10 billion tons annuals; this is the volume of waste generated by humanity in the time it takes the Earth to go around the Sun. The amount of garbage generated by our species has multiplied by 500% in the last three decades and, for the moment, everything indicates that it will continue to grow in the years to come. But Where is this sea of waste going to end up?? And what do we know about its impact on people and the environment? As pointed out a study published this Tuesday in the journal ‘Nature’the most worrying part of this global ocean of garbage is the “disproportionate” waste stream that developing countries send to the poorest areas of the planet.
“There is an international waste trade network in which countries buy and sell part of the garbage they generate. ‘Higher value’ garbage, such as electronic waste, is traded between developed countries. On the other hand, other types of waste with a greater environmental impact end up in poor countries that, in many cases, They do not have the capacity to manage them properly.“, Explain Ernest Estrada, author of the research and scientist at the Institute of Interdisciplinary Physics and Complex Systems (CSIC-UIB). According to the analysis published this Tuesday, there are currently 57 countries that are at medium-high risk of waste congestion. That is, close to a third of the countries in the world could be overwhelmed by the volume of waste they manage.
The waste management draw a fully broken world map. On the one hand, there are countries that are characterized by exporting garbage, as is the case of United Kingdom, New Zealand and the United States. At the other end of the equation, there are also a number of countries that have become major recipients of waste, such as Mexico, India and Uzbekistan. In the middle ground we find states like Spain, Holland, Belgium and Canada which currently stand out as “balance zones” in which garbage imports and exports are consistent with their management capabilities.
“One of the great challenges that we have right now as humanity is to understand that the garbage that we generate in our homes can generate a negative impact thousands of kilometers away,” reflects Estrada. In countries like Senegal, explains the expert, poor garbage management has caused the death of several children due to excessive exposure to lead. On Bangladeshithe ‘informal recycling’ of medical waste such as syringes has increased the incidence of diseases such as hepatitis among the population.
“The garbage that we generate in our homes can generate a negative impact thousands of kilometers away”
Ernesto Estrada, scientist
The vast majority of garbage generated in the world, explain the authors of this study, fits into three big categories. The first, and the most abundant, encompasses all healthcare waste (A type of waste that has always been abundant and that, according to a recent report from the World Health Organization (WHO), would have doubled after the covid-19 pandemic). The second category includes tech junk (generated by the use of electronic devices and components). And the third big catch-all includes the domestic waste (Those derived from the activities of households and cities).
They are also concerned about 500 million tons of hazardous waste that occur annually around the world. Above all because, according to the study, a large part of these go to developing countries that do not always have the capabilities to manage properly these remains. In Mexico, for example, a dozen abandoned hazardous or illegal waste dumps have been described. Some estimates suggest that these places could store close to 6,000 tons of hazardous materialswhich could cause damage to both human health and the environment.
“We need to have a more global vision on garbage flows to understand where they come from, where they are going and the impact they can have“, comments José J. Ramasco, co-author of the research published in ‘Nature’ and IFISC scientist. “Countries cannot continue to look at the garbage trade as a way to pass the buck to each other and not worry about what happens to this waste. We need to change our ‘chip’ to understand that poor waste management has an impact on everyone”, adds the scientist.
Based on this diagnosis, experts ask rethink global waste management. For starters, Estrada argues, by doing everything possible to “reduce the amount of garbage we generate.” Scientists also call for more investment to improve waste management centers in developing countries. “If the world is going to continue to produce garbage what less than manage it properlyRamasco reflects.