Waste generation has been in existence ever since the human race has existed. The first of its kind was probably when Eve ate the apple and threw it on the ground, perhaps not thinking what would happen to the rest of it. Of course, back then it was just the two of them; they didn’t have to worry about saving the world from a possible global climate change crisis and waste management. And, in addition to that, the apple carcass was organic. They didn’t need to worry. But fast forward to the current age, i.e. the 21st century, it is quite tragic how mankind still thinks it’s the era of Adam and Eve, and are quite perturbed about the current situation of waste generation. There is also a fair share of the population who are misanthropic, who continue to believe that global climate change is indeed a made-up issue. 

But, unfortunately, the reality isn’t that. It is the exact opposite. Let’s get real – climate change is non-fictional. It is a very well-known fact that no other animal apart from the humans on this planet are solely responsible for the state that we are presently in. Ever since humankind started expanding their families and their need to live rather comfortably, the need to invent something to help this cause has built up incessantly. This, in turn, led to the birth of urbanization, thereby producing billions of waste every year. Of course, one has to consider the fact that this is done by the mass population and not just by a small group of people. 

What Are the Global Statistics of Waste Generated?

The waste generated by the world is so high that some nations are considering exporting the garbage to a different planet. Did anyone of us think this would even be considered in the possible future? Perhaps not. Globalization, urbanization and consumer behaviour (call it whatever), has been the single largest cause for excess waste generation. in turn, leading to the destruction of mother nature. 

It may come across as quite a surprise, but the fact is that leading countries in terms of economy (like US, Canada, Russia, etc.) are contributors to just 34% of the world’s waste. A large chunk of waste comes from low-income countries. According to the World Bank, an estimated 93% of waste is mismanaged in low-income countries as opposed to just 2% in rich countries. The world generates about 0.74 kilograms of waste per capita per day, yet national waste generation rates fluctuate widely from 0.11 to 0.45 kilograms per capita per day. Recyclables make up a substantial fraction of waste streams, ranging from 16% paper, cardboard, plastic, metal, and glass in low-income countries to about 50% in high-income countries. As a country rises in income level, the number of recyclables in the waste stream increases, with paper increasing most significantly. Upper-middle-income countries practice the highest percentage of landfilling, at 54%. This rate decreases in high-income countries to 39%, where 35% of waste is diverted to recycling and composting and 22% to incineration.

East Asia and the Pacific are the largest contributors of waste, which constitutes about 23%. Europe and Central Asia follow suit with 20%. Middle-East and North Africa are the lowest producers of waste with 6%.

Source – World Bank’s Report “What A Waste 2.0”

The following graph explains the statistics of waste production by region. East Asia and the Pacific produces a whopping 468 million tonnes of waste per year; Europe and Central Asia produce about 392 million tonnes of waste per year, and the Middle-East and North Africa produce about 129 million tonnes of waste every year. 

Source – World Bank’s Report “What A Waste 2.0”

Although in comparison, the waste generated by the Middle-East and North Africa (129 million tonne) might sound less than other regions, it is still a matter of concern. 

Source – World Bank’s Report “What A Waste 2.0”

The main cause for waste products in these high waste generation countries and other countries for that matter, is shockingly, food and green. It is a misconception that food and greens are organic and very easily recyclable. But that is a common fad. Food is made up of several chemicals, and the materials that go into packaging food materials are mostly plastic and other sources of plastic which are very harmful to nature. The next big thing to worry about is plastic, which is also non-recyclable. The government and the population all across the globe are consciously avoiding the use of single-use plastic. 

How Can Waste Be Turned Into Treasure?

With science and technology improving and proving itself everyday, there are multiple ways to reuse the waste generated. The amount of waste generated is marginally higher than the percentage of food or clothes or any other material that we purchase. Things like food, water bottles, wine bottles, etc. are thrown out the minute they are used. Clothes are thrown out every six months (on an average), and electronic waste and automobile waste take a little more than that. But they all end up in landfills. Materials like these take millions of years to degrade on their own. They cannot be made to vanish into thin air; it isn’t that easy. The only way to get rid of them is to use them again.

