Rich Waste, Poor Waste

This piece from <em>The Economist</em> looks at human-caused waste, how different economies generate it differently, and how they deal with it.
March 12, 2009, 9am PDT | Nate Berg
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"The amount of waste a community generates tends to grow with its economy (see chart 2). Thus America produces over 700kg of municipal waste per person each year, compared with Nairobi's 220kg. The richer people get, the more paper, plastic and metals they chuck out, so the proportion of food waste goes down. Ash tends to disappear from household waste altogether as electricity and gas replace coal- and wood-fired boilers and stoves."

"Even where plenty of land is available, locals are often hostile to landfills because of the damage they can do to human health and to the environment. Densely packed organic matter produces methane as it rots, which can catch fire or cause explosions. That is also bad for the atmosphere, because methane is a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The process of decay produces ammonia too, which in sufficient concentrations can poison fish and amphibians and render water undrinkable."

"Yet the main alternative, burning waste, can be just as bad, both for people and for the planet. Smoke from incineration may carry many of the same toxic substances up the chimney and into the atmosphere. Nitrogen and sulphur in the smoke contribute to acid rain, and soot particles cause respiratory problems. In addition, burning organic waste produces chemicals called dioxins and furans, suspected carcinogens which damage the nervous and immune systems, among other ill effects, and are harmful even in minuscule quantities. After burning there is still the ash to be disposed of, usually in a landfill, again with potentially baleful consequences."

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Published on Thursday, February 26, 2009 in The Economist
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