Think about this for a moment… over 2.6 billion tons of solid waste end up in landfills each year around the world. 2.6 billion tons per year is 82 tons per second.
Once solid waste goes in the ground, it produces greenhouse gases. Specifically, landfills emit methane, a greenhouse gas 22 times more potent than CO2. In fact, landfills are largest anthropogenic source of methane emissions in the world, accounting for 4% of global carbon emissions.
This problem is compounded by the other environmental problems that landfilling helps create: groundwater pollution, odor, rodents, disease, and urban blight. So the need to reduce the impact of landfills is real and needs attention.
Appropriately, the environmental community has consistently advocated for using a three “R” hierarchy when it comes with minimizing and managing “waste”:
1. Reduce – Anyone that has recently bought a toy, a cell phone, a container of pre-washed lettuce, or anything that arrives in a box cannot help but notice the extra waste bound up in the wrapping and packaging, much of which ends up in a landfill. In fact, product packaging accounts for about 1/3 of all consumer trash thrown away in the U.S.
2. Re-use –While slightly less desirable than reducing waste outright, re-using things we already own is the next step. My wife and I reuse shopping bags, food containers, and zip-lock bags. Our kids reuse plastic bottles when they are desperate. Yet I am struggling to expand the list. Can I count leftovers? My propane tank? My point is that even with good intentions, much of what we buy isn’t designed for re-use.
3. Re-cycle: Even though recycling is at the bottom of the desired hierarchy, it seems to get the most attention, and by many measures has been the most successful. In the U.S. we recycle about 33% of our waste and everyone in the supply chain, from producers to consumers, has a heightened sense of awareness about the benefits of recycling.
This 3R framework was developed at a time when solid waste was a pollution problem. But it is now both a pollution problem and a mounting climate change problem. The time has come to develop a more comprehensive solid waste framework, and one that reflects an urgent need for better results.
Here are three simple ideas:
1. For Consumers – buy less stuff and insist on higher quality. In doing so, you will exert pressure on manufacturers to produce better quality materials which will actually cost you less in the long run. If you cannot afford to buy something that will last, consider saving for it until you can afford it.
2. For Producers – design and manufacture products with the end in mind, as if you were going to be responsible for the final resting place of your products. If for no other reason, this may soon be the case.
3. For Environmentalists – waste began as a pollution problem. Now it is a climate change problem as well. This requires a new framework of collaborative thinking, as well as incentives and penalties in order to bring about more effective results. Consider advocating for more producer responsibilities at the front end to combat the waste creation problem and encouraging development of advanced technologies at the back end to minimize the disposal problem.
As with everything else involving climate change, this isn’t going to be an easy problem to solve. Certainly not with more of the same thinking that got us here. The problem with waste, as Edward McBride of The Economist noted, is that by definition no one wants to think about it.
In my view this is exactly the moment we must think about it.
QUESTION: Consumption is key: Give an example of one thing people need to buy less of and why?. (Answer in the comments section below!). Best of Luck!