Waste Not: The Heavy Toll Of Our Trash

The Climate and Clean Air Coalition work with cities to capture and use landfill gas; prevent open burning of waste and divert organic waste from dumpsites, altogether.

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Burning of waste is a significant source of dangerous air pollutants

Every year, the world generates more than two billion tonnes of trash.  Even against the backdrop of a global pandemic, there is much being bought and sold, things are used and discarded.

People tend to forget about the things they have thrown “away”– as though they cease to exist when we are finished using them. But material goods don’t just disappear, their environmental impact lingers.

Dumpsites produce methane as organic waste decomposes – particularly in the absence of oxygen. They are the third-largest source of human-generated methane – a greenhouse gas that is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide (over a 100 year timeframe) and a major accelerator of climate change.

Landfills are no better. “Because they are deeper and designed to store more waste, oxygen is even less present and conditions are ideal for anaerobic decomposition,” explains Sandra Mazo-Nix, Waste Initiative Coordinator at the UN Environment Programme-hosted Climate and Clean Air Coalition.

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Trash burns in the main dump of Nigera's capital, Abuja (CCAC).

The toll on human health

The World Bank estimates that one-third of the waste generated is not safely managed. Where waste collection and disposal services are lacking, waste may be dumped in open, unmanaged areas where it is usually burned. Open waste-burning causes the release of black carbon – a key component of fine particulate matter (PM2.5)  that penetrates deep into the lungs and bloodstreams, with adverse health impacts.

The World Health Organization estimates that about 7 million people die every year from exposure to fine particles and the diseases and respiratory infections they cause.  And conditions such as asthma and chronic lung disease may also increase vulnerability to COVID-19. By 2050, as the global population nears 10 billion, waste will amount to a projected 3.4 billion tonnes every year.

Socio-economic issue

“It’s not just a sanitation problem,” says Mazo-Nix. “Waste is a symptom of inter-affective issues relating to human behaviour, access to resources, competing priorities, political will and social justice – among other things.”

Things don’t just disappear, and this has given rise to another set of challenges.
Sandra Mazo-Nix
Waste Initiative Coordinator, Climate and Clean Air Coalition

High-income countries contribute about 34 per cent of the waste produced, worldwide – even though they represent only 16 per cent of the population. But as incomes increase, so does waste production and contributions are expected to change in the years to come. By 2050, waste-generation in low- and middle-income countries anticipated to increase by 40 per cent and in high-income countries by 19 per cent.

Demands in one part of the world are supplied by resources and labour in another, so trade effectively redistributes the environmental burden – disassociating consumption habits from the local impact. Developed countries at times also divert waste to less developed countries – a practice that is being monitored and curtailed by the Bamako Convention and Basel Convention.

Holistic action needed

Mazo-Nix is adamant that, “waste needs to be seen holistically.” And while the world moves toward a circular economy – with sustainable products and new ways of living – the transition is possible.

Collaborating with cities around the world, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition works to capture and use landfill gas; prevent open burning of waste and divert organic waste from dumpsites, altogether.

By capturing the gas produced by landfills, methane can be prevented from entering the atmosphere and converted for use as a renewable energy source.  In addition to mitigating climate change and reducing health risks, this is also a source of employment and local revenue.  

This year on 7 September, the world celebrates the first-ever International Day of Clean Air for blue skies. This is a global call to find new ways of doing things, to reduce the amount of air pollution we cause, and ensure that everyone, everywhere can enjoy their right to breathe clean air.

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Dandora dump, Nairobi, Kenya. Growing demand and populations are producing more waste. Holistic approaches are needed in waste management and sustainable consumption and production.

This story first appeared on the UNEP and www.cleanairblueskies.org websites as during the first International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, September 7, 2020. 

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