Humanity is Drowning in it’s own Garbage

The past 60 years of progress since the founding of the Peace Corp and urbanization has brought the problem of municipal solid waste to the “third world”. As one of the hundreds of thousands of young volunteers who went to Africa and elsewhere in the third world on graduation from university I feel responsibility for my part in helping create the unintended consequences associated with globalization. Cities around the world, with as few as 100,000 inhabitants, are drowning in their own garbage. Ironically, in the third world, landfills are seen as an improvement on their extant mountains of garbage (Lauren Frayer, 2019). Landfills and landfilling, emits significant amounts of GHGs, reduces the amount of municipal landmass for development, encourages incineration of biomass, causes landscape changes, loss of habitats and displacement of fauna, and risks to public health derived from surface or groundwater contamination by leachate, the diffusion of litter into the wider environment and inadequate on-site recycling activities. According to the UN the world will have gone from 1/3 urban in 1950 to 2/3 urban in 2050. To put it another way from a little over 1 Billion people living in cities in 1950 to approximately 7 Billion in cities by 2050. All of these people will have access to electricity, cars, food grown far from where it’s consumed, and producing massive quantities of municipal solid waste.

After oil & gas exploration and animal husbandry, landfills are the third largest source of anthropogenic methane and represent 160 million Tons eCO2 annually in the United States. Fresh annual MSW will produce approximately an additional 40 million Tons of eCO2. That is about 4% of America’s total GHG emissions. Diversion and recycling is and will be an important component of tackling this problem in the first world but as demonstrated by the oceanic islands of floating plastic https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/great-pacific-garbage-patch/ the problem is growing faster than the solutions. Due to the rapid urbanization of Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia and population growth the GHG contribution I calculated above for America will be even greater for much of the rest of the world now and in the future. I believe that there are technological alternatives to landfilling apart from diversion and recycling, Germany recycles 87% of it’s municipal waste, Italy recycles 51% while America recycles about 35%.

I’m interested to hear what readers know about this problem and how to tackle it going forward. Just a word of caution. In Europe landfilling is strictly limited and cost hundreds of dollars per ton. In America the cost of landfilling is about $10/Ton. Europe has 50% more people in half the land mass of the United States.

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