Making rubbish a resource to end wasteful culture

My thanks to the members of the media for covering the launch of the Global Waste Management Outlook 2024, which we are releasing during the sixth United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-6).

My thanks also to Türkiye for being such a strong advocate for zero waste. 

This assembly is looking at ways to slow the triple planetary crisis: the crisis of climate change, the crisis of nature and biodiversity loss, and the crisis of pollution and waste. This triple crisis is in effect one single crisis, a message writ large in the huge amounts of waste our economies generate. 

This report shows that the direct cost of waste management was US$252 billion in 2020, which rises to US$361 billion when externalities are included. These externalities include the costs of pollution, resulting in poor health and greenhouse gas emissions from waste. Unless we take urgent action, total annual costs could almost double as waste generation rises. 

However, we can’t keep coming at the waste problem by trying to manage what we throw away. Open burning of waste is a disaster. Dumpsites are a disaster. Recycling can’t cope with the sheer volume of waste. To realize the vision of a zero-waste society, we need to redefine what waste is. A lot of what we throw away is a valuable resource, so we must start rethinking the design and delivery of products and services to keep resources in the economy. 

The issue of plastic waste is a key example. Only 9 percent of plastic waste is recycled, 17 per cent is incinerated, 22 percent is left uncollected, and 46 percent is dumped in landfills. And, of course, millions of tonnes of plastic end up in the oceans. The solution isn’t waste management alone – but it is an important dimension on a continent like Africa that largely does not have solid waste management infrastructure. The world needs to eliminate single-use and unnecessary plastics. Redesign products. Redesign packaging to use no or less plastics. Redesign systems for reuse, refill and, yes, recycling. It is for this reason that the UN Environment Assembly, two years ago, kick-started negotiations on an instrument on plastic pollution, which should finish this year.  

The same approach applies to the minerals and metals we need for the energy transition. Products need to be designed for repair, remanufacturing, recovery – often referenced as urban mining - and recycling to keep minerals and metals in the economy instead of gouging them from the Earth and throwing them away. Right now, up to seven per cent of the world’s gold may be in e-waste. That is senseless. 

So, we need to start thinking of rubbish as a resource, shift to zero-waste practices and ensure a just transition for informal workers such as waste pickers and gender and socio-economic disparities in those communities.

If we can build this mindset and put it into practice, we won’t only slow the triple planetary crisis. We will yield an annual net gain of US$108.5 billion over the current cost of waste management. If that isn’t the ultimate manifestation of the old saying “waste not, want not”, I don’t know what is.