What happened?

The global amount of waste is ever-expanding. That is primarily because the global economy continues to grow and produce more, and the growing global population will continue to buy goods and generate waste as a side effect. In 2012, the world’s cities produced 286.6 trillion pounds of trash, and by 2025, that figure will reach 485 trillion pounds per year. Waste already overwhelms municipal budgets, especially in the developing world. Furthermore, the dynamics of waste generation will change, as rapid urbanization continues and new middle classes are arising (waste generated per capita is positively correlated with both GDP per capita and urban lifestyles).

What does this mean?

As we have written before, the growth of waste generation is forcing cities and whole countries to reconsider the way they recycle their production resources. The global waste management market will grow and generate over half a trillion dollars by 2020 in revenue, while international waste trade has grown exponentially over the past two decades, as cities and countries can leverage their “comparative waste advantages”. Meanwhile, “urban mining” – the process of generating precious metals from urban waste – is already more cost-effective than the mining of many natural resources.

What’s next?

Despite the growth of this “waste economy”, cities are increasingly struggling to cope with managing waste. Indeed, a new paradigm about urban waste is required to prepare for the future. In the Netherlands, despite government plans for alternatives, waste is still increasingly moved to dumping grounds (the least environmentally friendly option). Indeed, other types of solutions are needed (although perceptions on waste and waste per capita vary widely by country). For example, consumers can be stimulated to abide by waste recycling guidelines by boosting their ecological awareness. Through sociocultural pressure and regulations, such as the current “war on plastic” in the airline and food and beverage industry, companies are forced to adapt. This can also be achieved by innovations in advanced material science that enable less wasteful production methods and production resources.