Wednesday, July 17, 2024

What Happens to our Waste?

Bronwyn Slater looks at what happens to all our waste, and then outlines some of the measures we can take to reduce or eliminate it.

Where does our waste go?



Each person in Europe currently produces about half a ton of household waste per year. Only 40% of this is reused or recycled and the remainder goes to landfill. A major disadvantage to burying rubbish in landfills is the potential to pollute the surrounding soil and groundwater with toxins and leachate. Huge amounts of carbon dioxide, methane and other harmful greenhouse gases are also produced during decomposition in landfills.


Waste Incinerator

Many countries carry out waste incineration in addition to landfill and recycling. Modern incinerators can reduce the volume of the original waste by 95% and the process can also be used to generate electricity or heat (although this energy can usually only serve the equivalent of a small town). The problem with incineration is that the gases and ash produced contain toxins that can pollute the environment. Hence the ‘not in my backyard’ attitude by locals whenever incineration plants are proposed.

Germany and Sweden operate waste-to-energy incineration plants and they also import waste from other countries in order to keep their incineration plants going. Less than 1% of Sweden’s waste has been sent to landfill each year since 2011.



Glass, paper, cardboard, aluminium and some plastics can all be recycled. Plastic recycling is complicated and the uses for recycled plastics are limited. Plastic, unlike glass, can only be recycled once.  Some types of plastics are not recyclable and these end up as trash (see below).



Every home should have a compost bin for food and garden waste. On a large scale, many countries operate anaerobic digestion plants which use agricultural waste such as manures, slurries, crops, residues and municipal waste to create biogas which in turn can be used to create heat or electricity.

The Oceans:


Research released a year ago found there were more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the seas. Plastic debris includes municipal waste such as bottles, bags and packaging. The plastic breaks down into successively smaller pieces and can kill fish and seabirds when ingested. An autopsy carried out on a beached whale in Norway recently showed the animal’s stomach was empty of food and full of plastic including 30 plastic bags.


Once a plastic bottle is tossed into the ocean or left on the street, it won’t fully degrade for 1,000 years. It will instead break into many tiny pieces that have the capacity to absorb harmful toxins. These microplastics are consumed by fish and plankton. The plastic never disappears, but continues to circulate in a vicious cycle.

Plastics production is expected to double in the next 20 years and research suggests that, unless action is taken, there could be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050.

Other marine debris includes plastic sheets and covers, tarpaulins, crates, pallets, ropes, strapping and miscellaneous packaging, building materials, sealed drums and assorted industrial fishing nets, traps and lines.

How did it all get there?

  • One of the most common ways that marine debris enters the sea is by being swept through storm drains. Small pieces of trash tossed into the street are often washed into storm drains during rain storms, which deposit the water – and the trash – into the sea.
  • Rivers and other waterways can also wash plastics and rubbish into our oceans. In Jakarta, less than half of the city’s rubbish may reach landfill and the balance heads seaward via 13 rivers. Some Indian and Pacific ocean islands have municipal dumps at one end of the island, and the monthly high tide lifts the lot and washes it out to sea.
  • Beachgoers and picnickers also play a part by leaving plastic cups, aluminium cans, bottle caps, plastic utensils and food wrappers behind them after a day out.
  • Extreme weather like hurricanes, tornados, tsunamis and flooding can also produce large amounts of debris which are washed into the sea.
  • Commercial shipping, drilling platforms, and recreational boating produce about 18% of all marine debris. Rough seas can also cause ships to lose cargo or gear overboard. The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) was developed primarily to address marine oil pollution, but the convention also requires ships to store and bring waste to port.



Approximately 85% of all discarded clothes are sent to landfill, which means that clothing is responsible for a high percentage of our waste. In addition, the manufacture of clothing itself requires vast amounts of water, energy and chemicals. The Water Footprint Network estimates that 10,000 tons of water are required to produced  one ton of cotton. The textile industry has caused river pollution in China, India, Cambodia, and Bangladesh. Cotton is the most widely used fabric in the clothing industry. It is grown on just 2.4% of the world’s cropland but accounts for 24% of global sales of insecticides.

What is the Solution?

The Zero Waste Movement:

  • This new movement is gaining popularity worldwide, and it is now possible to find many zero-waste groups popping up on Facebook, for example.
  • Zero waste supermarkets are another new idea, although it remains to be seen whether they will take off and become widespread.
  • book2Bea Johnson, described by the New York Times as ‘the priestess of waste-free living’, has written a book called Zero Waste Home. The book has been translated into 12 languages.  You can watch her TEDx talk here. Johnson refers to buying in bulk as one of the key areas where waste can be reduced.
  • Trash is for Tossers is a popular blog and aims to help people reduce or eliminate waste.
  • This Japanese town aims to produce zero trash by 2020.
  • This article in a previous edition of Vegan Sustainability has some tips for reducing your waste.

