Solid waste — the stuff we send down our chutes, discard at work and put on the curb every week — is a striking by-product of civilization. The average person in the United States throws away their body weight in rubbish every month. When waste management works well, we give it little thought: out of sight and, usually, quickly out of mind. Discarded materials are collected, some are recycled or composted, and most are landfilled or incinerated. But the global view is troubling.
In the past century, as the world’s population has grown and become more urban and affluent, waste production has risen tenfold. By 2025 it will double again1. Rubbish is being generated faster than other environmental pollutants, including greenhouse gases. Plastic clogs the world’s oceans and rivers, causing flooding in developing-world cities. Solid-waste management is one of the greatest costs to municipal budgets.
The waste problem is acute in emerging cities. Landfills such as Laogang in Shanghai, China; Sudokwon in Seoul; the now-full Jardim Gramacho in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and Bordo Poniente in Mexico City vie for the title of the world’s largest. Each typically receives more than 10,000 tonnes of waste per day. Rapidly developing cities such as Shenzhen in China are adding to the world’s 2,000-plus inventory of waste incinerators. With the largest able to process more than 5,000 tonnes per day, concerns over ash disposal, air pollution and costs are rising too.