Whether we call it rubbish, garbage or trash, we all create it. And what we do with it is a growing problem in a world locked in an upwards spiral of ever-increasing population, consumption and waste creation.
While increasing prosperity brings obvious benefits, it also brings more buying power. People with more money buy more stuff, and sadly the evidence is that they also throw more away: World Bank analysis suggests that while high-income countries account for 16 percent of the planet's population, they generate 34 percent of its waste.
Although its precise origins are disputed, the "reduce, reuse, recycle" mantra is around 50 years old – but we need it more than ever: that World Bank report expects global waste to grow to 3,400,000,000 tonnes by 2050.
Reducing household waste is a way we can all help, which is why we asked our four #ZeroWasteChallenge volunteers on four continents to examine their household waste production. They responded with various stories from their bathrooms to their bins to the drains outside. Don't worry, it's not repulsive – in fact, it's fascinating viewing...
Francesca Della Penna in London, UK
"There's no incentive regarding waste – this is the problem for richer countries"
"I've never thought about how much it costs to throw things away," admits our #ZeroWasteChallenge volunteer Francesca Della Penna, an Italian in London, before some quick calculations reveal that residents on her street pay the council almost $150,000 a year in rubbish removal.
"The problem is that there is no incentive for me regarding waste – if I throw one bag of rubbish it costs me the same as if I throw three bags," she says. "This is the problem at the heart of richer countries regarding waste – out of sight, out of mind."
Francesca then fearlessly takes us through her rubbish for the week, attempting to ascertain precisely which parts are recyclable in her area – it differs between local councils.
It also gives her a chance to check her food usage: "I try not to waste too much of the vegetables I buy – I haven't been producing a lot of food waste, which I'm proud of because I'm on a challenge here!"
Still, the results of Francesca's self-examination still surprise her: "After dividing all of the rubbish into general waste, food waste and recycling, I found out I've produced four bags full of rubbish – for one person. This is quite shocking."
Not only that, but most of it is non-recyclable. "The way they wrap face masks or personal hygiene products or anything you order online like jewelry – it's wrapped into plastic and stuff that cannot be recycled. Single-use plastics from food packages and other stuff – that's the majority of it."
There is some recyclable rubbish like cardboard, and Francesca is exploring other possibilities. "I'd like more information from the council on how to compost my food waste," she says. "What I'll do as the first thing is use the coffee grounds as fertilizer for my plants."
Emmanuel Ojirhevwe in Lagos, Nigeria
While some richer countries can turn a blind eye to waste production, it's very different in Nigeria, which generates more than 32 million tons of solid waste annually, of which only around a quarter is collected.
In April 2021, the Lagos State commissioner for environment and water resources revealed that Lagos State alone generates 14,000 metric tonnes per day, of which around 30 percent is dumped at illegal sites.
Lagos has pledged $800 million to restore formal dumping sites and $400 million on waste transfer stations – but for now there's still a lack of collections, according to Emmanuel Ojirhevwe, our #ZeroWasteChallenge volunteer in Nigeria's capital.
Emmanuel says city trash workers only appear "once in a blue moon – we hardly see them. There was a time some years ago where the government instructed them to come, but they stopped – we don't know why."
Obviously that can lead to dumping issues. Reckless waste disposal leads to blockage of sewers and drainage networks, but it's tackled by a community effort.
"The last Saturday of every month, we do what we call environmental sanitation," Emmanuel explains. "Everyone comes out of the house to do some work, clean the drainage and clear the surrounding environment and then make sure everywhere is kept clean."
It's all done with good cheer – asked about the day's progress, one man laughs "We're not done, we're never done" – but the neighbors clear up their compound, pile up the rubbish and call in help.
The informal waste economy of Lagos includes more than 5,000 cart-pushers, waste-pickers, resource merchants and recyclers, and one such operative is beckoned over to take over the rubbish. After a brief bit of haggling down from his initial request of 2,000 naira – around $4.50 – a deal is done and he takes it off to a landfill.
"Everyone comes out of the house to clean and clear the surrounding environment"
Yang Xinmeng in Beijing
"Dealing with growing waste is one of the biggest challenges facing China"
China's success at pulling people out of poverty is well documented, but such endeavors around the world have a potential downside: The more money humans have, the more things they tend to buy.
"Dealing with the growing volumes of waste from our increased consumption is one of the biggest challenges facing China's regulators," says Yang Xinmeng, our #ZeroWasteChallenge volunteer in Beijing.
As a frequent traveler for work, Xinmeng herself makes little waste herself – "I have no trash in my bin at all at the moment" – but she investigated her apartment community's waste system for us.
China introduced new trash sorting regulations in 2019 and wants to make recycling mandatory for nearly 300 cities by 2025. "You can see trash sorting bins everywhere in major cities," says Xinmeng. "With rising urban populations consuming an increasing amount of consumer goods and major cities still using landfill to dispose of waste, trash has a big carbon footprint."
She takes us through the different types of bins – green for food, red for hazardous waste "like used batteries, light bulbs, expired medicines or paint," blue for recyclables like paper, plastics and glass, and black for the rest.
It's a model that Xinmeng, who travels around China for her job, has seen working well in various places – and with various generations. "My community in Beijing is quite young, but recently I saw some communities where the older generation live, and they're also sorting their trash."
Supervisors have been hired to help people avoid confusion. "When the policy was first implemented, there were people standing beside every day to tell you how to sort your trash – if you did something wrong, she would come to correct you," says Xinmeng.
For all the increasing ease of waste sorting, though, Xinmeng shares a concern with our London correspondent Francesca Della Penna: "In my community, we all pay the same bill regardless of the amount of waste we produce and the charge is included in our rent – so I myself have little incentive to minimize my waste."
Zach Danz in Washington DC
"I'm going to be honest with you – I know that I'm not perfect. There's a lot of areas that I can improve upon." Zach Danz, our #ZeroWasteChallenge volunteer in Washington DC, is under no illusions during the tour of his house "to show you an American's daily morning routine."
Examining his "normal usage is like for things like plastics, paper, one-use disposable products," Zach finds that he and his partner's toothbrushes, contact lenses, shower gel, shampoo, soap, conditioner and razors "are all plastic products that are used as a normal part of our daily routines."
Like other particpiants, Zach isn't financially incentivized to cut his trash. "I pay a flat $10 trash fee every month, which is included with my rent, and that fee is paid no matter how much trash I produce.
"Americans have no incentive to count or weigh how much trash they produce because it doesn't affect us on an individual level."
However, the couple do at least contribute to the circular economy, which they happened upon while disposing of garbage. "We live in an apartment building and we have this garage downstairs where people throw their things away – and sometimes the stuff that they throw away is good stuff," he reveals, "so we've been collecting some of those things, fixing them up and reselling them."
He shows some examples: "We got all of these little picture frames – somebody threw them away and they're perfectly good. This George Foreman grill – some people might think that it's disgusting, but we cleaned it and it works perfectly fine and we're going to sell it again for cheap."
It all helps, but Zach acknowledges that the change needed is "systemic. We need to reduce the plastic that we're using. We need to produce less waste that ends up in our water and creating microplastics in the water that we drink. We need to reduce the amount of time that we drive cars. We need to take public transportation more. We need to produce our energy more efficiently."
"Sometimes the stuff that people throw away is good stuff"