A US citizen produces 1,650 Ib (750 kilograms) of household waste per year, and a city-dweller in India produces around 220 Ib (100 kilograms). These figures are rising all the time. The waste that we produce is a reflection of our society, based on overconsumption and disposability. For the most part, this waste is placed in landfill sites where it creates many problems: odors, methane gases, and polluted discharges that leak into the ground or run into water supplies. Ecosystems can be damaged, and local populations poisoned. Waste can also be incinerated, which can generate energy, but its combustion leaves toxic residues.
Throwing garbage away is a waste of resources which are all the more valuable because they only exist in limited quantities. For this reason, increasing quantities of waste are now recycled. The composting of organic waste is a simple and ancient practice which is still widely used in rural areas. In urban zones, however, it forms only a tiny part of waste treatment. As for non-organic waste, recycling rates vary according to the materials involved. It is easy to recycle glass, aluminium, paper, and cardboard, but more difficult of our wealth; it is also a reflection to recycle electronic components. It requires a large supply of manual labor (and therefore is often outsourced to poorer countries), is potentially dangerous to the health of workers, and can also be costly.
It is possible to go further in minimizing the environmental impact of products at source, from their conception onward, by reducing packaging and avoiding the use of toxic or non-recyclable materials, for example. From New Zealand to Japan, from Canada to the Philippines, cities and regions are signing up to “zero waste” programs, with a goal of eliminating landfill and attaining 100% recycling within 15 to 20 years. These are based on the 3R Initiative, which stands for Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. The objective is to create a closed loop, imitating the behavior of a natural ecosystem.