April 13, 2024

Eight ways to overcome the waste pollution crisis

Humanity generates between 2.1 billion and 2.3 billion tons of urban solid waste per year.

When improperly managed, much of this waste – from food and plastics to electronics and textiles – emits greenhouse gases or poisonous chemicals. This harms ecosystems, inflicts disease and threatens economic prosperity, disproportionately harming women and young people.

On March 30th, the world will mark International Zero Waste Day. The observance, led by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat), highlights the importance of proper waste management. It also focuses on ways to control the conspicuous consumption that fuels the waste crisis.

“Excessive consumption is killing us. Humanity needs an intervention”, says UN Secretary-General, António Guterres. “This Zero Waste Day, let’s commit to ending the destructive cycle of waste, once and for all.”

Here are eight ways to take a zero-waste approach:

1. Fight food waste

About 19 percent of the food available to consumers is wasted annually, despite 783 million people going hungry. About 8 to 10 percent of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the production of food that is ultimately wasted.

There are many ways to turn this tide. Municipalities can promote urban agriculture and use food waste for animal husbandry, agriculture, maintaining green spaces and more. They can also finance food waste composting programs, segregate food waste at source and ban food from landfills. Meanwhile, consumers can buy only what they need, embrace less attractive but perfectly edible fruits and vegetables, store food more sensibly, use leftovers, compost food scraps instead of throwing them away, and donate food before it spoils. , something made easier by a bunch of apps.

Recovery is already on the menu in some places. In Vallès Occidental, Spain, municipalities are redistributing surplus healthy food to the marginalized. Meanwhile, in Nigeria, the non-profit organization No Hunger Food Bank works with the Adeta indigenous community to reduce post-harvest losses by recycling cassava peels into animal feed.

Combating food waste and promoting healthy diets are key to ending food insecurity, experts say. Photo: AFP/Patrick Hertzog

2. Textile waste

Less than 1 percent of the material used to produce clothing is recycled into new items, resulting in more than $100 billion in annual loss of material value. The textile industry also uses the equivalent of 86 million Olympic swimming pools annually.

To counter this, the fashion industry needs to become more circular. Brands and retailers can offer more circular business models and products that last longer and can be remade, governments can provide infrastructure for collecting and sorting used textiles, communicators – including influencers and brand managers – can change the fashion marketing narrative and consumers can evaluate whether their clothing purchases are necessary.

“Zero waste makes sense at every level,” says Michal Mlynár, Acting Executive Director of UN-Habitat. “By retaining materials in the economy and improving waste management practices, we bring benefits to our economies, our societies, our planet and ourselves.”

3. Avoid e-waste

Electronics, from computers to phones, are clogging landfills around the world as manufacturers continually encourage consumers to buy new devices.

Through robust policies, governments can encourage consumers to keep their products longer, while also pressuring manufacturers to offer repair services, a change that would bring a range of economic benefits. They can also implement extended producer responsibility, a policy that can ensure that producers of material goods are responsible for managing and treating waste. This can keep raw materials and goods in the economic cycle and inspire consumer waste prevention, eco-design and waste collection optimization.

“As the world drowns in waste, humanity must act,” says Sheila Aggarwal-Khan, Director of UNEP’s Industry and Economics Division. “We have the solutions to solve the waste pollution crisis. We just need commitment, collaboration and investment from governments, companies and individuals to implement them.”

A person monitoring a waste processing camera
Data monitoring can help identify trends in waste management and help inform smarter design. Photo: PNUMA/Duncan Moore

4. Reduce resource usage in products

The use of raw materials has more than tripled in the last 50 years, causing the destruction of natural spaces and fueling the triple planetary crisis of climate change, loss of nature and biodiversity, and pollution and waste.

Producers can follow nationally determined eco-design standards to reduce energy and resource use while minimizing hazardous chemicals in production. These standards also ensure that products are durable, repairable and recyclable during use.

This should be part of a larger effort to design products through what is known as a life cycle approach. This involves reducing resource use and emissions into the environment throughout all stages of a product’s life, from production to recycling.

5. Crack down on plastic pollution

Plastics are commonly used in electronics, textiles and disposable products. Around 85% of single-use plastic bottles, containers and packaging end up in landfill or are poorly managed. As plastic is not biodegradable, it contributes to major health impacts as microplastics infiltrate food and water sources.

In addition to phasing out single-use plastics and improving waste management, establishing a global monitoring and reporting system can help end plastic pollution.

6. Accept hazardous waste

Chemicals are prevalent in everyday life – electronics can contain mercury, cosmetics can contain lead, and cleaning products often contain persistent organic pollutants. Chemical and hazardous waste requires specialized treatment and disposal, but some governments do not meet the standards set out in the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm (BRS) conventions. Chemicals and hazardous waste cross borders, unauthorized or even illegally.

Governments can commit to multilateral environmental agreements (MAAs), such as the BRS conventions, which institutionalize intergovernmental and intersectoral cooperation through binding targets and action plans.

Citizens can educate themselves about substances and waste types that are restricted or prohibited under AMAs and demand that governments and industries remove them from the global market.

7. Rethink the way cities are designed and managed

By 2050, 68% of the world’s population is expected to live in cities. Investing in energy-efficient buildings leads to long-term reductions in construction and demolition, which generate significant amounts of waste and are responsible for 37 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

The UN-Habitat African Waste-Wise Cities and Clean Cities Platform provides data and monitoring, knowledge, advocacy and bankable project development to guide cities towards zero waste. Many mayors, like 2023 UN Earth Champion Josefina Belmonte of Quezon City, Philippines, are leading initiatives to crack down on waste, including that from food and plastics.

8. Strengthen waste management through investment and training

Globally, around 25 percent of waste is not collected, while 39 percent is not managed in controlled facilities. Global waste management incurs a total net cost of $361 billion annually. By ending uncontrolled disposal, reducing waste generation and increasing recycling, governments can generate an annual net gain of $108.1 billion by 2050.

Two men placing a colorful bin at a waste collection facility.
Waste collection centers allow source segregation and hygienic storage of waste. Photo: SweepSmart

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