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The problem of waste has ever been a problem – and it’s now coming from some surprising places.
A study by the US Smithsonian Institute projected which countries would be the largest generators of trash in 2025, when the world is expected to throw away 6 million tonnes of waste per day. The daily waste from cities alone is already enough to fill a line of waste disposal trucks 5,000 kilometers long.
The US used to lead the world as the premier throwaway society, generating a quarter of the world’s trash despite only having 5% of the global population. In absolute terms it’s been overtaken by China, which is expected to generate 1.4 million tonnes of trash per day by 2025, or roughly one kilo per head of population. Brazil also is expected to hit one kilo per head per day by that time.
As a much poorer nation, with simply less to throw away, India is a relatively low-ranking offender, generating an expected 377,000 tonnes of trash per day, or 0.3 kilos per head. Surprisingly, one of the worst trash-producers is set to be Turkey, with 136,000 tonnes per day, or two kilos per head. Both India and Turkey are expected to overtake Japan, which currently generates half as much waste per head as the US, partly due to strict disposal laws in densely populated cities.
And perhaps more surprising still lies in terms of what’s thrown out, organic waste led by unwanted or uneaten food in low-income countries is set to generate more than half of it, accounting for 53% in 2025 compared with 34% in developed nations. The West also throws out more items that could have been recycled such as metals, glass and textiles, accounting for 12% of waste compared to 6% in emerging markets.
The process of waste disposal itself creates an environmental threat, as landfill sites add to climate change by generating methane, while more planet-friendly waste incinerators – often used as sources of power generation – create pollution and ash. Non-biodegradable items that in some cases take decades to break down can seep poisonous chemicals into land banks and eventually water reservoirs. This increasingly includes items such as unwanted mobile phones and tablets which contain toxins such as cadmium and arsenic.
Such is the escalation of the problem that the World Economic Forum has predicted that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish. And it’s not just earthly waste: there is the growing threat of space junk raining down on our heads as satellites, rocket casings and parts of now defunct space stations fall out of orbit.
Waste disposal forms part of the ‘E’ in ESG that is integrated into all Robeco’s investment decisions when considering buying the equities or bonds of the companies or countries involved. Much of this process is focused on engaging with the main culprits to try to stop it from happening in the first place, says Peter van der Werf, senior engagement specialist with Robeco's Active Ownership team.
“More than 30% of total food production is wasted during its full life time, with the majority of that percentage at the consumer stage,” he says. “This leads to the astonishing levels of waste that end of rotting in landfill, then creating a secondary problem of generating greenhouse gases.”
“We encourage food retailers to actively create awareness among customers to reduce food waste, and to contribute to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 12 regarding Food Waste. This will increase food security globally and reduce the pressure on natural resources."
Every month we look at stunning statistics from the world of sustainability. What do they mean? What is the impact for investors?