What do you do when you no longer need an item? Unwrapping a Mars bar, what happens to the packaging? How much thought do we put into what we throw away? How much thought do we put into waste overall?
Waste is a big problem, well, actually HUGE. Yes, huge is the right word. National Geographic reports that an estimated 8 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans annually. Furthermore, researchers project that by 2050 the volume of mismanaged plastic waste will climb to 155-256 million metric tons per year. But we are not only talking plastic waste today, so the numbers are even higher!
Where could we possibly hoard all this waste? How can we possibly make all this waste? And how can we get rid of it?
"And then there was waste" - the origins
Definitions for waste:
(a) the useless remains of human activity
(b) materials that are useless to the producer
(c) materials that we are willing to pay to dispose of
In no uncertain terms, waste is the stuff we no longer need and are happy to discard. So, how do we handle waste? Well, categories. Since waste is a megaton problem, knowing its sources and properties can help us understand and deal with it better.
Categories of waste depend on the sources, the two overarching categories are (a) municipal waste and (b) industrial waste. Municipal waste is produced in our private lives, homes, areas of recreation, and activities. On the other hand, industrial waste refers to discarded, emitted, and leftover materials from industrial activities. The division is not always clear. For example, hospitals and restaurants are workplaces for staff but places of health services and recreation for patients and consumers, respectively.
We, as consumers of goods, have control over the waste we produce. We, as industrial teams, can control waste industrially produced. We, as the human race, are responsible for 100% of the waste deposited on the planet. The difference between human waste and animal waste is that our waste cannot be absorbed by nature because of its volume and consistency.
Industrial waste is overwhelmingly more than personal waste. A waste report of the UK (population of around 65 million people) for 2011 accounted for 27,300 thousand tons (27.3 million tons) of municipal waste and 41.1 million tons of industrial waste.
The story these numbers tell us is that for every 100 waste items that the UK produced in 2011, 40 waste items were produced in our private lives, and 60 waste items were produced in our business lives... but in millions of tons.
But recycling — you say?
I hear you. Let's take a quick look. There are many countries with recycling schemes, some of them better than others. However, we do not recycle fast enough, we do not manage waste well enough, and technologies on recycling are still at toddler age.
More effective recycling and management can bring numbers down. And the question remains, where does the waste go? Where do we deposit it?
A game of hide and seek – depositing waste
Deposit sites differ according to geographies, management policies, and laws. However, all countries have landfills to bury waste in the ground. In fact, landfills is the most common way of putting waste out of sight.
Some countries even allow depositing waste directly into water bodies. This practice is not necessarily by design. Rather, lack of legislation to make dumping in water illegal and lack of enforcement of current legislation enables large-scale water pollution. Even when illegal, companies, industries, and businesses still do it. Citizens still do it. Remember when you visited the beach with bags full of snacks? Did you remember to pick up the waste before leaving?
Another "eco-friendly" way to manage waste is incineration – we burn it. Incineration is not a new practice and involves a lot of chemistry and social impact. Incineration is now considered eco-friendly because it is used to produce energy. So we no longer just burn it. We burn it with a purpose. On the flip side, the by-products of incineration may include toxic substances or heavy metals. Ashes and pulp are the end by-product of incineration. Pulp is likely to end up in a landfill.
Take-away message: the Earth has afforded us the grace of not thinking about our waste for a few hundred years now, but we can no longer be as thoughtless. The numbers are daunting. When waste goes out of sight, it doesn't go out of existence. Landfills leak into the ground and poison the soil. Ocean life is obviously in danger from pollution, and the air is fast becoming a concern – think of citizens in industrial cities who wear masks all year round due to poor quality air.
In the current times, the lesson learned is that traditional ways to manage waste have gross negative effects. Despite the research, innovation, and promising new practices, the negative still outweigh the positive. More thoughtfulness of the content in our waste bins is necessary because awareness helps initiate action.