An example of waste management problems rests with plastics. One million plastic bottles were purchased globally per minute, according to The Guardian. This is a global number that quickly adds up to a staggering half a trillion plastic bottles purchased annually by 2021. The challenge of plastic waste needs new technological solutions.
This level of waste and the approach to addressing this level of waste which rests less with recycling and more with landfill (often using landfill in other countries) is something that societies need to tackle.
Michael Schmidt, an environmental services specialist and Executive Vice President of Strategic Growth and Development at Gold Medal Environmental, provides commentary on the state of waste management in the U.S.
Digital Journal: What is the impact on the environment from waste?
Michael Schmidt: The things we throw out have an unfavorable impact on our environment in many different ways, the largest two being the continued consumption of land for the use of landfills and commercial compost facilities, to the emission of green-house gases either through the decomposition of waste or even from the vehicles that transport the waste to processing facilities.
Waste and population are positively and linearly correlated and as the population grows, the volume of the waste generated increases. Driven by this positive correlation between waste and population growth, we at Gold Medal Environmental believe the greatest impact on the environment is the continued consumption of land to properly dispose of and manage trash.
DJ: What is the situation with recycling?
Schmidt: While single stream recycling has been successful in helping governments and organizations divert recoverable materials away from landfills, China’s recent recycling ban and the recent global, single-stream recycling crisis, we are now learning that many of those things we have been throwing into our single stream recycling bin, “Wish-Cycling” as many have called it, the recent Global Recycling Crisis has shed light on the fact that much of what we have considered “recyclable” in the past is now considered to be trash, ultimately finding its way back into landfills dumped illegally or being burned. This has ultimately led many people to rethink what we are truly recycling.
The second greatest impact to the environmental is the emissions of greenhouse gasses not only as trash decomposes in a landfill, but also through the use of numerous collection vehicles and long-haul transport vehicles on the road today collecting garbage, food waste, and recyclables (a different truck for each waste stream) and driving it long distances to dispose of the material.
DJ: How can gas related issues be addressed?
Schmidt: Many, well run landfills, have gas collection systems where the methane gas is captured and either burned off, or captured, cleaned and used to power local homes and businesses either through direct gas or through the creation of electricity. Unfortunately, the growing population pushes landfills further away from where the trash is being generation, increasing the number of trucks on the road ultimately leading to an increase in carbon emissions.
DJ: Are there other issues?
Schmidt: Other concerns such as illegal dumping, ground water contamination and trash in our oceans, are definitely impactful on our global environment and should not be overlooked, however, much of this illegal dumping is driven by countries in attempt to preserve land for their people as well as many to preserve costs.
DJ: How bad are the future projections for waste management?
Schmidt: The projections are concerning and if we don’t act now, things will only get worse. Currently there are over 7 billion people on this planet with various projections indicating that by 2050 the world’s population will grow to 9 billion and 11 billion people. This level of population growth puts significant demand on our energy and land consumption. With estimates of indicating 80% more energy and the consumption than currently, demonstrating a need today to find more sustainable energy sources.
DJ: What are the implications?
Schmidt: The pressures on agriculture to sustain a population of such size raises significant concerns. As mentioned above, the increasing population will raise demand for land putting the demand for agricultural purposes at direct odds with the demand for land to support the population. The growth in the population will lead to the significant growth of refuse, further stressing the demand for land to support this population growth.
The use of land to sustain the population will make the idea of using land for landfills seem beyond irresponsible. While 30 years from now may seem like a long way, it will move faster than we think. We cannot leave this up to the next generation to solve or worry about, we are the generation that will be living with it if we don’t do something now. We have to act now to develop long term, sustainable solutions to help find ways to reduce our reliance on land and other fossil fuels.
DJ: How much plastic waste is recyclable?
Schmidt: Due to its durability, lightweight, and moldable properties, plastic has infiltrated just about every aspect of human life, unfortunately, because of the many different blends of plastic and the chemicals used, very little plastic is recyclable. In fact, according to various studies, between 9 and 12 percent of all plastics are actually recycled, which is alarming considering 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic has been produced as of 2017.
DJ: What is the contribution of plastic to the problem?
Schmidt: Plastic is a significant contributor to the problem. As much of the plastic produced isn’t actually able to be recycled and with the recent implementation of China’s increasingly rigid waste import ban it is estimated that 111 million metric tons of plastic will be displaced by 2030, with only 9 percent to 12 percent of this waste being recyclable, that means that over 85% of this plastic is destined for landfills world-wide. As more countries that the US and Europe exports waste to bring about bans of their own, this means that this plastic will make its way into landfills in the United States further raising pressure on landfills and ultimately increased pressure on the need for land.
In a follow-up interview Michael Schmidt looks at how new technologies can help address the increasing problem of waste, as an integrated water management solution. See: “Q&A: Why developed economies need new waste solutions.”