'What a Waste' Report Shows Alarming Rise in Amount, Costs of Garbage

June 6, 2012

Farhana Asnap / World Bank

  • A new World Bank study projects a 70% global increase in urban solid waste – with developing countries facing the greatest challenges.
  • The projected rise in the amount of waste, from 1.3 billion tonnes per year today to 2.2 billion tonnes per year by 2025, is projected raise the annual global costs from $205 billion to $375 billion.

Developing country cities, already coping with burgeoning populations, scarce financial resources, and limited capacity to manage environmental issues, are facing a sharp rise in the amount and costs of garbage that they will be required to deal with by 2025.

A new report from the World Bank’s Urban Development department estimates the amount of municipal solid waste (MSW) will rise from the current 1.3 billion tonnes per year to 2.2 billion tonnes per year by 2025. Much of the increase will come in rapidly growing cities in developing countries.

The annual, global cost of this necessary solid waste management is projected to rise from the current $205 billion to $375 billion, with the cost increasing most severely for those cities in low income countries.

The report, What a Waste: A Global Review of Solid Waste Management, for the first time offers consolidated data on MSW generation, collection, composition, and disposal by country and by region.

In itself, this is an accomplishment because, as the report states, reliable global MSW information is either not available or incomplete, inconsistent, and incomparable. Nevertheless, the authors of the report point to a looming crisis in MSW treatment as living standards rise and urban populations grow.

“Improving solid waste management, especially in the rapidly growing cities of low income countries, is becoming a more and more urgent issue,” said Rachel Kyte, Vice President, Sustainable Development at the World Bank.

“The findings of this report are sobering, but they also offer hope that once the extent of this issue is recognized, local and national leaders, as well as the international community, will mobilize to put in place programs to reduce, reuse, recycle, or recover as much waste as possible before burning it (and recovering the energy) or otherwise disposing of it," Kyte said. "Measuring the extent of the problem is a critical first step to resolving it."


" Measuring the extent of the problem is a critical first step to resolving it. "
Rachel Kyte, World Bank Vice President for Sustainable Development

Rachel Kyte

Vice President for Sustainable Development, World Bank

Garbage treatment an indicator of city services

The report notes that municipal solid waste management is the most important service a city provides. In low-income countries, MSW is often the largest single budget item for cities, and one of the largest employers. A city that cannot effectively manage its waste is rarely able to manage more complex services such as health, education, or transportation. Improving MSW is one of the most effective ways of strengthening overall municipal management.

The report shows that the amount of municipal solid waste is growing fastest in China (which surpassed the United States as the world’s largest waste generator in 2004), other parts of East Asia, and part of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Growth rates for MSW in these areas are similar to their rates for urbanization and increases in GDP.

There is a direct correlation between the per capita level of income in cities and the amount of waste per capita that is generated. In general, as a country urbanizes and populations become wealthier, the consumption of inorganic materials (e.g. plastics, paper, glass, aluminum) increases, while the relative organic fraction decreases.

“What we’re finding in these figures is not that surprising,” said Dan Hoornweg, lead urban specialist in the Finance, Economics, and Urban Development Department of the World Bank and co-author of the report. “What is surprising, however, is that when you add the figures up, we’re looking at a relatively silent problem that is growing daily. The challenges surrounding municipal solid waste are going to be enormous, on a scale of, if not greater than, the challenges we are currently experiencing with climate change. This report should be seen as a giant wake-up call to policy makers everywhere.”

Possible solutions

The authors of the report say an integrated solid waste management plan is needed in cities to approach solid waste in a comprehensive manner. Key to such a plan is consultation and input from all stakeholders, including citizen groups and those working on behalf of the poor and the disadvantaged. Public health and environmental protection aspects of any such plan are also critical.

The report also spells out policy recommendations for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, many of which emanate from inefficient solid waste management practices. Post-consumer waste is estimated to account for almost 5% of total global GHG, while methane from landfills represents 12% of total global methane emissions. The report says that a number of practical approaches could be applied in most cities, including:

  • Public education to inform people about their options to reduce waste generation and increase recycling and composting;
  • Pricing mechanisms (such as product charges) to stimulate consumer behavior to reduce waste generation and increase recycling;
  • User charges tied to the quantity of waste disposed of, with (for example) consumers separating recyclables paying a lower fee for waste disposal; and/or
  • Preferential procurement policies and pricing to stimulate demand for products made with recycled post-consumer waste.