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Waste - our legacy

"If we crammed the history of our planet into a year, humans would have existed for the last 23 minutes, but consumed one-third of resources in the last 0.2 seconds" (source: Globalfootprints.org).

Writing this article wasn't easy since 'waste' is a huge topic. Where should I start? After all the research I did, I kind of had the impression that waste is something bad. A negative side effect of human being. And hardly anyone likes to think or talk about it. It is dirty, it smells, and it is... well, it simply is waste. I, on the contrary, think it is time to stop that stereotyped thinking! Learning about waste is incredibly interessting! The history of humankind has been affected and shaped by its waste. The developement of cosmopolitan cities like London, Paris, New York, and Tokyo impressively show the coexistence of waste management, hygiene, and the development of the society as a whole.

New Yorks history is increadibly interessting!

Personally, I am very much fascinated by the history and development of New York City. "New York's Strongest", which is how the sanitation workers (those collecting our waste) are called, are fighting 24/7/365 against chaos and smelliness to prevent epidemic plagues. In sum they handle the amount of 3.7 million tons of waste annually!
Founded in the 17th century as New Amsterdam, the city had a good development. In Europe it was said to be just the right place to start a new life. As a result a wave of immigrants flooded the city with its bad infrastructure - no waste management and no sewerage system (canalisation). Within the next two centuries NYC produced so much waste that as a consequence of this the ground level increased up to three meters and the city grew four blocks of houses into the sea. The residents threw all of their waste out of the windows of their appartments: household garbage, excrement, and even cadavers covered the streets. Epidemic plagues, such as the cholera, appeard. Quite often the poor districs were affected but nothing changed.
As the population decreased so much that there haven't been enough workers left, the economy was in danger and the wealthy citizens got affected twice - by the epidemic as well as the the missing working forces. A health-inspector was then commissioned to clean the streets. He banned all foul-smelling businesses from the city centre and established taxes for the collection of commercial waste. From now on only his company was allowed to sell this kind of waste for further usage and he died as a rich man. The streets, however, remained dirty and evil-smelling like before!
In 1894 Colonel George E. Waring Jr. was commissioned to do it better. He did! Waring founded the Department of Sanitation with a military organisation and structure. Today the insitution is employing nearly 10,000 workers. In the 1950s the number of New Yorks residets have doubled and thereby the amount of waste. Too much work for New York's Strongest. The city decided that the industrie must get rid of their waste by themselves. Private companies started to do that job. However, it didn't take long until the Mafia took over and immediately increased prices. Not until the early 1990s a brave police officer could stop their ruling.

What do we learn from histroy?

If we search history for lessons learnd we can find a quite a lot! Here is a summary of what I consider to be important:

  • Changes to the way waste got managed was only applied because of epidemic plagues, great social inequality, war, and economic crisis. We do not have any of these cases in the developed coutries. However, we need to change our habits due to the challenges of the 21rst century!
  • The issues of waste are coexisting with population, meaning an increasing number of population also leads to an increasing challenge to manage our waste. Statistician forecast round about 10 billion people on this planet by 2050. Not only do we need to think about today's waste but also about the day after tomorrow!
  • History also teaches us that waste is valuable. And it is way to valuable to burn or to bury it under the ground! "One recycled tin can saves enough energy to power a television for 3 hours" (Globalfoodprints.org)
  • The recycling industry doesn't necessarily require big, and perfectly organized businesses but also offers a great opportunity for small family businesses and micro sized enterprises as the current situation in Dharavi shows - asia's largest slum in Mumbai. There, the poor people are recycling almost everything they can find. And they are highly innovative. We might even learn from them!
  • Drinking water is our most important achievement. Thus, we must take care of the sources! No matter if it's a sea, a river or a spring. However, quite often we don't - like in my hometown: Because of too high values of nitrates in the springs, where our water comes from, we now can't continue to use them anymore! This is due to over-fertilisation (too many substances to speed up the growth of plants on the fields)...
  • Along with most transformations of our waste management, our society has advanced positively in history. This awareness should give us enough strength and courage to meet the challenges of the following decades. We need to take the opportunity now!

It has been estimated that 80% of the contents of our bins could be recycled

Some facts and figures regarding our waste-related behaviour:

  • An average european citizen caused 474 kilogramme waste in 2014. Romania had the least amount of waste with 249 kg, whereas Denmark was leading the negative list (758 kg), followed by the Switzerland (730 kg) and Germany (618 kg).
  • No other european country is producing as much packaging waste as Germany. In 2013 it was an average of nearly 213 kg each resident. Packaging in Germany is responsible for 50% of the quantity of domestic and industrial waste! It is said to be the result of increasing orders and purchases via internet and a growing number of coffee-to-go consumption. The problem: A lot of coffee-to-go cups are made of a mix of paper and plastics and therefore are said not to be recyclable. Btw, German Starbucks stores offer a discount for using one's own cup!
  • Most of the waste produced is "invisible": Every kilogramme of waste we produce, causes up to further ten kilogrammes from trading and manufacturing!
  • "It has been estimated that 80% of the contents of our bins could be recycled; in 2007 the UK recycled just 27% of its waste" (Globalfootprints.org)
  • Better then burning or storing our waste on landfills, would be to recycle as much as possible. And better than that, would be to prevent producing waste. Anyway, the selection in (German) supermarkets have tribled since 1988 and increased to one third compared to the year 2000!
  • The German recycling rate of paper is said to be 99% and those of plastics even 99.5%. That's a fairytale! The real recylcing rate is definitively lower, however, reliable numbers are not available! The scandal behind these numbers is the including of the waste combustion (what is burned). The truth is that Germany combusts more waste than the whole country is producing by importing waste from other countries!
  • A new trend within the packaging industry and marketing sector is the usage of packaging based on fusing together, e.g. creating new materials by combining different kinds of plastics. The downside of these often brilliantly designed and good-looking packagings is that they are not recyclable! Nevertheless, there's a very interessting movement trying to design products in a way that supports to recycle them to a 100%! Get to know more about "Cradle-to-Cradle" in the following video.