Did you know that waste related pollution causes the death of one million people annually? Attending an international waste conference last month was a shock. Even though I had - kind of - been aware of the huge global waste problem, having all that evidence in front of my eyes felt awful. The truth is painful.
Currently 40% of the world’s waste ends up in dumpsites. They are also the third largest contributor to the methane emissions originating in human activity. If nothing is done, dumpsites will be accountable for up to 10% of the global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions by 2025.
We are recycling - or are we?
The fast increasing use of various materials combined with the single-use culture will create serious limits to the economic growth as the world’s population is estimated to reach almost 10 billion by 2050, leading to the doubling of the material resource use from what it is now.
It is also about money. To give an example: only 24% of the 50 million tonnes of electronic waste generated annually is properly recycled. In terms of valuable resources the losses are huge: USD 62.5 billion each year.
Even in the EU, where the management of waste has been improving, we still lose 600 million tons of potential material per year; e.g. metals, wood, glass, paper, and plastics present in waste streams that could be recycled.
Alone we just smother
The situation is extremely severe. Is there anything we can do, or is it just a waste of time to try to change the direction? To me it seems obvious that immediate actions have to be taken to improve waste management practices to reduce health and environmental problems, cut greenhouse gas emissions and turn waste into a resource. This requires high ambition and collaboration between the decision makers, industry players in circular economies, and innovators.
The waste problem is so huge that there is no single solution to it. The legislation should provide drivers for improving waste management practices, stimulating innovation in the utilization of waste as a secondary raw material, and developing meaningful incentives for consumers to change their behaviour. EU must act as a leader in developing and implementing good practices and actively sharing them with developing countries.
Surrender, survive or seek for solutions?
As depressing the factfulness of the waste conference was, there was a good amount of pioneering spirit and amazingly encouraging atmosphere of developing solutions together.
Industry experts, regulators, researchers and young talents from 75 countries were gathered together as equal colleagues sharing their knowhow and learnings in waste management and related technology developments. Neste can have a significant role in ecosystems where waste will have a new life as e.g. sustainable aviation fuel and other sustainable fuels and materials. I am proud to be a part of this team and have a job with a purpose.
At the end of the day, I’m pretty convinced that it is not a waste of time to put all possible effort to solve the global waste problem and fully utilize the potential in secondary raw materials - we just have no time to waste to move to serious actions.