How Trash Adds To Climate Change

We spent the last few years travelling quite a bit on different continents and seeing both their differences and the things they have in common. Coming from Europe and especially the countries where global warming and climate change is accepted as fact and where governments are adopting actions and policies to start to do something about it, I found myself wondering what about the rest of the world. In Europe we still think not enough is being done to rescue our planet from the mountains of waste we have created and are still creating. We educate people, make new laws and policies, and we discuss what we can do in cooperation and as individuals. We have started to think more about how we recycle and reuse materials, and how to dispose of waste.

Of course even in Europe you can see the differences between different regions and countries, it’s an easy generalisation but you could say that the Nordic countries do much better than those in Southern Europe. For the last decade at least though, huge steps forward are being made all over the continent.

The thing is, if we are all doing so much better, how come there are such huge amounts of waste, especially plastic, floating around in the rivers, seas and oceans? Why do you need to collect garbage while climbing the mountains?

Europe isn’t nearly there yet, but it is making faster progress than many other parts of the world. Probably I really needed to see for myself how in many places the situation is much worse, I needed to see the cities and fields full of garbage to realise just how crazy the situation is. I did see them. Where? In some African and American countries. Apart form my own observations, last year for a development project I did some research on the waste situation in South East Asia as well and some of the facts were quite shocking.

You know the funny and sad fact here is that this is entirely on us. We humans are the only ‘animals’ producing all the waste that puts the entire planet in danger. It’s all human activity, and damn we are supposed to be homo sapiens (wise men in latin)!

A little bit about climate change

We are masters at changing our environment. Let’s not even think about building towns and cities, but just at the other effects we have. Things like agricultural development, irrigation, deforestation, and monoculture farming on industrial scale can and do radically change the environment. In these ways we cause the disruption of underground river flow and the water table, which leads to desertification and the destruction of natural habitats for import local wildlife.

It’s easy to put all of the blame on us, but we can’t forget the fact that climate change is a natural process as well, even without humans our climate was changing and that is normal. The problem is the scale and speed of the changes, and those are due to the massive impact that human activity is having. Our industry, transport and industrial farming cause the release of huge amounts of CO2, methane and other greenhouse gases. We create truly dangerous levels of these gases, and at the same time we destroy areas of the planet that could act as natural carbon sinks. Ecosystems adapt to gradual natural climate change, but they simply can’t deal with this, the planet is heating up and we are responsible. On top of that we throw in an unhealthy side portion of deforestation, desertification, urbanisation and all of that trash that we can’t stop littering the planet with, and what kind of mess are we left with?

There are climate change models which can calculate multiple scenarios and help us to get a picture of possible futures, but they can’t exactly count the effect of human activities. Models can’t always predict accurately because we are such strange and unpredictable beasts, but also they can’t know the consequences of industrial accidents and natural catastrophes. We have many models created to predict some political, economical, socials situations as well, but who knows when a world leader might come along and decide to just drop out of all existing climate agreements. Climate change models are mathematical representations of the interactions between the atmosphere, oceans, land surface, ice and sun. So from my understanding these models can base a prediction about upcoming winters and summers, based on past patterns, but they are only ever estimates and often they are conservative ones, and usually they need many years to see if they were right. It looks insane to wait like 20-50 years to see if a model is any good or not; so models are tested against the past, against what we know happened.

The consequences of the climate change that I am talking about are droughts, late spring frosts, heavy rains, heat waves, higher spring and autumn floods. They inevitably effect agriculture yields, public health, increase the chances of natural disasters, and like most negative things the ones in the greater danger are already the people living in the poorest and most vulnerable areas around the globe.

Waste contributes to climate change because..

It seems so normal and natural to tidy up around ourselves, because really who wants to live surrounded by piles of trash, but there are more reasons to care about it too. Just as bad hygiene puts us in danger, bad waste disposal does as well. Having heaps of waste everywhere around, and animals choking on all of the plastic they swallow is obviously bad, but doesn’t directly contribute to climate change, there are some waste issues that really do though.

Recycling waste saves energy, producing goods from recycled plastic and other materials uses less energy (and in the case of plastic means we have to dig up less oil) than making things from new virgin materials. The more energy we need to use, the more fossil fules are burned and the more carbon dioxide we throw up into the sky. Recycling of paper based products also means that we cut down less mature trees which are some of the most efficient natural carbon absorbers on the planet.

Burning waste, which is the way we currently get rid of far too much of it, means we produce great amount of both greenhouses gases and all sorts of other toxins that we release into the atmosphere.

Burying waste in landfills might seem like not such a terrible idea as the others, but actually releases incredible amounts of methane as all of the trash decomposes. There is also the chance of who knows what chemicals leaking into the soil and nearby water supplies.

