The priority now is to decrease the amount of waste we generate. That means changing our consumption patterns, for example by choosing products that use recyclable material, market fresh produce instead of canned food, less packaging and easily recyclable containers (for example glass instead of plastic). It also means recycling – sorting, collecting, processing and reusing materials that would otherwise be handled as wastes. Many organizations are now engaged in education campaigns, and they seem to be working – in the last two decades, the amount of material being recycled in rich countries has grown dramatically. Most of it is paper, followed by glass, metals, aluminium, plastic, and organic waste.
The economy of recycling
Recycling activities are economically important. Collection, sorting and reprocessing represent job opportunities (especially in the paper recycling sector). They also lower energy and municipal waste disposal costs. Recycling and reprocessing are growth industries, which also support some downstream sectors like the steel industry.
It is difficult to quantify, because of a lack of data, but the informal recycling sector in developing countries is estimated to be economically important.
Many recycling paths go from rich to poor countries. Low labour costs, fewer regulations, little import control and the existence of a market for reuse (scrap metals for example) are the main reasons. Lacking the capacity to deal safely with much of this material, significant damage is being done to human health and the environment. These issues need to be addressed at the international level.
Some recycling strategies, although well intentioned, can use more energy, or themselves produce new types of waste or pollution. For example, air emissions from aluminium recycling can contain particulate matter in the form of metallic chlorides and oxides, as well as acid gases and chlorine gas.
Informal waste management
In developing countries, waste management is reduced to what the community can afford (usually not very much). Waste is mostly a big city problem and complications start with waste collection and continue with open dumps, open burning, and incinerators in the middle of towns. In rural areas, the great majority of waste is organic. Here composting is a very valuable strategy.
In poor cities of Asia, Africa, Central and South America, many people make a living by sorting through municipal landfills. They are called “waste scavengers”. Mostly coming from rural areas, mostly female and often children, these workers are on the lowest level of the social scale. They experience very dangerous working conditions, handling hazardous waste without physical or social protection. Waste wise, their contribution is very important, for the proportion of solid waste they recycle is significant. Not only does it reduce the mountain of waste, but it also creates wealth and offers a second life to materials.
As global waste policies are progressively implemented, these cities have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of developed countries. And including the scavenger’s activity in the waste management plans (providing them with a status, decent working conditions and revenue) is now a consideration.