How do we clean up the Oceans:

There are currently some very promising projects which aim to tackle ocean waste:

  • 21-year old Boyan Slat has created an ocean cleanup array which can remove plastic from the ocean. He claims that a single array could remove half of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in just 10 years. You can find out more about the Ocean Cleanup Project here.
  • The team from SAS Ocean Phoenix, a maritime engineering company based in the South of France, wants to tackle the trash problem with a massive cleanup ship which would ply the polluted Pacific. The boat would suck ocean water into chambers between its parallel hulls, where a series of filters would catch first the big chunks of plastic, then successively smaller pieces. SAS Ocean Phoenix says the staggered filters would allow fish to swim between them and return to the ocean.
  • The Environmental Cleanup Coalition is an organisation dedicated to cleaning up the oceans. Their website provides a lot of information on the current problem, as well as a variety of solutions to it.

Ultimately, we need to stop debris from entering the sea in the first place. This can be done by making sure there is a suitable waste infrastructure in every country. Beaches and public amenities need to be kept clean at all times, and visitors should be made aware of the need to bring their trash home with them. Education and behaviour modification is key and people need to be made aware of where their rubbish could end up after they throw it away.


  • Delhi has recently passed a law which bans plastic from the city completely, and France has passed a law which will come into effect in 2020 to ensure that all plastic cups, cutlery and plates can be composted and are made of biologically-sourced materials.
  • Biodegradable plastic is an alternative to petroleum-based plastic. However, there are problems associated with the production of these kinds of plastics also, which you can read about here.
  • book3This short video explains the problem with plastic packaging and how we can help reduce or eliminate it. This video is also useful.
  • When buying liquids you can choose glass bottles and jars instead of plastic.
  • Refuse plastic bags when they are offered and always bring cloth bags with you when shopping.
  • Choose paper, cardboard, or no packaging when buying produce.
  • Buy in bulk as much as possible.
  • Make sure your local neighbourhood does regular cleanups if litter is a problem in your area.
  • Always bring your trash home with you after a day out.
  • Check out this blog and book: My Plastic Free Life for some great tips on becoming plastic-free.

The Circular Economy:

  • The Circular Economy is a model of production in which waste is reduced or eliminated, and all manufactured items are re-used at the end of their lifetime.
  • At clothing company H&M, for example, the idea of circular production has really taken off. In 2013 the clothing retailer launched an in-store garment collecting initiative. You can now leave old textiles at any H&M store in the world and the company will upcycle, re-use and resell them.
  • Clothing companies like Nike, Levi-Strauss, North Face, Zara and Patagonia are also keen to get on board the circular economy bandwagon, and have begun collecting old garments for recycling and reuse.
  • The Sustainable Apparel Coalition – an alliance of retailers, brands, and nonprofits – has been working for about five years to measure and reduce the industry’s environmental footprint.
  • A new app for mobiles called Stuffstr lets users know where they can donate, repair or bring back used clothing or household items.


Make sure you compost food and garden waste at home, or if you generate large amounts of garden or other biological waste your local recycling service may be able to accept it.


Upcycling and Remakeries:

Upcycling makes new items out of old ones. Used furniture is a great example of upcycling and items can be newly upholstered, repaired, re-varnished, etc. Remakeries take used goods and repair, upcycle and re-sell them. Check out the Edinburgh Remakery here as an example.

Repair Cafe

Repair Cafés:

The repair café concept was founded in Amsterdam in 2009 and there are now 1,180 repair cafés in 30 countries. You can check many of them out online here. The basic concept is that you take your broken item to the café and it will be repaired there (by a volunteer) while you wait. There is a social and local dimension to these cafés where tea and coffee are provided and people can relax and chat to others.

Freecycle and Donation:

Freecycling or giving away your unwanted items for free has also become very popular and you should now be able to find freecycle groups in most major towns and cities. Charity donation is also another option when giving away unwanted goods.

In conclusion, a lot is being done to address the problem of waste. Along with a growing awareness of the problem, new movements to address it are gaining ground. As time goes on, perhaps technology will advance to the point where waste is no longer a problem. In the meantime, there is a lot that we can do as individuals in order to reduce the amount of waste we produce.


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