Osaka, Japan, 6 November 2012 - With approximately 1.3 billion tonnes of municipal waste generated each year, and volumes expected to increase to 2.2 billion tonnes by 2025 according to World Bank figures, urgent action is needed to head off the threat to the environment and human health posed by this global waste crisis.
This growing problem was foremost in the minds of delegates who gathered at the biennium conference of the UNEP-hosted Global Partnership on Waste Management (GPWM), held on November 5 and 6 in Osaka, Japan, The conference brought together waste experts from around the world to find answers to the global challenge of waste management and reap the economic and environmental benefits through better coordination.
The threat posed by poor waste management is particularly prominent in low-income countries where waste-collection rates are often below 50 per cent. Piles of garbage along river banks; thick smoke from open burning of mixed, and partly toxic, waste; pungent odours; flies and rodents are an all too familiar scene.
Ever-faster population growth, urbanization and economic development are producing increasing quantities of waste that are overburdening existing waste-management systems.
There is no end in sight to this trend: by 2030, the global middle-class will have grown from 2 billion to 4.9 billion, each of these new affluent consumers longing for greater quantities of more sophisticated and resource-intensive goods. Public waste systems in cities cannot keep pace with urban expansion; rapid industrialization is happening in countries that have not yet developed the appropriate systems to deal with hazardous and special wastes; and the growing trade in waste poses significant challenges. Waste management is one of the most complex and cost-intensive public services, absorbing large chunks of municipal budgets even when organized and operated properly.
Basic human needs such as clean water, clean air and safe food are jeopardized by improper waste management practices, with severe consequences for public health. Poor waste collection can lead to the spread of disease and improper waste disposal - for example, hazardous waste mixed with household waste can be extremely harmful for workers in the waste sector, adjacent communities, and the environment.
Besides having serious economic, environmental and health implications, unsound waste management has a social dimension. Like most environmental hazards, deficiencies in waste management disproportionately affect poorer communities as waste is often dumped on land adjacent to slums. Left with the choice between going hungry and waste picking, one per cent of the urban population in developing countries choose to sift through the detritus on dumps and dirty streets.
Millions of these waste pickers are being exposed to hazardous substances as they try to secure their and their families' survival. Lead, mercury and infectious agents from healthcare facilities - as well as dioxins and other harmful emissions released during the recovery of valuable materials from e-waste - not only affect the health of waste pickers, but further contribute to air, land and water contamination.
Even in countries with proper waste management systems, simply collecting and disposing of waste out of sight is no solution. In waste management, there is no such thing as 'throwing away'. Today's 'away' might be your child's backyard tomorrow or, worse, might have already impaired the health of the next generation. A lot of the waste that we discard can be prevented by changing the design of a product, producing more with fewer resources, reusing, recycling, etc. However, there will always be some waste that cannot be prevented and will require proper handling.
Matthew Gubb: "The waste sector as a model for a Green Economy"
As the crisis unfolds, there are significant opportunities for organizing the waste sector, with all its complexities, in a way that is more economically, environmentally and socially sustainable. Matthew Gubb, Director of the United Nations Environment Programme's International Environmental Technology Centre (IETC), recognizes both risks and opportunities inherent in the waste sector and highlights it as "a model area for greening the economy".
Indeed, if handled properly, waste management has huge potential to turn problems into solutions and to "lead the way towards sustainable development" through the recovery and reuse of valuable resources; the creation of new business and employment opportunities, including for the informal sector; reduced emissions of greenhouse gases from waste management operations, such as landfills; and conversion of waste to energy.
The benefits are huge, for both climate and business. A 2010 UNEP report showed that, in Northern Europe, recycling one tonne of paper or aluminium saves more than 600kg and 10,000kg of CO2 equivalent respectively. And that is not all. If you consider that a 2009 UNEP report revealed there is 65 times more gold in one tonne of old mobile phones than the five grammes in a tonne of ore, the business case for "urban mining" is clear. Those who work in the UDS$410 billion waste sector already understand the great potential of sound waste management. So, let's consider waste not as a problem, but as an opportunity to recover and convert resources, a paradigm shift that is gaining increasing currency. Whatever perspective one takes, the message is clear: waste matters.
This concept of "Waste matters" was the message of the keynote address given by Richard Samans, Director General of the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) at the GPWM conference. Mr. Samans made an urgent call for "decoupling social and economic development from environmental degradation and resource use."
The GPWM, an initiative hosted at UNEP's International Environmental Technology Centre (IETC), is already set up to answer this call, enhancing cooperation among various international stakeholders to promote better waste management practices and resource conservation and efficiency.
For more information on the Global Partnership on Waste Management, please visit: http://www.unep.org/gpwm