By 2050, the World Economic Forum predicts there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. That’s to say nothing of space junk, the Earth’s own personal halo of metal shards, paint flecks, satellite fragments and orphaned rocket thrusters that orbit silently above our heads. Both are potent reminders of humanity’s reckless disregard for what we throw away. But while ocean plastic is visible and striking—as well as a genuine hazard to anything with fins—there are many less obvious things we discard that also add up.
There’s no getting around it: To live is to make trash. And Earth, as it rapidly approaches 8 billion inhabitants, is on track to triple its trash output by 2100. As the above infographic shows, “waste is a byproduct of life,” says Dan Hoornweg, research chair at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology and an expert in urban waste. But not all waste is created equal. Those in poorer countries devote more of their livelihood and income to food, meaning they produce more horticultural waste—leaves, grass, yard trimmings—relative to other kinds of waste.
As wealth goes up, so does waste. More packaged food and goods means more paper, plastic and organic waste end up in the bin. In the 21st century, our screen-dependent lifestyles have ushered in a new era of E-waste: discarded electronics that aren’t immediately broken down and recycled, and can leach toxic chemicals into the environment. Hoornweg and colleagues wrote in Nature in 2013 that the wealth of a country could be gauged “by how many mobile phones it discards.” The good news is that E-waste will plateau at some point—after all, one can only own so many iPads.
In 2011, Hoornberg and co-authors drew on World Bank data to identify the major culprits when it comes to creating solid waste. The big five offenders: the United States (we’re number one!), China, Brazil, Japan and Germany. By 2025, however, India and Turkey are expected to overtake Germany and Japan. That isn’t hugely surprising, Hoornweg says. The shift can largely be explained by sheer population growth. Beyond 2050, he anticipates that Africa—which isn’t even in the top five today—will overtake much of the world.
Not all rich, populous countries make as much waste as the U.S. Despite being roughly as wealthy as Americans, the Japanese produce barely half as much trash, thanks in part to urban density, different cultural norms and a bafflingly complex waste-sorting system. “Japan is way better at living their lives with producing less garbage,” Hoornweg says. At the same time, “they’re killing a lot more fish in the ocean than we are. So they’re not environmental saints.”
What kinds of trash can we expect more of going forward? Hoornweg predicts yet more E-waste—all those iGadgets that companies encourage us to use up, dispose of and replace. He’s also seeing more complexity in the waste stream, by which he means harder-to-recycle waste products composed of multiple materials. These pose a special challenge for middle-ground countries—“the Indonesias of the world,” he says—those that are growing rapidly but haven’t yet invested in a robust waste infrastructure.
Greenhouse gases, while less tangible than piles of decaying refuse, make up yet another form of waste that threatens our shared home. Manufacturing all those gadgets (which often find their way to dumps), growing all that food (which often ends up in the trash), and even the process of waste disposal itself spews yet more harmful gases into the atmosphere. Landfills add to climate change by producing methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Plus, the more than 2,000 waste incinerators around the planet raise concerns about ash disposal and air pollution.
The vast scope of this global trash crisis begs the questions: Do individual actions even matter? If I bring my own mug to Starbucks instead of using a paper cup, does that make any dent on this vast international conundrum?
Perhaps not, at least in terms of sheer volume. But for Hoornweg, personal actions still matter in that they send strong messaging to municipal and national governments. By contrast, being cavalier with our trash contributes to a larger attitude, one in which throwing things away is the default behavior, instinctual and socially sanctioned. “Until that changes, all the rest is really fighting over who pays for what share,” says Hoornweg.
For him, the answer is to focus on cities, which exist at the nexus of personal and political action. Cities can respond to community-level waste issues; they can also prioritize local environmental needs. “If you get them working together, cities are more like people than countries,” ways Hoornweg. “Cities are much more likely to form a group, like a bunch of cheerleaders egging each other on. And I think that’s very important. That’s how we’re going to get out of this mess."