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Economies of Global Garbage

Some surprising facts about the “world’s only growing resource"

In her new book, Waste, environmental science, policy, and management professor Kate O’Neill traces the emergence of the global political economy of waste over the past two decades. With chapters on topics including waste work, food waste, discarded electronics, and plastics, O’Neill investigates the complex interactions that make waste simultaneously a valuable resource, a livelihood, a public health risk, and an environmental disaster. Here are some surprising facts, detailed in the book, about the “world’s only growing resource.”

A model of the earth.

Waste can prompt consequential political outcomes.

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher came to power in the U.K. amid rampant discontent when garbage collectors went on strike and waste piled up on the streets. In 2015, Beirut and a nearby river were buried in municipal waste following the closing of a major landfill, which sparked widespread protest.

Some landfills are unfathomably big and support entire communities.

In Ghana, about 10,000 people live on or around one of the world’s 10 largest “mega- landfills,” and many of them salvage in the landfill. With at least 3.5 million tons of garbage produced around the world each day, such landfills are only growing.

Globally, a third of all food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted.

If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter after the U.S. and China. In the United States, much wasted food is thrown out by consumers and retailers. Cosmetic imperfections and a nonstandardized system for labeling—“use by” and “best by” labels often have little to do with actual spoilage—are in part responsible.

Recycled scrap is big business.

In the U.S. alone, the industry is worth more than $105 billion annually and supports over 150,000 jobs, with an average wage of more than $75,000. In much of the developing world, this sector is informal but represents the major or sole mode of waste collection. In Brazil, for example, informal recycling accounts for a full 80 percent of cardboard recycling and 92 percent of aluminum recycling.

Climate change–fueled disasters have given rise to a whole new category of rubbish: disaster waste.

In 2017, a string of hurricanes across North America, typhoons in Asia, and fires in California and Europe left building materials and hazardous waste in their wakes that have been difficult to dispose of, from sewage to toxic chemicals to human remains.

Disruptions in the global waste economy can have far-reaching impacts.

Until it halted the practice in 2018, China took in staggering amounts of scrap. In 2016, it accepted 27 percent of all global waste and scrap imports, or 1,500 container ships’ worth each day. Since the ban, U.S. recycling infrastructure has been overloaded as municipalities have scrambled to adapt, sometimes by burning recyclables or dumping them into landfills.

As in other markets, monopolization and big companies tend to threaten individual operators.

A few companies based in the U.S. and Europe dominate the global waste sector. In Cairo, a community of 50,000 to 70,000 garbage collectors had long offered a profitable and highly efficient service, recycling 80 percent of the city’s salvaged waste, when the Egyptian government restricted the practice in favor of multinational contracts. After years of persistence, the collectors remain active today.

Not all benefits from waste are strictly monetary.

End-of-life ships and other structures can be sunk to provide habitat for marine life. Food waste, if diverted from landfills, can provide livestock feed or compost for crops while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Some waste even becomes art: sculptures made from plastic refuse are displayed in museums and city squares around the world.

Waste work can be exceedingly dangerous.

One study found that waste pickers in Mexico have a 39-year life expectancy—28 years lower than the national average. A March 2017 landfill collapse in Ethiopia killed no fewer than 113 people, and plastic incineration exposes communities to toxic chemicals like dioxins. The transnational Global Alliance of Waste Pickers advocates for human rights and better living conditions in 28 countries across Latin America, Asia, and Africa.

Plastic is a problem—big and small.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is at least three times the size of France, and experts predict that by 2050 oceans will contain more tons of plastic than fish. As this plastic slowly breaks down, it releases microplastic particles, as do discarded consumer products like clothing and cosmetics. Microplastics are eaten by small marine organisms and move up the food chain—into humans. A preliminary study in 2018 found microplastics in people’s feces across eight countries.

Our huge global e-waste output—13.4 pounds per person on Earth in 2016—is partially driven by built-in obsolescence.

The practice is thought to date back to 1924, when industry leaders set an artificially low 1,000-hour standard for light bulb life spans. General Motors introduced the “model year” to prompt consumers to buy more cars. Today, a global backlash against throwaway culture, called the right-to-repair movement, is pushing companies to make products that are easier to fix.