ISLAMABAD: Municipal solid waste generation is predicted to grow from 2.3 billion tonnes in 2023 to 3.8 billion tonnes by 2050, reveals the Global Waste Management Outlook 2024 published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on Wednesday.

The global direct cost of waste management in 2020 was an estimated $252 billion, but when factoring in the hidden costs of pollution, poor health and climate change from poor waste disposal practices, the cost rises to $361bn.

Titled, “Beyond an age of waste: Turning rubbish into a resource,” the UNEP report provides the most substantial update on global waste generation and the cost of waste and its management since 2018. The analysis uses life cycle assessments to explore what the world could gain or lose through continuing business-as-usual, adopting halfway measures, or committing fully to zero waste and circular economy societies.

More waste is produced every year as a result of economic growth and unsustainable consumption and production patterns. Without urgent action on waste management by 2050 this global annual cost could almost double to a staggering $640.3bn, including $443bn in externalities.

Without urgent action on waste management, the global annual cost may reach $640.3bn, UNEP says

Only the circular economy approach would generate a projected annual full net gain of $108bn through waste avoidance, sustainable business practices, and full waste management.

Moving towards a circular economy and taking a zero waste approach is the only route to a safe, affordable and sustainable future. Since national contexts vary significantly, there is no one-size-fits-all approach or formula for systemic change, according to the report.

The report’s modelling shows that getting waste under control by taking waste prevention and management measures could limit net annual costs by 2050 to $270.2bn. However, projections show that a circular economy model, where waste generation and economic growth are decoupled by adopting waste avoidance, sustainable business practices, and full waste management, could in fact lead to a full net gain of $108.5bn per year.

Jointly published with the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), the report provides an update on global waste generation and the cost of waste and its management since 2018.

The report, second since 2015, says that in 2020, 38 per cent of all municipal solid waste (810 million tonnes) was uncontrolled: that is, it was dumped in the environment or openly burned.

If waste management practices remain the same as today, by 2050 this figure will almost double to 1.6bn tonnes of MSW dumped or burned every year, contributing to climate change, marine plastic pollution, and adverse health effects. Since pollution from waste knows no borders, this is of international concern.

“Waste generation is intrinsically tied to GDP, and many fast-growing economies are struggling under the burden of rapid waste growth. By identifying actionable steps to a more resourceful future and emphasising the pivotal role of decision-makers in the public and private sectors to move towards zero waste, this report can support governments seeking to prevent missed opportunities to create more sustainable societies and to secure a livable planet for future generations,” said Inger Andersen, UNEP’s Executive Director.

“The findings of this report demonstrate that the world urgently needs to shift to a zero waste approach, while improving waste management to prevent significant pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and negative impacts to human health. Pollution from waste knows no borders, so it is in everyone’s interests to commit to waste prevention and invest in waste management where it is lacking.

“The solutions are available and ready to be scaled up. What is needed now is strong leadership to set the direction and pace required, and to ensure no one is left behind,” said Zoë Lenkiewicz, lead author of the report.

Published in Dawn, February 29th, 2024

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