So, what are the actual uses of waste?
There are several uses of reusing waste into something useful. Here are the following uses of garbage that can be recycled again:

  1. Turning plastic waste into low-carbon fuel: Producing energy from trash is known as “waste-to-energy”. One of the most viable options of turning waste into something useful is by converting waste into solid recovered fuels, or SRFs. SRFs are engineered blends of non-recycled waste considered into fuel pellets or cubes. 
  2. Mass incineration: The method of burning trash to make heat or electricity is an age-old process that everyone knows about. But unfortunately, although this is a method of recycling, in the long run, it imposes a greater threat to the environment by releasing harmful gases. A recent technological improvement in this part of recycling, has helped to alienate the emission of harmful gases, and recycle it tastefully. 
  3. Pyrolysis: Another great use of reusing plastic is pyrolysis, in which plastics are thermally processed to molecularly break them down into the building blocks of fuels that can be processed into gases, oils or even high-quality liquid fuels that could be used in place of gasoline. 
  4. Biological reprocessing: Easily recyclable materials like food, organic waste, and paper can be recycled by composting and digesting them to decompose the organic matter. The resulting material is recycled as mulch or compost for agricultural or landscaping purposes. The gases emitted out of this process can be captured and used for generating electricity and heat. 
  5. Sustainability: Things like glass, clothes, cardboard, and plant waste can often be sold off to companies that in turn process and recycle them into a fresh piece of glass, paper or cardboard. 
  6. Electronic waste: Landfills are often filled with electronic device waste, also known as e-waste. E-waste is potentially hazardous to the environment and leads to possible damage to organs, or sometimes even death when burnt. Most people are not aware of how to recycle electronic waste and they simply lie in landfills or garbage composters. A large amount of e-waste can be used to retract gold, copper, and some rare metals out of the device to reuse them again.

There are multiple uses of waste, but this, of course, doesn’t mean that one can produce as much waste without consideration for our future. Some kinds of waste have no ulterior use, no matter what kind of treatment is given.

What Are the Challenges Faced by the Recycling Industry?

Although the concept of recycling and reusing sounds very easy, in reality, it isn’t. The recycling industry faces several challenges. The industry has to constantly come up with new technology and methods to reduce the aftereffects of recycling, whilst during the process of recycling. The most common issue is under-trained staff. In most cases, the labour that is hired for this particular job does not have a myriad of degrees or well adept practical knowledge, which tends to affect their quality of work. 

The most pertinent issue of all is the cost of recycling. Building a new recycling unit involves a chunky amount of investment, and is accompanied by buying different kinds of utility vehicles, chemical disposals, and training the locals about waste management. In addition to this, the company must think about the safety of their staff and surroundings. A recycling unit is almost always unhygienic and unsafe. The industry dumps their “recycled waste” around their land causing debris, and in turn, being an incubator for several contagious diseases. Another concerning issue is that sometimes, the recycled products are not very durable, thus causing more waste in turn. 

The consumer market is often greedy, and because of this, the manufacturers of multiple products are manufacturing materials that cannot be recycled. Ever. In any manner. The fundamentals of recycling should be that manufactured products that can be recycled again, ultimately resulting in zero waste generation.

How Are Recyclables Sustainable? What Good Is Being Done in This Industry?

A tremendous amount of waste is being disposed of into landfills and oceans, which is very harmful to marine life and also expensive to deal with. Policymakers and environmentalists across the globe are constantly battling for better laws in favour of recycling. It is quite shocking how the world was home to approximately 322 million tonnes of plastic in 2015. Four years later, the statistics have increased, and we’re not talking about just plastic here. Other kinds of waste are also counted. According to a study published by Science Advances, it estimated that the world had produced around 8.3 billion metric tonnes of newly manufactured plastic. In 2015, 6.3 billion metric tons of that had become plastic waste, but just 9% of that had been recycled, the paper said.

