FOR MORE than two centuries since the start of the Industrial Revolution, Western economies have been built upon the premise of “take, make, dispose”. But the waste this created in 20th-century Europe and America was nothing compared with the rubbish now produced by emerging economies such as China. According to a new World Bank report, in 2016 the world generated 2bn tonnes of municipal solid waste (household and commercial rubbish)—up from 1.8bn tonnes just three years earlier. That equates to 740 grams (1lb 6oz) each day for every man, woman and child on Earth.
That number does not include the much bigger amount produced by industry. Industrial solid refuse contains more valuable materials like scrap metal and has long been better managed by profit-seeking firms. And then there is the biggest waste management problem of all: 30bn tonnes of invisible but dangerous carbon dioxide dumped into the atmosphere every year.
As people grow richer, they consume—and discard—more. Advanced economies make up 16% of the world’s population but produce 34% of its rubbish. The developing world is catching up fast. On current trends, the World Bank projects, by mid-century Europeans and North Americans will produce a quarter more waste than they do today. In the same period, volumes will grow by half in East Asia, they will double in South Asia and triple in sub-Saharan Africa. The annual global total will approach 3.4bn tonnes.
Read more in our special report on waste.