Municipal Solid Waste Growing

Gary Gardner | Jul 24, 2012

Some 1.3 billion tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) are generated globally each year, a volume that is increasing rapidly as urbanization, mass consumption, and throw-away lifestyles become more prevalent worldwide.1 The volume of MSW generated globally is projected to double by 2025 as two drivers of garbage generation—prosperity and urbanization—continue to advance, particularly in developing countries.2 The trend poses serious environmental and health challenges to cities worldwide.3 To the extent that MSW is not treated as a resource—and in most countries it is not—it stands as an indicator of economic unsustainability.

MSW Figure 1

As used here, MSW consists of organic material, paper, plastic, glass, metals, and other refuse collected by municipal authorities, largely from homes, offices, institutions, and commercial establishments.4 MSW is a subset of the larger universe of waste. It typically does not include waste collected outside of formal municipal programs. Nor does it include the sewage, industrial waste, or construction and demolition waste generated by cities.5 And of course MSW does not include rural wastes. The U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that MSW and industrial wastes combined amount to between 3.4 billion and 4 billion tons—roughly three times greater than the flow of MSW, the focus here.6 MSW is measured at collection, so data on it often include collected material that is later diverted for recycling.

MSW tends to be generated in much higher quantities in wealthier regions of the world. Members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a group of 34 industrial nations, lead the world in MSW generation, at nearly 1.6 million tons per day.7 (See Figure 1.) By contrast, sub-Saharan Africa produces less than one eighth as much, some 200,000 tons per day.8

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