Over 2.1 billion tonnes of municipal waste are generated each year globally – enough to fill 822,000 Olympic-size swimming pools, which would stretch 41,000 km if laid out end-to-end. However, only 323 million tonnes or 16% of this is recycled each year, while 950 million tonnes or 46% is disposed of unsustainably, shows a new analysis.
Americans, according to the report, are the worst offenders, creating three times the global average of waste.
“America’s thirst for consumption is not matched by an appetite for recycling. It is the world’s top producer of waste and one of the worst of any industrialized nation for managing its trash,” says the report titled Waste Generation and Recycling Indices 2019.
The study, conducted by research firm Verisk Maplecroft, which specializes in global risk data and country risk analysis, says, “The gulf between what we produce and what we recycle is creating profound challenges for governments and populations. But it is the companies producing large volumes of waste that may find themselves footing the bill if they do not find sustainable solutions to drive a more circular economy.”
The report defines a circular economy as one that minimizes resource extraction and material inputs and maximizes efficiency, through regenerative design, recollection and recycling. “Transitioning from a linear to a circular economy can help avoid ecological catastrophe and maintain a healthy living environment. Clearly, not all countries are moving at the same pace to achieve this,” the report says.
The Waste Generation Index (WGI) and Recycling Index (REI) are two 2019 additions to the Verisk Maplecroft Environment Dataset, which now consists of 52 indices capturing key risks relating to climate change, environment, and natural hazards. In the latest indices, the researchers have measured the waste generation and recycling performance of 194 countries to uncover a global picture of how countries are dealing with the waste they produce at a time where the world is facing a mounting crisis, primarily driven by plastics.
Who’s Generating the Most Junk?
The waste generation index, which captures per capita rates of municipal solid waste, plastic, food, and hazardous waste production, shows that US citizens and businesses are the largest contributors to the waste problem across all the indicators measured. At 773 kgs per head, the country generates 12% of global solid waste, approximately 239 million tonnes, while only accounting for 4% of the world’s population, making it the “most extreme risk country” and ranked in the top 10 highest risk countries.
The US is not alone, though. Highly developed European and North American countries are disproportionately responsible for the highest levels of waste generation. Europe and North America dominate the list of highest risk countries in the index, says the report, which adds that while these countries have reaped the benefits of “being ahead of the curve in terms of economic development,” their waste generation has escalated as a result.
“The highest risk countries in the WGI feature the US, the Netherlands, Canada, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, France, and Australia. The UK ranks 14th in the WGI, with its residents generating 482 kgs of household waste each, per year,” the report says.
In contrast, says the analysis, while India and China together make up for over 36% of the global population, they generate 27% of the global municipal waste. The researchers say that Americans produce over three times as much waste as their Chinese counterparts and seven times more than the people of Ethiopia, the lowest risk country in the index. Another striking difference is that municipal waste generation per capita is four times higher in the US than in India, say the researchers.
US Lags Behind Other Developed Countries in Recycling
The researchers say while it may not be surprising that the US is one of the largest producers of household waste, given that it is the world’s largest economy, what is shocking is the country’s “significant lack of commitment” to offset its waste footprint. “The US is the only developed nation whose waste generation outstrips its ability to recycle, underscoring a shortage of political will and investment in infrastructure,” says the team.
According to the recycling index, the US currently recycles just 35% of its municipal solid waste. On the other hand, Germany - which has the world’s most efficient record on waste management according to the index - recycles 68% of its solid waste.
“Even in the best-performing countries, there is plenty of room for improvement, though. Progress in the UK, for instance, has stalled for the best part of a decade. While it is the seventh best-performing country in the recycling index globally, it still only has a recycling rate of 44%,” say the findings.
The researchers warn that America’s "seeming lack of resolve" to deal with its domestic waste may become a massive problem in the face of plastics import bans from China and several other developing countries, where the US currently exports a large proportion of its plastic waste.
“China, Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia have all banned, or are set to ban, imports of solid waste, including a host of plastics. Additionally, in May, almost all the world, with the notable exception of the US, agreed to restrict shipments of hard-to-recycle plastic waste to developing nations,” say the researchers.
They add that such policy changes will make it very hard for countries like the US, who are grossly underperforming, when it comes to recycling their waste.
Overall, the global pattern under the recycling index is diametrically opposite to that of waste generation, with developed countries exhibiting low-risk profiles and low-income countries mostly rated as high or extreme risk.
Eight of the 10 lowest risk countries are in Europe, with Singapore and Australia also featured, says the report. Developing countries in Africa and Asia perform poorly on this index. For example, The Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand are three Southeast Asian countries who fall well below the mark.
“These countries are experiencing higher rates of population growth and urbanization. Waste generation is increasing in these locations as a result, underlining the importance of improving waste management systems which enhance reuse and recovery,” say the findings.