28 Sep 2015 | Desmond Astley-Cooper

Please don’t think that this is a gratuitous attempt to insult the reader….it’s just the popular name of a pressure group in Lebanon which is demanding that the government do something about the waste crisis in the country. Those inhabitants who live near the main municipal dump have said “no more” and as a result, heaps of rubbish are building up in the streets of the capital, Beirut.

Despite considerable advances in recycling technology we are drowning in refuse. Municipal waste is becoming a huge problem everywhere and especially in the mega cities of the developing world. New municipal waste tips are met with outbreaks of Nimbyism, the construction of incinerators is fiercely contested wherever they are sited and illegal landfills proliferate. There are reports from time to time of explosions where accumulations of methane have built up from the decomposition of organic waste (Kuwait City, for example).

Until recently, statistics on waste production have been difficult to come by although reporting requirements exist in most countries. The problem is they are not often applied and, where they are, standards & procedures differ! For example, a set of statistics produced by the UNECE Statistical Division five years ago showed the Russian Federation at the top of the table producing 3.9bn tonnes of waste annually compared with all 27 countries of the EU at only 2.6bn. This sounds unlikely given the disparity in population despite the geographic size of Russia.

There is no real reason why governments should not obtain correct and comparable statistics on which to make policy decisions. An excellent resource in this respect is the Waste Atlas (http://bit.ly/ZwkAM2) devised by the University of Leeds and its partners. It shows that most countries of the world with a few exceptions (Somalia, Papua New Guinea & the areas held by ISIS) actually do produce waste statistics.

I am indebted to Antonis Mavropoulos for highlighting the fact that streams of waste change over time and grow at different rates. As the dietary habits amongst the new middle class in China and India change, food waste will increase as a proportion with its attendant impact on methane emissions. Furthermore the problem posed by the dual streams of electronic and plastic waste, already a serious problem in the West, has been mitigated until now by exporting the bulk of both to China for reprocessing.

Exports in these volumes are unlikely to continue as the Chinese become more and more environmentally conscious. This begs a number of questions. Will the expansion of modern waste management systems be capable of handling the increasing volumes generated? Or will the reality be an ocean of new uncontrolled dumpsites with some islands of advanced waste management? And how will those advanced technologies become available for countries that are trapped in poverty and so unable to afford them?

Some will argue for market-based solutions: trash mining, methane extraction and the development of new recycling technologies. But perhaps the most exciting development is where self-selecting networks of individuals and organizations come up with solutions of their own accord which are more agile, innovative and effective than those advanced by state bureaucracies. Nonetheless, against the forecast population increase and growing middle classes in Asia, one thing is clear; unless there is a sea change in the culture of disposal products and built-in obsolescence, none of the above will be sufficient.

Desmond Astley-Cooper