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Beyond an age of waste

UNEP’s Global Waste Management Outlook 2024 stresses we should be turning rubbish into a resource
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
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With municipal waste set to rise by two-thirds and its costs to almost double within a generation, only a drastic reduction in waste generation will secure a liveable and affordable future, according to a new UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report.

Titled ‘Beyond an age of waste: Turning rubbish into a resource’, UNEP’s Global Waste Management Outlook 2024 (GWMO 2024) provides the most substantial update on global waste generation and the cost of waste and its management since 2018.

The analysis uses lifecycle assessments to explore what the world could gain or lose through continuing business as usual, adopting half measures or committing fully to zero waste and circular economy societies.

The cost of waste

According to the report, municipal solid waste generation is predicted to grow from 2.3 billion tonnes in 2023 to 3.8 billion tonnes by 2050.

In 2020, the global direct cost of waste management was an estimated $252 billion.

However, when factoring in the hidden costs of pollution, poor health and climate change from poor waste disposal practices, the cost rises to $361 billion.

Without urgent action on waste management, by 2050 this global annual cost could almost double to a staggering $640.3 billion.

‘Waste generation is intrinsically tied to GDP, and many fast-growing economies are struggling under the burden of rapid waste growth. By identifying actionable steps to a more resourceful future and emphasising the pivotal role of decision-makers in the public and private sectors to move towards zero waste, this Global Waste Management Outlook can support governments seeking to prevent missed opportunities to create more sustainable societies and to secure a liveable planet for future generations.’

UNEP’s executive director

A circular economy model

The report’s modelling shows that getting waste under control by taking waste prevention and management measures could limit net annual costs by 2050 to $270.2 billion.

However, projections show that a circular economy model, where waste generation and economic growth are decoupled by adopting waste avoidance, sustainable business practices and full waste management, could in fact lead to a full net gain of $108.5 billion per year.

‘The findings of this report demonstrate that the world urgently needs to shift to a zero waste approach, while improving waste management to prevent significant pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and negative impacts to human health.

‘Pollution from waste knows no borders, so it is in everyone’s interests to commit to waste prevention and invest in waste management where it is lacking. The solutions are available and ready to be scaled up. What is needed now is strong leadership to set the direction and pace required, and to ensure no one is left behind.’

Lead author of the report

The report launched at the sixth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-6), 26 February to 01 March at UNEP’s headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya.

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