Andreas Späth

What a load of rubbish!

2013-11-25 13:42

Andreas Wilson-Späth

Civilisation continues to produce amazing works of literature, science, art, architecture and much else. It also happens to be an extremely efficient machine for generating rubbish - quite literally mountains of solid waste garbage that is of no use to anyone and pollutes the environment, even if we manage to keep much of it safely out of sight.

An article published in Nature last month puts the deluge of refuse we’ve unleashed on the planet into sobering perspective:

- In the last 100 years, global waste production has risen tenfold.

- In 2010 humans generated approximately 3.5 million tons of solid waste every day, a figure that is expected to double by 2025.

- By the end of this century, humans are predicted to throw away in excess of 11 million tons of solid waste daily.

- Industrialised countries are currently the world champion rubbish generators, but that is changing fast. East Asia now has the fastest garbage growth rate. China, for example, is forecast to move from about 500 000 tons per day in 2005 to 1.4 million tons per day by 2025.

- It may come as a bit of a surprise to us, but by 2050, sub-Saharan Africa is poised to take the lead and become the planet’s largest rubbish producer, even though it is only responsible for about 5% of the global total at the moment. In case you’re wondering, South Africans throw about 100 million tons of stuff into their trash cans annually.

The reasons for our rising waste dilemma include burgeoning rates of consumption, population growth and urbanisation.

The statistics for food waste provide perhaps the most graphic illustration of the scale of the problem. Although a recent report on avoidable food wastage in the UK indicates that the overall amount has been cut by 21% from 2007 to 2012, the authors point out that a staggering 4.2 million tons of perfectly palatable food and drink is still thrown away by the country’s households every year, almost half of it travelling straight from the cupboard or fridge into the bin.

The amounts are difficult to visualise. Every day, Brits chuck out the equivalent of:

- 24 million slices of bread,

- 5.9 million glasses of milk,

- 5.8 million potatoes,

- 1.9 million slices of ham,

- 1.5 million sausages,

- 1.5 million whole tomatoes,

- 1.4 million bananas, and

- 1.1 million eggs.

In South Africa, some nine million tons of food are wasted annually, much of it during production, harvesting, storage, processing, packaging and distribution.

The solutions to our mounting waste problems are many and not terribly complicated: better waste management, improved manufacturing processes that minimise waste, reduced packaging by retailers and more recycling by producers and consumers.

Ultimately, the onus is on us to curb our off-the-rails consumption habits. That’s easier said than done in the face of the pervasive mantra of constant economic growth, but do we really need all this stuff, much of which turns into useless garbage faster than you can say Christmas shopping spree.

What’s really needed is a fundamental shift in the mindset of individual consumers as well as companies. It’s high time that we break the endless cycle of conspicuous consumption and reckless waste, by making a conscious effort to truly value the physical things we consume – be they pencils, petrol, carrots, nappies, steel beams, cellphones, hamburgers or cotton underpants – as precious and often limited resources, and recognise the stuff we chuck away as long-term pollution threats to the environment and future generations.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
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