The Urgent Need to Transform Waste Management: Global Waste Management Outlook 2024

The Global Waste Management Outlook 2024 report warns of the threats that arise from maintaining the current linear solid waste management system.

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Waste: a global challenge

The proper management of solid waste has acquired unprecedented importance in recent decades. However, the most recent Global Waste Management Outlook 2024 (GWMO) report, published by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in collaboration with the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), reveals a delicate situation that requires urgent action to reverse the historic trend of a linear solid waste management system.

Projections and trends in global solid waste management

The report highlights that, if current patterns are maintained, the total generation of municipal solid waste worldwide is expected to increase by almost 80% between 2020 and 2050, from 2.12 billion tons per year to 3.78 billion. In addition, it shows how the increase in GDP and population growth will have a significant impact on future waste generation, underlining the need for concrete actions to decouple economic development from waste generation.

Waste Management Challenges

From a management perspective, GWMO 2024 indicates that the average rate of municipal solid waste recycling worldwide in 2020 was only 19%. Another 13% was incinerated and 30% was sent to landfills that same year. The remaining 38% of the total waste generated had an inadequate disposal, either sent to open-air landfills or burned.

The report projects that, if the current model is maintained, the amount of waste sent to uncontrolled destinations will double in the coming decades. This would have significant impacts, especially in developing countries, where the demand for adequate infrastructure is more pronounced.

The waste costs of the future

In order to estimate the costs of waste management for 2050, the analysis contemplates three scenarios. As a result of these forecasts, the first two estimate increases of between 165 and 141.7 billion USD caused by waste generation that continues to increase uncontrollably. But the third scenario concludes that the only way to avoid uncontrolled waste management costs is to implement a Circular Economy system. This model would entail an expense similar to the current one but would be significantly more efficient in environmental terms.

Improving waste management worldwide will require significant investments, but the most affordable solution is to drastically reduce waste and value secondary materials as a resource. Each of the three scenarios requires significant investments in infrastructure, aimed at areas with the highest projected waste growth. In addition, significant action is needed by governments and producers to prevent waste and improve the recyclability of unavoidable waste.

In addition, the GWMO emphasises that the direct costs of waste management do not represent the full dimension of the problem. The consequences of poorly managed waste, including climate change, loss of biodiversity and pollution, represent a significant impact on society in general.

A paradigm shift: from waste to resources

The Global Waste Management Outlook 2024 highlights the importance of a paradigm shift in the waste sector, moving from a linear approach for worthless materials to assuming an active role in the reintegration of discarded elements, materials and substances into the value chain, as resources. It's about implementing zero waste and circular economy strategies that protect the human rights of future generations.

The report also emphasises the importance of extending the useful life of materials as much as possible, as well as increasing recyclability and responsibility in their management. In addition, it advocates prioritising the safety and quality of life of people who work with waste, ensuring a transition with social and environmental justice.

UNEP and ISWA highlight in this text that, without rapid and large scale change, humanity will face unmanageable amounts of waste with potentially irreversible impacts on biodiversity, human health and climate change.

Access the Global Waste Management Outlook 2024 here.

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