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Peak waste: Another phenomenon that should bother us

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Peak oil, defined as the time when oil production is less than the demand, is an idea that has fuelled many energy policies. Backers of the fossil fuel economy sometimes worry about peak oil, but now there is another phenomenon that should bother us more: peak waste. Unlike in the case of oil, the worry is not that it is peaking too soon. It is peaking too late for the good of the planet.

The London-based journal Nature has a comment this week about peak waste, pointing out that it will peak only in the next century.

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Unless it peaks by at least 2075, say the authors, waste generated per day will be three times the present levels by 2100, far more than the earth can manage. The world population will peak by 2075. So why should waste not peak at the same time?

Much of the world’s waste is created by city dwellers. A villager creates only half as much waste as an urbanite of the same economic status. As more people move into cities, the amount of waste created increases. As they become more affluent, waste production increases too. So three trends work together to increase waste generation: population growth, urbanisation and affluence.

OECD countries produce the largest amount of waste now: 1.75 million tonnes a day. China’s waste alone will match this figure by 2025, after which India will take over for two decades. After 2050, the stage will belong to the African nations. Although developed nations will reduce their waste generation over the years, the newly industrialised countries will more than compensate for the reduction. Waste is one of the biggest problems facing the planet. No one has a magic bullet — in terms of technology — to address it.

Like in all such cases, we ignore the possibilities of technology advance in projections. Waste management techniques have improved considerably in recent times. The rise of wasteto-energy plants is one such improvement.

Early generations of incinerators produced a lot of toxic fumes that were let out with impunity, but incinerators now burn at high temperatures that can break down these chemicals. They also have technology to trap other offending solid particles.

If our waste comes from nonrenewable sources, waste-to-energy plants have a positive effect on carbon emissions. If its renewable component — like organic waste — is high, the effect on global carbon emissions would be low. On the whole, the arrival of modern waste-toenergy plants is a fine thing. Landfills account for 5% of global carbon dioxide emissions; and much of it is longlived methane.

Within a decade, waste-to-energy plants might be able to handle a substantial amount of our trash and reduce its volume to less than one-twentieth.

Garbology, Anyone?

Waste is such a serious global problem that it is even getting the interest of academicians. Garbology, the science of studying waste, is an academic discipline that is growing in importance.

It has led some people to look at waste as a resource rather than as a problem. Good waste management has multiple benefits. Recycling would reduce landfill mass. So would composting, which has the additional advantage of substantially reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

By 2025, we might arrive at a situation where technology can handle almost all our waste, provided there is a disciplined effort all around. Some cities around the world are doing exactly that.

San Francisco, a world leader in environmental matters, wants to become a zero-waste city by 2025. The term is a bit deceptive. Sometimes recycling only postpones the problem, but its severity would be far less.

Economic Times

10 Comments on "Peak waste: Another phenomenon that should bother us"

  1. J-Gav on Fri, 1st Nov 2013 7:00 pm 

    Garbology … right …
    Though there may well be some short-term gains in much of what is being done here, there are also a couple of contradictions. 1 – Eliminate the waste and you eliminate the energy derived therefrom (which can amount to quite a lot – see Sweden’s so-far successful waste-to-energy program); 2 – Don’t eliminate the waste and you must strive to continue something akin to BAU.

    I’ve worked (in a non-technical capacity) with brilliant young quants applying themselves to just such matters: giving advice to municipalities or even entire European regions on infrastructure development (or divestment) from transportation to water and gray-water treatment to building refurbishing, etc. One of the problems they usually run up against is the cost of what they propose and who’s going to pay for it …

  2. Dave Thompson on Fri, 1st Nov 2013 7:01 pm 

    “Peak oil, defined as the time when oil production is less than the demand,” This first line is wrong do I need to read anymore?

  3. GregT on Fri, 1st Nov 2013 7:43 pm 

    “Unless it peaks by at least 2075, say the authors, waste generated per day will be three times the present levels by 2100, far more than the earth can manage.”

    Yet another article pretending that our predicament will not affect us in our lifetimes. In 87 years, most of those reading this will be long gone, even IF they have the opportunity to live out their natural lives. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    The signs are all around us. We have already generated more waste, ‘than the earth can manage’. Every single natural ecosystem on the planet is in a state of decline. The Earth’s natural systems are complex, and all complex systems are prone to reaching ‘tipping points’, when their declines rapidly enter into stages of collapse.

    The answer does not lie in recycling garbage, the answer is to stop turning the natural environment into waste in the first place. We need to learn how to live with less stuff, and to make the stuff that we already have, last much longer.

  4. action on Fri, 1st Nov 2013 9:19 pm 

    We should use the remaining fossil fuel to launch the garbage into space, leaving us hydrocarbon AND waste free, two birds with one stone. Heck, that would even solve the population issue by proxy, and the environmental issue… I think I just found THE solution. ALL birds with one stone!

  5. Norm on Fri, 1st Nov 2013 9:52 pm 

    Dump it into a volcano.

  6. BillT on Sat, 2nd Nov 2013 3:44 am 

    Again, TOTAL systems have not even been considered. With the exception of the 1/10%, has your income exceeded real inflation over the last 10 years? If you are like most, it has actually been shrinking for about 30 years. Consumption is beginning to decline all over the world. As energy gets more and more expensive, less and less will be sold or even made. Less made, less trash. In the Depression, there was little trash. Everything was reused until it was unusable and then it was used for something else. An example, the Sears catalog became toilet paper in the outhouse. (Yes, we may get back to that lifestyle, without the catalog…lol.)

  7. Norm on Sat, 2nd Nov 2013 5:36 am 

    Everything i ever wanted is in the 1976 Sears mail order catalog. Thats why i got the catalog off eBay (sigh). Hey just set off a nuke bomb in each garbage dump. Whamo, no more garbage. Problem solved.

  8. Kenz300 on Sat, 2nd Nov 2013 11:26 am 

    Biofuels can now be made from waste or trash……

    Every landfill can now be converted to produce biofuels, energy and recycled materials for new products…..

    When the waste has value as an energy source or as raw materials for new products we will begin to recycle more of it and put it to productive use.

    That is better than burying the waste…..

    That is better than Wars for oil……..

    That is better than trash accumulating in the oceans..

  9. Frank Kling on Sat, 2nd Nov 2013 12:03 pm 

    Spot on CORRECT GregT.

  10. Norm on Sun, 3rd Nov 2013 6:04 am 

    I think i got it right.

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