Sustainable Development

This is what the world’s waste does to people in poorer countries

Tourists walk amongst trash washed up on Kuta beach by seasonal winds, as workers attempt a clean-up in the background, on the Indonesian island of Bali February 15, 2016 in this photo taken by Antara Foto.  REUTERS/Wira Suryantala/Antara FotoATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS MANDATORY CREDIT. INDONESIA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN INDONESIA.      TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - GF10000309242

Waste is the biggest problem in countries which are unequipped to deal with it. Image: REUTERS/Wira Suryantala/Antara Foto

Charlotte Edmond
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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It’s contaminating our oceans. It’s clogging our drains and causing flooding. It’s transmitting diseases, causing respiratory infections, and harming animals. Welcome to the global trash heap.

Our cities generate more than 2 billion tonnes of waste every year, but one-quarter of the world’s population doesn’t have access to a proper waste collection system. In low-income countries all but a small amount of solid waste is burned or dumped.

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What is Loop?

And it is these poorer countries that are shouldering much of the burden of our global waste habit. Between 400,000 and 1 million people die each year in developing countries because of diseases caused by mismanaged waste, estimates poverty charity Tearfund.

As countries become more prosperous, their trash cans become increasingly full. Rapid urbanisation and population growth adds to the problem, making collection increasingly problematic and sites for treatment harder to locate. For many local administrations, particularly in poorer settings, waste management can be the single biggest expenditure.

Waste is piling up fastest in the countries least able to deal with it. Sub-Saharan African countries’ overall waste generation is currently projected to triple by 2050.

Image: The World Bank

The plastic bag problem

Single-use plastic is a particular issue. Much of it ends up littering the land and oceans, harming wildlife and damaging the financial welfare of farmers and fishers. Up to one-third of cattle and half of the goat population in developing countries have consumed significant amounts of plastic, which can lead to bloating and death by starvation.

Plastic is also finding its way into coral reefs and other natural beauty spots, harming the ecosystem and becoming an eyesore that deters the tourists many poorer nations rely on.

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Many developed countries export their post-consumer plastic waste – which makes up over one-tenth of what we throw out – passing on the problem to typically poorer countries to deal with.

In May 2019, almost every country in the world signed up to a UN pact to reduce the export of hard-to-recycle plastics. There have also been efforts from companies themselves to cut back.

The plastics problem has become so pressing that unless action is taken, global plastic production is projected to double over the next 10 to 15 years.

Image: National Geographic

Picking up the trash

In many places without formal waste collection systems, waste pickers play an important role sorting through dumps to source reusable materials for resale.

Waste picking provides employment and income for a small but significant number of the world’s urban population. They can make up a large proportion of the informal waste collection system – in Lusaka, Zambia, for example it’s up to one-third. But they are often excluded from frameworks for waste management, even through their involvement can provide an income for some of the poorest people in society as well as reducing costs for municipalities.

But this is dangerous and unhealthy work. Not only do the dumps harbour disease as they are a breeding ground for mosquitoes and rats, but smashing and burning waste to get at materials releases dangerous gases and chemicals.

Agbogbloshie in Ghana is home to the world’s largest e-dump. Computers, TVs, fridges and other electrical goods from around the world find their way here – often illegally. Many of the people working on the site suffer nausea, headaches, burns and other injuries, while others have died of cancer in their 20s.

Looking to the future

So what can be done? One solution to the mounting waste and plastic problem could be to create a circular economy.

A system aimed at minimising waste and making the most of what we’ve got could transform how resources are managed, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

By changing the way the world thinks about waste, and aiming to adjust the way we design and make things, a circular economy could slash CO2 emissions, cut healthcare costs, and dramatically reduce materials that are dumped or incinerated as waste.

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Sustainable DevelopmentInequalityFuture of the Environment
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