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The Waste Iceberg

May 7, 2018

One thing we have seen everywhere we went during our trip is massive amounts of waste. Lying on the side of the road, being dumped in hugh landfills, swimming in the ocean or being burnt by people. It seems like not a lot of people want to talk about this side of travelling. The thing you get to see are pictures of clean and dreamlike beaches, beautiful mountain peaks and green landscape. However, that is just part of the story.


How much waste do we produce?

Per year we produce around 2 billion tons of municipal solid waste in the whole world*. This number only includes the waste produced by households (not including industrial and commercial waste or waste coming from construction and demolition). If you include all this type of waste the number lies between 7 to 10 billion tons per year**.



Additionally, we are only talking about municipal solid waste. This includes organic waste, paper, plastic, textiles, metals, glass and others. However, there exist other types of waste, which we do not mention. For example wastewater, which is the result of ordinary living processes like flushing the toilet, laundry, dishwashing and also commercial and industrial  wastewaters. A type of waste which is often forgotten.


To make the municipal solid waste that we produce a bit more tangible for you, I broke it down to country level, choosing the five countries we have visited. In this diagram, you see how much waste every single inhabitant produces on a daily basis. Thus, a French person produces three times more than a Bolivian citizen.


Source: Waste Atlas, generation of municipal solid waste per capita



The higher the income the more waste we produce

This already shows what studies have confirmed. There is a link between waste per capita and income level. The more people earn, the more waste they produce. Additionally, there is a difference between rural and urban areas. People in urban areas produce twice as much waste as people in rural areas. Those two facts are quite worrying. If we don’t change our behaviour, the waste generation in the future will keep on rising.


Old habits die hard

What we were also able to observe is, that the economical change in developing countries such as Bolivia, Kyrgyzstan or Indonesia came so quickly that they were not able to catch up in time. They often lack a public waste management or if they have one it is insufficient. Furthermore, the habits of people haven’t changed although their surroundings have. Take plastic as an example. Nowadays everything is wrapped in plastic. If you go to a market in Indonesia, you will leave with multiple plastic bags in different sizes. Before the food was wrapped in banana leaves or any other biological degradable material. People just ate their food and threw the leaves on the ground. Nature took care of it because it was bio-degradable. Today people still have this habit with the difference that they are throwing plastic on the ground, which will not take care of itself (well, not before millions of years…)..


Why is waste a problem?

The problem with waste already starts with the lack of recycling and collection. In an ideal case all waste would be recycled as far as possible, collected and then disposed in a controlled manner, for example in a controlled landfill, a recycling or an incineration plant. However, the collection rate is still quite low and uncontrolled disposal is (such as dumpsites or outdoor burnings) the norm in numerous of countries.


The immediate impact of uncontrolled dumpsites or illegal burnings are multiple: spreading of diseases like dengue fever or cholera, contamination of groundwater and lands, to name a few. Local communities suffer a lot from waste that is not being properly managed. Often they do the only thing they think they can do: they burn the waste. Unfortunately that  releases dangerous toxins into the air.



It is not just the local communities that suffer from the impacts of waste. Uncontrolled waste produces greenhouse gases (GHG), which strongly increase  emissions. Experts believe that by proper waste and resource management could reduce GHG emissions by 15 to 20%****.


Waste is a global problem. It disturbs our ecosystem. Our waste is finding its way into Nature, where it harms its balance. One example is plastic that gets into the ocean, where it is being eaten by fish. Either the fish die or humans catch them and eat them. This way the toxic substances end up in our body. You might think this problem doesn’t concern you. But how can you be sure you have never eaten a fish from the Ocean, which has eaten micro plastic before?


Is there an upside to this?

I admit, it all sounds a bit grim until now. But there is an upside to this problem. You can act today! The past doesn’t have to determine your future. We know there is a problem, so let’s act on it. I agree that there is a lot of work to be done on a governmental level. Governments, especially in developing countries have to take responsibility, start or improve implementing waste management systems and make a bigger effort to raise awareness on this topic. But that doesn’t mean that we can not also act on an individual level.




Be the change today

While portraying Fundare, a Bolivian organisation raising awareness about recycling in schools, companies and government, we learnt a simple rule: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. Live your life according to these principles and you have already done a lot. Did you know that in France the recycling rate is only 21%?***** There is some way to go….



If you are looking for more concrete tips and tricks how you can change your behaviour today or just want to see some inspirational examples, check out those links and stay tuned for our next videos about waste and how to handle it!


  • La famille Zéro déchet: a family who decided to live a life in harmony with Nature and to reduce their waste at the maximum.

  • Bea, who has lives  a Zero Waste Lifestyle since 2008 and her tips.

  • Day by day: new grocery shops with zero packaging.

  • Zero waste France: An association that inform on all the issues related to waste but also do some political lobbying and helps all types of actors to implement zero waste project or zero waste habits.







* United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 2015, Global Waste Management Outlook, p. 52.

** UNEP, (2015). Global Waste Management Outlook, p. 54.

*** World Bank, 2012, What A Waste. A Global Review of Solid Waste Management, p. 8.

**** UNEP, 2015,. Global Waste Management Outlook, p.8.

***** Waste Atlas, website, criteria “Recycling Rate”.



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