Man leaves a lot of waste

Man throws away a lot over time. In World, on average, every inhabitant produces around half a ton of garbage a year, which is just under 1.4 kilograms per day. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation (OECD), the world leaders are the USA at 730 kilograms per capita per year. The question is: where to go?


As long as space is available, the waste comes to landfills. However, these not only spoil the landscape, but can also endanger the environment and human health. Thereby, valuable resources are dormant in the garbage. Experts even see in them the raw material of the future.


Waste separation and combustion

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Exterior view of a waste incineration plant in Malmö, Sweden

Garbage as an energy source


The first step is recycling. Here, raw materials such as plastic, glass and paper are separated from each other and individually recycled. Non-recyclable residual waste is incinerated in special plants, generating electricity and heat.


Meanwhile, many developing and emerging countries are realizing the potential of waste recycling. Günther Wehenpohl is currently working for the German Association for International Cooperation (GIZ), formerly GTZ, in Costa Rica. On behalf of the Federal Government, he is working to improve waste management and can now show initial successes.


“Previously, used plastic bottles were exported to Asia for the production of textiles, such as fleece jackets, and today they are used to make new bottles in the country, which is much more efficient,” says Wehenpohl. The awareness is there, new laws ensure that the recovery of recyclables play a greater role.


In other countries, organic waste is used to extract compost, for example on the Indonesian island of Bali. The 100 inhabitants of the village of Temesi not only manage the waste, but also the environmental problems. Because mountains of waste produce methane, a much more harmful greenhouse gas than CO2. GIZ expert Günther Wehenpohl states: “Recycling is equally important for raw material extraction and the climate.”


Little child with a green bottle in hand, looks into the camera

Collect garbage to survive


E-waste is a goldmine

Experts in disused electrical appliances see huge potential. According to estimates by the United Nations (UN), 40 million tons of electronic waste are produced each year worldwide. They contain valuable precious metals such as gold, silver or copper. For example, about 40 mobile phones have about the same amount of gold as a ton of ore, according to the UN Environment Program (UNEP). Nevertheless, gigantic amounts of raw materials are lost in the garbage mountain and thus worth billions of euros. In China alone, according to UNEP, four tonnes of gold, 28 tonnes of silver and 6,000 tonnes of copper per year.


Garbage as a science

Precious metals, handy packed

Researchers are now studying how these hidden treasures can be meaningfully used. Stefan Gäth from the University of Gießen has been investigating three landfills in Hessen and Baden-Württemberg for some time on behalf of the Federal Environment Ministry and municipalities.


His motto: “Waste incidents”. He estimates that raw materials worth 65 to 120 million euros are buried at the medium-sized Reiskirchen landfill in Hesse alone. “Nevertheless, the extraction of raw materials today is not yet economically profitable,” says Stefan Gäth. Reason is the lack of technical progress and especially the raw material prices. Despite record values ​​of individual precious metals, the costs for their recovery could still not be met.


“Detecting garbage as a raw material”

A truck tilts out electronic waste (Photo: Der Grüne Punkt – Dual System Deutschland GmbH)
According to experts, waste is the raw material of tomorrow


However, the researcher sees potential in urban mining, the mining of raw materials in waste mountains. There had to be a rethinking, starting with the consumer, the raw material value of the products had to become clear to him. “He needs to know how much gold, how much copper is in his cell phone.


As with the greenhouse gas CO2, there must also be a kind of footprint for raw materials. “Against this background, the scientist considers a deposit system for electrical appliances to make sense. So came the fridge or TV after use again at the manufacturer and could be recycled, so Gäth. GIZ expert Günther Wehenpohl sees it in a similar way: incentives should be created so that used resources can be returned to circulation.


International waste shipment and the environment

Today, all sorts of garbage are sent on the journey. Increasingly large amounts of waste, especially waste paper, plastics and metals, are being exported by the industrialized countries to countries with less stringent environmental regulations. On the oceans, huge ships are on their way every day, transporting goods from the Asian emerging markets to the West. Instead of driving back empty or taking ballast on board, ship owners are just too happy to have the opportunity to take European waste to Asia for recycling.


This does not mean that shipments of waste are not regulated. Both the UN and the EU have set strict rules on which waste may be moved to which locations. At a global level, international trade in hazardous waste (waste that is potentially hazardous to humans and the environment) is governed by the United Nations Basel Convention.


However, the export ban in this agreement has so far only been ratified by a few states and can not yet be enforced at the global level. However, there are restrictions in the EU that allow the export of “hazardous waste” only to “developed countries” that have the necessary waste treatment technologies and adequate safety and environmental legislation. The restrictions define a “developed country” as a member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).


The long-term objective of the EU is that every Member State should dispose of its waste in its own country (principle of proximity and self-sufficiency). However, since shipments of special and hazardous waste from EU Member States almost quadrupled between 1997 and 2005, this target seems to be a long way off.


There are several reasons for waste export and import: availability of special treatment technologies, material shortages, price differences in disposal or recycling.


EU policies, with their recycling targets, also help Member States that can not meet their domestic targets transfer their waste to other countries. The waste generated in the markets keeps the costs low for a country like China, which relies on cheap raw materials. Unless this waste is destined for disposal at its destination and contains no hazardous substances, this is considered to be an acceptable trade.


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