How the world should cope with its growing piles of rubbish
Poor countries must build infrastructure. Rich ones should waste less
THE world is producing ever more rubbish. Households and businesses took out 2bn tonnes of trash in 2016, the equivalent of 740g each day for every person on the planet. The World Bank predicts the annual pile could grow by 70% by 2050, as the developing world gets richer.
Such waste is not simply unsightly, it also threatens public health. Diarrhoea, respiratory infections and neurological conditions are more common in areas where waste is not regularly collected. And even where it is, it can cause environmental problems (see our special report this week). Greenhouse gases from the waste industry, principally in the form of methane from older landfill sites, could account for as much as a tenth of the global total by 2025. The case for taking action is clear. But what kind of action depends on where you are.
Poorer countries often lack good waste infrastructure. Rubbish piles up on open dumps, if not in the street. In July, for example, India’s Supreme Court warned that Delhi is buried under “mountain-loads of garbage”. Such places must invest enough to get the basics right. One study found that burning, dumping or discharging rubbish into waterways costs south Asian economies $375 per tonne in pollution and disease. Basic disposal systems would cost only $50-100 per tonne. Morocco’s government reckons the $300m it has recently invested in sanitary landfills has already averted $440m in damage. Such spending makes sense even when budgets are tight.
The rich world has a different problem. It is good at collection. But at the start of 2018, China, until then the destination for many of the world’s recyclable material, stopped importing most waste plastic and paper, and severely curtailed imports of cardboard. Rich countries must recycle more, dispose of more waste at home or no longer produce as much.
For environmentalists the preference for recycling is obvious. Some even want economies to become “circular”—ie, to reuse or recycle everything. But anyone arguing that reducing physical waste is a moral imperative needs to reckon with recycling’s hidden costs. Somebody must pick out, clean, transport and process junk. When the time and effort obviously pay off, the economy is already naturally circular. Three-quarters of all aluminium ever smelted remains in use, and there is a thriving market for used aluminium cans. But for other materials, recycling just isn’t worth it.
Round and round
That is partly because chucking stuff out is artificially cheap. Were landfill and incineration priced to reflect their environmental and social costs, people would throw their rubbish in the river or dump it by the road instead. Rules to discourage waste should therefore focus on producers rather than households. The principle of taxing pollution should be extended to cover makers of things that will need disposing of. A good example is the requirement, pioneered in Europe, for firms to finance the collection and recycling of electronic waste.
Transparent subsidies for the recycling industry would also help. It is better to pay the industry to absorb trash, and let the market take care of the rest, than to craft crude rules with unknowable costs, such as San Francisco’s ambition to send zero waste to landfill. If recycling is sufficiently profitable, more waste will become a valuable commodity. Some of it might even be dug back out of the ground.
Thankfully, rubbish is one environmental issue where there is little need to worry about political incentives. Voters everywhere want rubbish to be taken away—and they do not want to live near landfill sites and incinerators. The trick is to get the economics right, too.