At a glance: WASTE

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP

A visitor from outer space, examining modern industrial economies, might well decide that their main purpose was to turn raw materials into waste. For they produce vast amounts of it – 5 tonnes a year of solid waste for every European, far more for each citizen of the United States of America.

It is increasing, rising by 10 per cent in Europe over the first five years of the 1990s. And so is public concern: 17 in every 20 European Union citizens are concerned about industrial waste. They worry about leaking waste tips, pollution from incineration plants, and contaminated land.

No-one knows how much of this waste is hazardous; records are incomplete and national definitions of it vary. The European Environment Agency reports that, in the early 1990s, Western Europe produced 42 million tonnes of it, Russia some 20 million tonnes, and Eastern Europe some 10 million tonnes. What is certain is that, if not properly managed, it can pose a grave threat to health and the environment.

The two most common methods of disposal, landfill and incineration, both pose serious risks if not carried out to the highest standards. Illegal trading in hazardous waste is another major problem, though the legal trade is being brought under control by the Basel Convention.

Waste disposal experts, as well as industrialists, environmentalists and governments, increasingly agree that the answer is to produce as little waste as possible in the first place, through the related concepts of cleaner production and eco-efficiency. Cleaner production generates less waste, and reuses and recycles more of what it does produce. Eco-efficiency uses less raw materials: there is a growing consensus that industrial societies could cut consumption of them by 90 per cent, while still greatly improving living standards.

Landfill is much the most common means of disposal: the cheapest legal option, it is used, for example, for three-quarters of Western Europe’s wastes. But landfills can contaminate groundwater with heavy metals, persistent organic chemicals and other poisons – and they are one of the largest emitters of methane, which contributes to global warming.

Hundreds of millions of used tyres are removed from cars worldwide each year – about 200 million in the European Union alone – and pose a particularly intractable waste problem. Vast numbers – about half of those in the EU for example – are sent to landfill. But they remain intact for decades, and often rise to the surface. They can catch fire: one fire of 10 million tyres has been burning in Wales for 10 years. Many tyres are retreaded and used again. Some have been used to create artificial reefs or defend land from erosion by the sea. Much more could be used for fuel: they have a greater calorific value than coal and can be burned relatively cleanly. But so long as the number of cars around the world continues to grow, so will the problem of what to do with their tyres.

Recycling and reuse of waste materials provides one solution. Over a third of Western Europe’s municipal rubbish is recycled, reused or used to provide energy. Almost all US states have passed laws establishing recycling or reduction targets aimed at reducing their waste by between 20 and 70 per cent. Germany, which introduced pioneering legislation on packaging, recycles more than two-thirds of its paper; Japan recycles more than half.

Tens of thousands of square kilometres of land have been contaminated by past poor practice in handling hazardous wastes, including inadequate landfill. There are 40,000 such sites in the United States, 55,000 in just six European countries, and 7,800 in New Zealand. Cleaning them up is enormously expensive; the US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that dealing with just the 1,400 top priority sites will cost $31 billion.

Traditionally pollution and waste were tackled by ‘end of pipe’ measures designed to treat them once they had been produced. Now the solution is seen as producing less waste in the first place. Such ‘cleaner technology’ can simultaneously achieve a dramatic reduction in wastes and increases in profits.

Dumps of dangerous and obsolete pesticides plague many developing countries. There are thought to be at least 20,000 tonnes of them in Africa, and 80,000 tonnes in Asia and Latin America. Often they were provided by aid agencies. There is now an international effort to clean them up, but so far less than 3,500 tonnes of them have been removed from Africa and the Near East, at a cost of $24 million.

Waste is a growing problem in developing countries. Latin America is generating more than twice as much solid waste per head as it was a generation ago, while rapid urbanization has increased the amount produced in Lagos six-fold. In some cities 90 per cent of waste is not collected, mainly because of lack of resources, causing pollution and disease. Much of what is collected is disposed of inadequately. Two-fifths of Latin America’s disposal facilities do not meet even minimum standards, and are little more than rubbish tips: many countries have no sanitary landfills outside their capital cities. Between 20 and 80 per cent of solid waste generated in North African towns and cities is dumped in open spaces. And a large percentage of Southeast Asia’s rapidly increasing industrial waste (in the Republic of Korea it rose by 50 per cent between 1991 and 1995 alone) is discharged without treatment.


The Basel Convention, developed under UNEP’s auspices, which celebrates its 10th anniversary in December, is the broadest and most significant international treaty on the transboundary movement and environmentally sound disposal of hazardous wastes.

The Rotterdam Convention, negotiated under the auspices of UNEP and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and adopted in September 1998, lays down, among other measures, that hazardous chemicals and pesticides that have been banned or severely restricted in at least two countries should not be imported except with the specific agreement of the importing country.

Another treaty is being negotiated, again under UNEP’s auspices, to protect public health and the environment against Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). At the last round of talks, in September, 115 nations agreed on proposals favouring the elimination of 10 POPs, including the pesticides aldrin, dieldrin and toxaphene.

UNEP has pioneered the promotion of cleaner production for a decade. It has:

  • launched an International Declaration on Cleaner Production, which now has 159 signatories, including 34 national governments and 41 companies.

  • established, with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, 15 National Cleaner Production Centres in developing and Eastern European countries.

  • set up a collection of databases, the International Cleaner Production Information Clearing House, to provide information.


Cut down the waste you produce. Avoid buying over-packaged goods and the wasteful use of paper.

Reuse materials. Avoid disposable goods. Buy food, drinks and toiletries in returnable containers. Take unwanted clothes, books and other goods to charity shops, and buy from them too.

Recycle paper, glass, plastics, cans, textiles, oil and wood and make compost from organic waste. Buy recycled products.

Take special care in disposing of household goods containing toxic substances – including batteries, paints, pesticides, medicines, oil and petroleum products and plastics. Return to proper facilities where possible.

Lobby your political representatives, media, industries and shops to support and implement measures to reduce waste and manage it in environmentally sound ways.

PHOTOGRAPHS: W.F. Starkey/UNEP/Topham, Michael Smith/UNEP/Topham, Bellon-Lopez/UNEP/Topham, Cherry Muir/UNEP/Topham, Ray Pfortner/Still Pictures, Thomas Raupach/Still Pictures, K. J. Scott/UNEP/Topham, Ezequiel Becerra/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
This issue: Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Celebration and challenge | Informal diplomacy | Being in earnest | International Declaration on Cleaner Production | Clean = competitive | Not on Planet Earth! | The Basel Convention | At a glance | Competition | It’s a waste | Move these poisonous mountains | Broad, global and dynamic | A monumental challenge | UNEP Chemicals | Latin lessons | Sasakawa Environment Prize | Of potholes and ozone holes | Will we learn?

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Chemicals 1997
Issue on Production and Consumption 1996