Running out of space
In recent years, our global population has continued to increase exponentially to what some may consider a critical number. With the current population hovering around 7.7 billion, predicted to surpass 8.6 billion by 2030, issues have surfaced regarding the need for sustainable human practices to maintain the health of the planet (United Nations). We are currently approaching what is referred to as a carrying capacity, which is a limit on the number of people the Earth can sustain based on available resources and space (World Population). The question of when we will reach our carrying capacity doesn’t only apply to population dynamics, but also to the side effects of having so many people on the planet, such as the seemingly endless production of waste. In 2016, the World Bank recorded 2.01 billion tonnes of waste that had been generated by cities, a staggering number that is projected to increase to 3.40 billion tonnes by 2050 (The World Bank). While the crisis of increasing waste from a growing population affects us all, those living in developing countries are considerably more at risk of facing the consequences of our consumerist society (The World Bank).
In countries that do not have strict regulation on garbage disposal, waste is disposed of as people see fit, whether that be through burning or the careless dumping of trash (The World Bank). These unregulated forms of disposal are often overlooked due to the fact that enforcing proper waste management can take 20-50% of a municipal budget and is therefore too expensive for most low-income countries to afford (The World Bank). Inefficient waste management has multiple negative consequences, such as soil and water contamination, the release of harmful greenhouse gases, air pollution, endangerment of wildlife, and impacts on the health of those living near dump sites, including sites that use contaminated resources (Metropolitan Transfer Station). All of these factors contribute to the continuation of climate change, and the consequences of the buildup of methane fumes being released into the atmosphere can even lead to political violence and unrest in affected communities (The World Bank). For example, in Kingston, Jamaica, the city’s inefficiency in properly handling waste management caused an uproar in inner-city communities, provoking people to barricade the entrance of their communities with larger appliances, such as refrigerators, air conditioners, and washing machines (Kaza). These barricades prevented police officials from entering the communities in order to pursue arrests, sending a clear message to the government that the people wanted adequate waste management services to be provided to everyone (Kaza).
Low-income countries are not only at risk due to their own lack of waste management funding, but also because of the global waste trade and the import of waste from developed countries. Many countries, such as China, have long been importers of both solid and plastic waste from other nations, with an import of over 163 million metric tonnes of waste in 2016 alone (CBC Radio). However, at the start of 2018, the Chinese government announced that they would be implementing a strict ban on the import of 24 different categories of waste materials, creating a global concern about where the tonnes of trash would now end up (CBC Radio). China’s goal in this ban is to focus more so on their own recycling industry, due to their growing economy and power as a key global actor (CBC Radio). For countries like the US, which has long been a top ten exporter of plastics, the issue of finding somewhere new to export waste is very pressing (Dhiraj). It is estimated that the US itself will run out of space in its domestic landfills within the next eighteen years, according to a recent report by the Solid Waste Environmental Excellence Protocol (SWEEP) (Dhiraj). As a developed country that currently exports about 12.4% of the world’s waste, it is crucial that the US finds a new destination for its waste (Dhiraj).
Perhaps the issue at hand isn’t about where our waste will go in the future, but what will happen if we continue in our consumerist habits, exponentially increasing the amount of waste produced as the population continues to grow. While many developed countries are able to export their trash and therefore not “see” it in their day to day lives, what will occur when more bans, such as the Chinese one, are implemented, thus forcing these nations to find a way to dispose of their waste within their borders? Having to deal with this problem first hand may just be what some nations must face in order to realize the critical impact their actions are having on the planet.
“Carrying Capacity.” World Population, worldpopulationhistory.org/carrying-capacity/.
Dhiraj, Amarendra Bhushan. “Study: The Top Importers (and Exporters) Of The World's Plastic Waste
And China Won't Accept Plastic Trash Anymore.” CEOWORLD Magazine, 19 Oct. 2018,
Kaza, Silpa. “What Does Waste Management Have to Do with Reducing Crime and Violence in Jamaica?” Jobs and Development, 11 Apr. 2014, blogs.worldbank.org/sustainablecities/what-does-waste-management-have-do-reducing-crime-and-violence-jamaica.
“Solid Waste Management.” The World Bank, 20 Sept. 2018, www.worldbank.org/en/topic/urbandevelopment/brief/solid-waste-management.
“The Effects of Improper Waste Disposal.” Metropolitan Transfer Station , 7 Oct. 2017, www.metropolitantransferstation.com.au/blog/negative-effects-of-improper-waste-management.
“'Wasted': What Happens When China No Longer Wants Our Trash? | CBC Radio.” CBC News, CBC/Radio Canada, 13 Jan. 2018, www.cbc.ca/radio/day6/episode-372-china-s-waste-ban-syrian-cuisine-oprah2020-the-colour-of-2018-letterman-returns-and-more-1.4479480/wasted-what-happens-when-china-no-longer-wants-our-trash-1.4479601.
“World Population Projected to Reach 9.8 Billion in 2050, and 11.2 Billion in 2100 – Says UN - United Nations Sustainable Development.” United Nations, United Nations, 21 June 2017, www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2017/06/world-population-projected-to-reach-9-8-billion-in-2050-and-11-2-billion-in-2100-says-un/.