It won’t be long before Earth Day rolls around again and sets off new concerns about the environment and what we, as a planet, are doing to improve our waste management. While it’s true that all nations around the world contribute to this problem in different ways (and on drastically different levels), one thing that unites us all is the need to protect the environment and diminish the growing threat of pollution and poor waste management. For poorer countries, this challenge is ever more severe, as debris and untreated or poorly treated sewage often fouls drinking water. More than half of the world has no trash collection service—garbage just sort of gets pushed to the side and scavenged by trash pickers who scrape out a living through its reusability. Given the state of the planet’s waste problem, this is a grim statistic that suggests the problem is really more of a crisis.
Everyone knows our trash problem is growing. The facts are alarming and point specifically to the United States and China, followed well behind by Brazil, Japan, and Germany, as the world’s leading trash generators. The US alone produced 228 million tons of waste in 2006, while China (with a much larger population) generates around 190 million tons each year. In general, the wealthier and more urbanized a country becomes, the more garbage it creates, which suggests that swiftly growing African and Asian countries will soon be contributing on a much larger scale. As a country develops and populations increase, public waste systems in urban areas are often unable to keep pace with the trash generated. So while it’s encouraging to see the global economy expanding, managing the waste from this prosperity is a challenge.
The Biggest Culprit
Why does the US generate so much waste, even beyond other wealthy developed countries like Germany and Japan? For one, the US is a vast country with a population that is relatively spread out. Historically, we haven’t felt squeezed for space to dispose of our trash, as smaller, more densely populated countries have. There’s a sense that there’s room enough to put it somewhere.
It’s also worth considering a related idea: perhaps because the US has such efficient, reliable waste collection and disposal, people are not forced to think about waste. As Americans, we often don’t take the time to closely examine the waste problem because our waste is handled for us. All we have to do is remember to take out the trash each week. Isn’t it someone else’s problem now? In addition, most cities charge a flat fee for waste collection—so no matter how much waste you generate, you pay the same as your neighbor who produces much less. It’s a system that doesn’t offer any incentives for people to reduce their waste. And while it’s true the US doesn’t really have a shortage of space for its trash, even the most efficient landfills that comply with all the applicable regulations can still stress the environment.
Especially in the developing world, improperly managed landfills and haphazard dumpsites can leak contaminated water into nearby waterways and poison groundwater. Garbage burned in unregulated, open-air pits can release toxic chemicals into the atmosphere. These practices impact the sky, the earth, and the water, along with human health. But the threat of poorly managed waste to the environment and human health is not the only problem; mismanaged debris also has financial and social ramifications. Cities in developing countries spend 20-50 percent of their budgets trying to get a handle on waste management, which is a real hardship for many. And for the world’s biggest polluter, the US, the tab for a year of waste management is about $200 billion.
Although it has been said time and time again, the only real solution to this growing problem is education and human effort. There is a direct link between what we do as a species and the health of the world—plain and simple. The first step for any country looking to improve its waste management system is to make sure waste is collected for disposal. Building a secure landfill is great, but it doesn’t do much good if the trash never actually makes it there. This combined with eco-conscious behavior can make a huge difference in the world of waste and improve the overall health of a nation. For some developing countries, governments simply do not have the funds, organizational capacity, or institutional knowledge to address the problem. As long as they struggle to find these resources, the problem can never be fully rectified without outside assistance.
What about the US, one of the richest nations in the world? For us, the challenge is entirely different and involves awareness and personal responsibility. One way to encourage Americans to reduce their waste is to put the hurt on their wallet and force them to “pay-as-you-throw.” Under such a scheme, a city resident might pay for the extra trash he or she generates beyond that covered by a flat fee. Such programs already in existence have shown an average waste reduction of 44 percent and significant increases in recycling.