The European Union has adopted a block-wide strategy to tackle plastics. The governments are constantly trying to alleviate the situation. Part of the strategy includes reducing plastic bag usage, as well as investments into the technology and material spaces. The EU has pledged to invest an additional 100 million euro to encourage the development of more recyclable plastic materials

In addition to the EU government, Indonesia in 2017 promised up to $1 billion a year to target slashing the amount of marine litter. Tourist hotspots like Bali and Jakarta are filled with an ugly amount of waste that has filled up the oceans. 

Countries like India have come up with missions like Swacch Bharat, where the main agenda is to help clean the country in every possible way, including recycling. Corporation giants like Dell in 2017, launched a pilot program to recycle ocean plastics to make packaging trays for laptops. Consumer goods conglomerate Unilever and food and drinks giant Nestle, have pledged to move toward 100% recyclable plastic packaging

Smaller start-ups like Berlin-based food delivery company, Foodpanda, began giving their consumers in Asia the option of requesting for disposable cutlery amidst the growing concern that the food industry is one of the largest sources of waste production. In addition to this, top managers of companies like American Airlines, Bell Atlantic, and Coca Cola have made buying recycled products and investing in green R&D part of their overall business strategies. They have in turn cut down on their waste, increased profit margins, and are still trying their best to close the recycling loop cimpletely. 

Innovation in the World of Recyclables

The evolution of science and technology is palpable. Technology overturns and invents itself every day. If such is the case, why must the industry of recyclables lag? This industry, especially, is in dire need of newer innovations to reuse and recycle waste. There are multiple innovations to recycle smartly. One such innovation is by an Indian start-up called Rimagined, where junk and waste such as old clothes, plastic, tyre tubes, glass, wood, and even multi-layered plastic packaging are turned into stylish products, which people can buy via their online portal or through their retail shop.

Another interesting innovation is by the American electronics recycling company called ecoATM. This company has over 2,800 kiosks all across the US, which offers instant payment in exchange for old electronic devices. This smart waste collection system is quite convenient in managing e-waste, helping divert more than 14 million smartphones and tablets from ending up in landfills. Next on the list of smart garbage sorting is the Bin-E. Bin-E is a smart waste container that automatically recognizes, sorts and compresses waste using a camera, sensor and AI. Once the device identifies the material, shape and colour of the waste, it is distributed into the appropriate bin within the container – plastic, paper or glass. After that, the waste is then compressed so the total volume can be up to five times less. 

Plastic recycling often uses water to clean and cool plastics. To make recycling a better option for the environment, some of these recyclers have come up with innovations to clean, cool and create recycled plastic without using water. These technologies can in turn help reduce energy consumption. 

Overall, there is a myriad of companies, start-ups, and corporations coming up with newer and better technologies in sorting out waste to help speed up the process, and to use the materials more suitably. The percentage of waste that is being mismanaged and recycled is not even half the amount of the waste that is being generated, more so in underdeveloped and developing countries, because of the lack of financial support.

According to the report, ‘What a Waste 2.0’ by The World Bank, by 2050, without urgent action, global waste will increase by 70% at current levels. Due to rapid urbanization and growing population, global waste generation is expected to jump to 3.4 billion tonnes over the next 30 years, up from 2.01 billion tonnes in 2016

The need to recycle our waste and live sustainably is present now, more than ever. Shifting to clean living is not that hard. If every individual does their bit in saving the environment, the world will not be filled up with so much waste. It can be achieved by inculcating simple things like switching off lights and fans when not in use, moving to clean technology like solar, wind, turbine, etc., and not using single-use plastic for grocery shopping, transportation, etc. These tiny set of actions can prove to be very useful in the long run resulting in a massive change.

The trend of eating organic food, turning vegan or even the concept of “farm to table” is on the rise now. Although this does help in reducing food waste exceptionally, it would also be very helpful if everyone considered nature like our bodies, and keep an eye on how we choose to act. If everyone considered the environment like their own homes, our world would be a much cleaner place by now. Because, in the end, the world is our home. None of us can survive if we do not take this matter seriously. It all starts with you and me; it’s never too late to correct our shortcomings and work on improving our nature.

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