A special report on waste
Feb 26th 2009
From The Economist print edition
Environmental worries have transformed the waste industry, says Edward McBride (interviewed here). But governments’ policies remain largely incoherent
THE stretch of the Pacific between Hawaii and California is virtually empty. There are no islands, no shipping lanes, no human presence for thousands of miles—just sea, sky and rubbish. The prevailing currents cause flotsam from around the world to accumulate in a vast becalmed patch of ocean. In places, there are a million pieces of plastic per square kilometre. That can mean as much as 112 times more plastic than plankton, the first link in the marine food chain. All this adds up to perhaps 100m tonnes of floating garbage, and more is arriving every day.
Wherever people have been—and some places where they have not—they have left waste behind. Litter lines the world’s roads; dumps dot the landscape; slurry and sewage slosh into rivers and streams. Up above, thousands of fragments of defunct spacecraft careen through space, and occasionally more debris is produced by collisions such as the one that destroyed an American satellite in mid-February. Ken Noguchi, a Japanese mountaineer, estimates that he has collected nine tonnes of rubbish from the slopes of Mount Everest during five clean-up expeditions. There is still plenty left.
The average Westerner produces over 500kg of municipal waste a year—and that is only the most obvious portion of the rich world’s discards. In Britain, for example, municipal waste from households and businesses makes up just 24% of the total (see chart 1). In addition, both developed and developing countries generate vast quantities of construction and demolition debris, industrial effluent, mine tailings, sewage residue and agricultural waste. Extracting enough gold to make a typical wedding ring, for example, can generate three tonnes of mining waste.
Out of sight, out of mind
Rubbish may be universal, but it is little studied and poorly understood. Nobody knows how much of it the world generates or what it does with it. In many rich countries, and most poor ones, only the patchiest of records are kept. That may be understandable: by definition, waste is something its owner no longer wants or takes much interest in.
Ignorance spawns scares, such as the fuss surrounding New York’s infamous garbage barge, which in 1987 sailed the Atlantic for six months in search of a place to dump its load, giving many Americans the false impression that their country’s landfills had run out of space. It also makes it hard to draw up sensible policies: just think of the endless debate about whether recycling is the only way to save the planet—or an expensive waste of time.
Rubbish can cause all sorts of problems. It often stinks, attracts vermin and creates eyesores. More seriously, it can release harmful chemicals into the soil and water when dumped, or into the air when burned. It is the source of almost 4% of the world’s greenhouse gases, mostly in the form of methane from rotting food—and that does not include all the methane generated by animal slurry and other farm waste. And then there are some really nasty forms of industrial waste, such as spent nuclear fuel, for which no universally accepted disposal methods have thus far been developed.
Yet many also see waste as an opportunity. Getting rid of it all has become a huge global business. Rich countries spend some $120 billion a year disposing of their municipal waste alone and another $150 billion on industrial waste, according to CyclOpe, a French research institute. The amount of waste that countries produce tends to grow in tandem with their economies, and especially with the rate of urbanisation. So waste firms see a rich future in places such as China, India and Brazil, which at present spend only about $5 billion a year collecting and treating their municipal waste.
Waste also presents an opportunity in a grander sense: as a potential resource. Much of it is already burned to generate energy. Clever new technologies to turn it into fertiliser or chemicals or fuel are being developed all the time. Visionaries see a future in which things like household rubbish and pig slurry will provide the fuel for cars and homes, doing away with the need for dirty fossil fuels. Others imagine a world without waste, with rubbish being routinely recycled. As Bruce Parker, the head of the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA), an American industry group, puts it, “Why fish bodies out of the river when you can stop them jumping off the bridge?”
Until last summer such views were spreading quickly. Entrepreneurs were queuing up to scour rubbish for anything that could be recycled. There was even talk of mining old landfills to extract steel and aluminium cans. And waste that could not be recycled should at least be used to generate energy, the evangelists argued. A brave new wasteless world seemed nigh.
But since then plummeting prices for virgin paper, plastic and fuels, and hence also for the waste that substitutes for them, have put an end to such visions. Many of the recycling firms that had argued rubbish was on the way out now say that unless they are given financial help, they themselves will disappear.
Subsidies are a bad idea. Governments have a role to play in the business of waste management, but it is a regulatory and supervisory one. They should oblige people who create waste to clean up after themselves and ideally ensure that the price of any product reflects the cost of disposing of it safely. That would help to signal which items are hardest to get rid of, giving consumers an incentive to buy goods that create less waste in the first place.
That may sound simple enough, but governments seldom get the rules right. In poorer countries they often have no rules at all, or if they have them they fail to enforce them. In rich countries they are often inconsistent: too strict about some sorts of waste and worryingly lax about others. They are also prone to imposing arbitrary targets and taxes. California, for example, wants to recycle all its trash not because it necessarily makes environmental or economic sense but because the goal of “zero waste” sounds politically attractive. Britain, meanwhile, has started taxing landfills so heavily that local officials, desperate to find an alternative, are investing in all manner of unproven waste-processing technologies.
As for recycling, it is useless to urge people to salvage stuff for which there are no buyers. If firms are passing up easy opportunities to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by re-using waste, then governments have set the price of emissions too low. They would do better to deal with that problem directly than to try to regulate away the repercussions. At the very least, governments should make sure there are markets for the materials they want collected.
This special report will argue that, by and large, waste is being better managed than it was. The industry that deals with it is becoming more efficient, the technologies are getting more effective and the pollution it causes is being controlled more tightly. In some places less waste is being created in the first place. But progress is slow because the politicians who are trying to influence what we discard and what we keep often make a mess of it.