Sustainable waste management means less impact to the environment, reduced air and water pollution, reduced level of CO2 emissions. It can also contribute to a better quality of life in many other ways, like improving hygiene (this you can really feel in the developing countries that struggle the most), together with reducing health risks that are directly connected with illegal dumping or garbage collection. It also helps produce new employment and stimulate economies. The best thing is that is is all quite achievable, but we’ll come back to that in a minute.

So, what are we doing with all that waste now?

How we get rid of our waste is a choice that begins in all of our households, as well as in both small and big businesses, this is something that we have quite direct personal control over. Actually, you might say that we start to make this decision when we buy something new, because the way that new items are produced is the first step in their waste cycle. The materials it is made from and the ways that something will be used determine how later it will be disposed of.

Every person can contribute by disposing of their personal waste in the best way. Starting from adopting a zero waste household approach. As well as paying attention to the right way of recycling, separating glass, metal, paper, general waste, creating compost, and reusing things. You don’t need big space or resources, you can start composting even in a tiny apartment.

Waste management include the activities and actions required to manage waste from its inception to its final disposal. This includes the collection, transport, treatment and disposal of waste, together with monitoring and regulation of the waste management process.

That sounds like it should be so esy to get right, but somehow we manage to screw it up completely.

It’s nice to talk about the sustainable waste management solutions, but we can’t ignore the fact that in some countries they are still using incredibly environmentally unfriendly ways to get rid of waste. Not just individuals and companies but also at national government levels.

There are still millions of individual people who are not taking care about their own waste, buying more than they need in excessive packaging, and not recycling or sorting waste to dispose of it properly. Then there are many companies who just let their waste end up in water sources, fields and forests, streets, or their own yards.

The worst is at the highest level. Many countries still just burn waste and let the pollutants into the air without filtering, throw it into huge landfills where it will slowly rot and leach toxins, or if they are rich enough ship it off to a third world country where it becomes somebody else’s problem.

Sustainable waste managment

So, let’s be honest we already created the problem, now it is time for solutions how to reduce the mess. there is no one great solution, no magic bullet for the waste problem that is going to be right for each country or region. Not simply because of the different disposable things that we use, but also because of different climates, resources, needs and geography.

Sweden, for example, found a way not just to dispose of their own trash but to actually be happy to take in more waste from their neighbours. Sweden today is a country which has run out of waste and now actually needs more from other countries so they can keep running their recycling plants.

How did Sweden do it? Mainly they burn waste in a controlled way and the generated energy is used to generate electricity as well as run a national heating network. As we know they have quite chilly winters and everyone likes warm water. The numbers are impressive, spread across the country they: have 32 waste management plants, produce heat for 810000 house holds, generate electricity for 250000 private houses, and less than 1 percent of household waste end up dumped into landfills.

Sweden is not the only country making producing energy from waste and probably we can all agree that is a reasonably good solution. But most of the better solutions start off by producing less waste in general and implementing recycling programs.

How WE make a change

The fact that you are reading and I am writing this means that we privileged enough to be able to access information, to receive education, probably to travel. We get to face different realities around and understand the situations we live in. The societies we live in nowadays almost force us to feel responsible and to act, and that’s a good thing. We feel personal responsibility to make changes to our behaviour to make as little negative impact as posible on our environment and to contribute as little as posible to the rapid climate change. There are many personal actions we are taking are helping us to reduce waste.

  • Recycling and composting as much as possible.
  • We are spreading the knowledge we have with people who surround us. during our travels we try to be role models. As well as sharing our thoughts and ideas here at
  • Trying to follow the zero waste concept in our daily life. This starts from shopping and avoiding plastic or any packaging and making sure that we won’t need to throw out any food waste (more about zero waste ideas in this link). We are aware of the goods we buy and trying to make sure they will last a long time, they have a function and we will actually use them.
  • Our personal hygiene things over time have become more and more environmentally friendly. We didn’t just change everything at once. It took some time, to find the things which have good qualities and that we like. For example going from buying organic toothpaste to making our own. As well as getting knowledge how to make organic shampoos and soaps and implementing it. If we put organic materials in then we know the that nature will have less harm from it when we are done with it (sustainable travel kit ideas).
  • After realizing how the internet is, as John would say, a carbon monster, we decided to create a 100% green web hosting company So now we know that our blog is hosted sustainably and ethically. The good thing is that we can provide the same great hosting services to others as well.

There are many others small actions we do everyday and they have become our habits. We even don’t notice when we walk right now 6 kilometres one way to buy something. In the near future we have bigger plans to actually settle down for a longer time in one place and create as much as possible a sustainable household.

I hope that after reading this text you will realise that each of us can make an impact if we just change simple things in our daily lives. But of course we need a little basic knowledge to help us understand the importance of these little changes.

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