Tuesday, November 06, 2012

The Global Garbage Crisis: No Time to Waste

Nov 6: The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) indicates that 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.

    UNEP said 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 odors; 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.

    According to a release, 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.

    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 UNEP'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." UNEP indicates that 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.

    Access a release from UNEP (click here). Access more information on the Global Partnership on Waste Management (click here). Access the background papers from the conference (click here). [#Solid, #Haz, #P2]

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