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Beyond an age of waste: Turning rubbish into a resource

  • Published on February 29, 2024

UNEP's Global Waste Management Outlook 2024 identifies increasing costly and damaging waste generation and points to a sustainable alternative that transforms waste into a resource.

Generation of unsustainable waste continues to increase at great cost and risk to society, yet a circular economy approach that transforms waste into a valuable resource could resolve this crisis and unlock economic potential, according to a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme. 

The ‘Global Waste Management Outlook 2024’, released on 28 February 2024 at the 6th UN Environment Assembly, projects a two-thirds increase in municipal solid waste by 2050. This alarming growth – representing an increase of over 60% on current numbers - poses significant challenges for economies and the environment, requiring urgent action to prevent further damage. 

From 2020 to 2050, municipal solid waste generation is projected to rise from 2.1 billion tonnes to 3.8 billion tonnes, marking a 56% increase. In 2020, 38% of municipal solid waste (810 million tonnes) was improperly disposed of, either dumped in the environment or openly burned. Without changes, by 2050, the amount of improperly disposed waste could almost double to 1.6 billion tonnes annually, contributing to adverse climate change, marine plastic pollution, and health effects. 

Failure to address this issue will come at a steep price, with the report estimating that the annual cost of waste management could reach a staggering USD 640.3 billion by 2050, primarily due to the indirect costs associated with pollution, health impacts, and climate change. In 2020, direct waste management costs are estimated to USD 252.3 billion. Uncontrolled waste and poor disposal practices incur an annual full net cost of USD 361 billion due to pollution, health issues, and climate change. Maintaining these practices would escalate the annual full net cost to USD 640.3 billion. 

Addressing waste as a resource opportunity and a vital circular economy feature is essential to reversing waste cost and damage; the report highlights that such action can reverse astronomical waste management costs to a potential net gain of USD 108.5 billion per year by minimizing waste ensuring and resources are reused and recycled. 

Presenting a compelling alternative to the current unsustainable trajectory, reports call for urgent action on several fronts. 

  • Rapid reduction of waste generation and mitigate environmental and economic damage. 
  • Strong leadership and partnership across society, including by governments and businesses, to set clear directions and invest in solutions. 
  • A collective shift towards a circular economy to decouple waste generation from economic growth and create a more sustainable future. 

Read the report at: 

See Zero Waste ideas and solutions on the One Planet Network’s Zero Waste platform: 

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