What we discard: Saving the planet by making less waste

Worst offenders: The average American produces 1,500 pounds of rubbish a year.

The world generates 3.5 million tons of plastic and other solid waste a day—10 times the amount a century ago. How to reduce this is the final part of our Action on Climate Change series.

The world now produces more than a billion tons of rubbish a year, which it incinerates and buries and exports and recycles.

In New York, barges transport as much as 3,600 tons of waste down the Hudson River every day. In the Netherlands, which has a sophisticated recycling system, residents throw away the equivalent of more than 400,000 loaves of bread per day. In Jakarta, residents refer to the Indonesian city’s growing dump simply as “the Mountain”.

By 2025, according to a World Bank study, the waste produced by cities around the globe will be enough to fill a line of rubbish trucks 3,100 miles long every day.

Disposing of waste has huge environmental impacts and can cause serious problems. In the UK, much is buried in landfill sites (holes in the ground, sometimes old quarries, sometimes specially dug).

Some waste will eventually rot — but not all — and, in the process, it may smell or generate methane gas, which is explosive and contributes to the greenhouse effect.

Incinerating waste also causes problems because plastics tend to produce toxic substances, such as dioxins, when they are burnt. Gases from incineration may cause air pollution and contribute to acid rain, while the ash from incinerators may contain heavy metals and other toxins.

Throwing away things wastes resources. It wastes the raw materials and energy used in making the items, and it wastes money. Reducing waste means less environmental impact, less resources and energy used and saves money.

The charity Keep Britain Tidy estimates that at least half of the contents of our dustbins could potentially be recycled. In addition, we could compost the 20% of vegetable peelings and other organic waste that we throw away.

Recycling is only one aspect of waste reduction. Only recycle things if you are sure they cannot be repaired or reused. There are other small and practical steps which can be taken. Think of them in four words: refuse, reduce, reuse and repair.

Refuse: Don’t buy things you don’t need. Avoid disposable products, designed to be thrown away. Don’t buy over-packaged goods.

Reduce: Buy things that are well made and will last. Buy things in returnable containers — and return the containers once empty. Buying in bulk, if you have the money and storage space and need the goods, reduces the amount of packaging. Try to avoid buying over-packaged goods.

Reuse: Lots of things can be reused. If you can’t reuse them yourself, try to find someone else who can. Jam jars and bottles: if you don’t make jam/marmalade/preserves/wine, find someone who does. They can also be used for storing all manner of things, but make sure they are properly labelled. Old clothes, books, toys, unwanted gifts and household goods are easy to reuse: give them to a jumble sale or charity shop.

Repair: Any items, especially electrical items, can be repaired. There are still specialist repair shops though these may not be easy to find. In some places, special schemes have been set up which create work for people by collecting and refurbishing second-hand electrical equipment and furniture.

How far can you go?

There are a growing number of people who are part of a zero-waste movement. Their yearly rubbish output can be small enough to fit inside a jam jar.

They are not hippies, but people embracing a modern, minimalist lifestyle. They say it saves them money and time and enriches their lives. Could you do that?

You Decide

  1. Does your household waste too much?
  2. Could you make just one jam jar of rubbish ever year?


  1. Make a list of everything you threw away yesterday — what you can remember at least!
  2. Imagine you have to give a speech to the United Nations about waste reduction. You only have one minute. Make notes for a clear, powerful, personal appeal.

Some People Say...

“There is no such thing as ‘away’. When we throw something away it must go somewhere.”

Annie Leonard

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
18 billion pounds of plastic waste flows into the oceans every year from coastal regions. Forty per cent of plastic produced is packaging, used just once and then discarded. Shoppers in the United States use almost one plastic bag per resident per day. Shoppers in Denmark use an average of four plastic bags a year. Nearly half of all plastic ever manufactured has been made since 2000.
What do we not know?
The prediction that, by 2050, the world is expected to generate 3.40 billion tons of waste annually, increasing drastically from today’s 2.01 billion tons.

Word Watch

World Bank
The World Bank is a global organisation with two key goals. By 2030, it wants to end extreme poverty by decreasing the percentage of people living on less than $1.90 a day to no more than 3%. And it wants to promote shared prosperity by fostering the income growth of the bottom 40% for every country.
Keep Britain Tidy
This is a major UK-based independent environmental charity that campaigns to reduce litter, improve local places and prevent waste.


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