Big countries are feeling the pressure of overstocked landfills as environmental regulations and trade agreements shake up traditional waste flows.
The world produces 2.1 billion tonnes of rubbish each year with only 16% recycled and 46% disposed of unsustainably.
Countries such as China, once the dumping ground for almost 4 billion people, is now reconsidering their approach to waste management. Miles of landfills and impromptu recycling centers currently dot the landscape with armies of uneducated garbage scavengers just barely scraping a life together out of what they can recycle. A rising middle class has become increasingly upset by the pollution in the country, with the government charting a new course to address the disgruntled citizenry.
Beijing looks to modernize waste recycling by encouraging consumers to sort their own rubbish out and dispense it in newly installed collection machines which offer cash in exchange. New national policy initiatives such as restrictions on single use packaging and an increase in trash incineration are also being put into place, set to be enforced by 2020. All this is part of a new three year “green” plan put forth by the Ministry of Environmental Protection in an effort to improve air quality and tighten regulations.
The United States is also feeling pressure as the largest producer of waste per head can no longer sell garbage to China due to its new environmental measures and the ongoing ‘trade war’. US citizens produce roughly 12% of the global total of waste at around 773kg per head of population.
In a study by Versick Maplecroft, a global risk analysis company, the biggest area of concern with waste disposal in the US is the relationship between “what it generates and its capacity to recycle”. The report cites the lack of investment into recycling infrastructure as a major issue now that waste can no longer be shipped to China.
Russia finds itself in similar position, with a mounting waste problem as landfill space is rapidly shrinking. Russia only recycles 4% of its national waste currently, far behind the rest of Europe which sees countries like Germany recycling 68% of its national waste.
Landfill space isn’t the only problem for Russia however, with public health issues as a result of waste processing causing massive outcries calling for better treatment. Towns where Russia hosts its landfills and coal-based treatment processes have reported health problems such as increased cancer rates and children hospitalized from poisonous gas leaks.
In January, President Vladimir Putin ordered the development of national waste disposal systems and a national oversight agency called the Russian Ecological Operator. Activists say that local concerns are systematically ignored, and that plans are unclear leaving many to protest for recycling rather than further burning and burying of the waste.
While Asia has served as the world’s dumping ground for decades, new restrictions and bans on waste imports in China, Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia are causing dumper countries to reconsider their domestic waste methods before a national waste crisis ensues.