Growing prosperity and urbanization could double the volume of municipal solid waste annually by 2025, challenging environmental and public health management in the world’s cities, according to new research conducted by the Worldwatch Institute for its Vital Signs Online service.
Although some of this waste is eventually recycled, the doubling of waste that current projections indicate would bring the volume of municipal solid waste—or MSW—from today’s 1.3 billion tons per year to 2.6 billion tons, writes report author and Worldwatch senior fellow Gary Gardner.
As defined in the report, MSW consists of organic material, paper, plastic, glass, metals and other refuse collected by municipal authorities, largely from homes, offices, institutions and commercial establishments. MSW is a subset of the larger universe of waste and typically does not include waste collected outside of formal municipal programs. Nor does it include the sewage, industrial waste or construction and demolition waste generated by cities. And of course MSW does not include rural wastes. MSW is measured before disposal, and data on it often include collected material that is later diverted for recycling.
MSW tends to be generated in much higher quantities in wealthier regions of the world. Members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a group of 34 industrialized nations, lead the world in MSW generation, at nearly 1.6 million tons per day. By contrast, sub-Saharan Africa produces less than one eighth as much, some 200 million tons per day.
The list of top 10 MSW-generating countries includes four developing nations (Brazil, China, India and Mexico) in part because of the size of their urban populations and in part because their city dwellers are prospering and adopting high-consumption lifestyles. Although the U.S. leads the world in MSW output at some 621,000 tons per day, China is a relatively close second, at some 521,000 tons. Even among the top 10, however, there is a wide range of output: the U.S. generates nearly seven times more urban refuse than France, in tenth position, does.
“Urbanization and income levels also tend to determine the type of waste generated,” said Gardner. “The share of inorganic materials in the waste stream, including plastics, paper and aluminum, tends to increase as people grow wealthier and move to cities.”
Waste flows in rural areas, in contrast, are characterized by a high share of organic matter, ranging from 40 to 85 percent.Similarly, organic waste accounts for more than 60 percent of MSW in low-income countries, but only a quarter of the waste stream in high-income countries.
Roughly a quarter of the world’s garbage is diverted to recycling, composting or digestion—waste management options that are environmentally superior to landfills and incinerators. Recycling rates vary widely by country. In the U.S., the recycled share of MSW grew from less than 10 percent in 1980 to 34 percent in 2010, and similar increases have been seen in other countries, especially industrial ones.
The growing interest in MSW recovery is driven by a maturation of regulations and of markets for post-consumer materials. The global market for scrap metal and paper is at least $30 billion per year, according to the World Bank. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates the market for waste management, from collection through recycling, to be some $400 billion worldwide. Yet UNEP also estimates that to “green” the waste sector would require, among other things, a 3.5-fold increase in MSW recycling at the global level, including nearly complete recovery of all organic material through composting or conversion to energy.
The gold standard for MSW will be to integrate it into a materials management approach known as a “circular economy,” which involves a series of policies to reduce the use of some materials and to reclaim or recycle most of the rest. Japan has made the circular economy a national priority since the early 1990s through passage of a steady progression of waste reduction laws, and the country has achieved notable successes. Resource productivity (tons of material used per yen of gross domestic product) is on track to more than double by 2015 over 1990 levels, the recycling rate is projected to roughly double over the same period, and total material sent to landfills will likely decrease to about a fifth of the 1990 level by 2015.
Further highlights from the report:
- OECD nations generate the greatest quantities of garbage, more than 2 kilograms per person per day. In South Asia, the rate is less than a quarter as much, under half a kilo per person.
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that recycling 8 million tons of metals in the U.S. has eliminated more than 26 million tons of greenhouse gases—the equivalent of removing more than 5 million cars from the road for a year.
- Each ton of recycled paper saves 17 trees and the energy equivalent of 165 gallons of gasoline compared with paper made from trees, in addition to requiring only half the water.
Yet another former Trump administration staffer has come out with an endorsement for former Vice President Joe Biden, this time in response to President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.