Understanding the future of our waste problem requires a brief walk through the past.
Managing waste is not a new challenge. As archaeology shows us, trash management is as old as the Roman empire. The remains of great cities like Rome, Jerusalem, and Paris (and the centuries of trash they are buried under) testify to the ever-presence of waste in all its forms. And the Roman aqueducts — built nearly 2,500 years ago — served to bring in fresh water, but also take out waste.
Our need to dispose of waste has not changed much since ancient times, but the nature of that waste — and its impact on our health and the health of the world around us — has.
Today we generate so much more trash, and in so many different forms, that the consequences are much more profound. Waste is so pervasive in our environment that it is becoming part of our natural world, from micro-beads of plastic now found in nearly all ocean creatures to ‘plasticrust’ — fugitive ocean plastics that have permanently bonded with coastal rocks. In some locations, mounds of trash are fast becoming the highest altitude points in an entire region. We are legitimately in the midst of a waste crisis.
How we got here is as old as Rome, and compounded by an invention from the 18th Century called the “linear economy.”
In a linear economy, humankind creates and consumes along a one-way path: natural resources are extracted and processed into energy or fixed goods, while waste is created and deposited elsewhere into the environment. This allows for far greater production and use, bringing down costs and increasing access, but causes vast environmental damage and creates an enormous waste problem.
The more we make, the more we consume. The more we consume, the more we throw away. And today we are making more, consuming more, and throwing away more than ever, ultimately leaving a heap of waste in our wake.
Waste is not just unsightly, it is dangerous. Dangerous to the earth, dangerous to our water and air, and dangerous to human health. Regular exposure to certain hazardous wastes has been shown to increase cancer risks. When waste is mismanaged — dumped near water sources, for example — it can lead to toxic leaching into water supplies.
Waste also happens to be expensive:Municipalities spend billions to have it removed — and in developing regions, waste removal can be the single biggest line item in municipal budgets. Instead of spending on schools, health care, parks, and other civic priorities, cities increasingly spend on trash removal and burial.
And the problem is only getting worse. Now that China has stopped accepting many plastics and roughly a third of mixed paper, that waste must find a new end destination. In the United States, this means approximately 65 percent of waste is landfill-bound.
Our future must be circular in nature.
To resolve this crisis, we need a new way of thinking. We cannot continue to bury our problems. So we need to begin thinking circular. We need to reimagine the relationship between the economy and the natural world, and aim to turn waste into something valuable. In a circular world, there is no need for giant landfills, and there will be no more giant islands of plastic floating in the ocean. In its purest form, a circular economy generates no waste. Waste is a design flaw.
Our future must be circular in nature and we must recognize this will take the effort of billions of people, acting over generations. Success will come in small increments and giant leaps — building a foundation of sustainable raw material suppliers; developing operational processes to eliminate waste during manufacturing and distribution; and scaling up solutions that allow materials to be reused or repurposed, rather than thrown away.
Just as time and progress have left the world of Ancient Rome in the past, so too must we leave our current world of waste for a circular future. And we get there one step at a time.
Changing habits. Changing minds. Changing the world in small and difficult — yet impactful — steps.
There can be no alternative.
Rubicon recently published an Environmental, Social, Governance (ESG) report, Toward a Future Without Waste. I encourage you to download and read more about what we are doing to transform the entire category of waste and recycling.