The Fruits of Civilization (72-1) Garbage


People threw away over 3.2 million tonnes of trash in 2016, 10 times the garbage pitched a century earlier. Without changes, rubbish will more than triple by 2100.

The United States, China, Brazil, Japan, and Germany are the leading garbage generators. In the US, Nevada has the most trash per person, followed by Pennsylvania, Colorado, California, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. The states with the least waste per person are Idaho, North Dakota, and Connecticut.

The more urbanized and industrialized a country becomes, the more waste it produces. Over half of the world’s population does not have access to regular trash collection. In North America and Europe, trash becomes invisible once it is disposed of. In other parts of the world, garbage is more obvious, as it piles up in waste dumps, sometimes in the middle of cities, as it did in medieval Europe.

Currently, 37% of solid wastes is put into landfills, 33% into open dumps, and 11% is incinerated. Globally, only 13% of solid waste is recycled.

Whereas 67% of aluminum cans are recycled in the US, only 10% of American plastic makes it to a recycling facility, where over half of that is thrown away. In recycling, the US lags well behind more fastidious countries, such as Germany, South Korea, and Taipei. The US mostly “recycles” its trash to other countries, adding to their garbage problem.

The international recycling business sees its business as a way of making money. There have been no global regulations – just a dirty market that allows companies to take advantage of a world without rules. ~ American international business professor Andrew Spicer

Dumps are a problem because they generate copious amounts of methane, as microbes consume what they can. Burning trash outdoors is harmful for human health and degrades the environment. Europe incinerates more and dumps less. While some European incinerators are relatively clean, most are hazardous pollution sources.

Tokyo has 48 garbage incinerators in the metropolitan area which also convert garbage into energy. The city claims their incinerators are not hazardous to public health because they burn mostly organic material and use advanced filtration systems. Tokyoites separate their waste into categories – such as burnable, non-burnable, cans and bottles, and oversized items – which are collected on different days. The largest of Tokyo’s 12 landfills are on reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay, and are expected to last until mid-century. Dumps in less fastidious countries are already overflowing.

Nobody listens to us. We die like insects. ~ Indian small business owner Mohammed Ismail

India’s largest cities are circled by reeking, toxic mountains of garbage. In 2017, the Indian Supreme Court observed that air traffic control at New Delhi’s international airport would end up steering planes around the dumps.

If this continues to happen, the city will drown in its waste. ~ Indian urban environmental ecologist Singh Sambyal

Advanced economies comprise 16% of the world’s population but produce 34% of its rubbish. The developing world is fast catching up in throwing things away. On current trends, mid-century Europeans and North Americans will generate 25% more garbage, East Asian trash will grow by 50%, while rubbish will double in south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Worldwide, the trash toll will jump 70% from 2016 to 2050 if today’s practices continue.

Indonesia’s garbage practices are typical of developing countries, including much of Africa. Indonesia has some of the biggest open garbage dumps in the world, where thousands toil at a dangerous occupation: scavenging on mountains of trash. Indonesia does not have industrial incinerators, so garbage easily accumulates and spreads. Indonesia is the largest source of plastic that is dumped into the oceans.