan area produces 33 million tons of garbage per year, according to a group of global scientists that calculated all the trash being tossed out by the city and its sprawling suburbs and exurbs. That puts it well ahead of the rest of the world’s major mega-cities, according to the researchers.
The United States is one of the planet’s biggest generators of waste, and New York presents a particular challenge because it is so densely populated. In most parts of the world, growing wealth is associated with an increased output of trash. But in the United States, the poorer population also contributes a considerable amount of garbage, much of it fast-food packaging. Food waste is also a huge issue, in New York and the rest of the country.
Trash is collected in Manhattan. The Brooklyn nonprofit Sure We Can supports the city’s “canners,” who collect cans and plastic bottles for deposit money, and aids recycling efforts. The Covanta Delaware Valley incinerator in Chester, Pa., is one destination for New York City trash.
Despite its problems, New York does better in some ways than other U.S. cities when it comes to trash: Paper, plastic bottles and cans are often separated for recycling, even though the recycling industry is limited in size. Most of New York’s waste goes to landfills or to incinerators out of state.
Under Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), New York City has begun its “Zero Waste” initiative, which among other things will aim to reduce the amount of non-compostable trash and improve recycling. The city’s goal is to eliminate the transfer of garbage to out-of-state landfills by 2030.
In recycling and management, New York is more advanced than many other American cities, but the sheer amount of garbage it generates would be difficult for any municipal government to deal with.
This Pennsylvania incinerator is one destination for New York's trash.

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