Changing demographics and Municipal Solid Waste volumes?

Posted by Robert McKechnie on Tue, Jul 31, 2012
Municipal Solid Waste volumesThe latest report from Vital Signs predicts a doubling of MSW (municipal solid waste) by the year 2025 and sights the two main drivers being prosperity and urbanization mainly due to predicted growth in developing countries. The report looks at the comparisons between the make-up of MSW in developed countries versus developing countries and asks the questions – what changes are needed to cope with this growth in MSW and how can the planet move towards a “circular economy” where there is far more emphasis on reuse and recycling.

Some of the highlights of the report include the following:

  • Higher quantities of MSW in wealthier regions with OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries producing 1.6 million tonnes of MSW per day
  • The US generates the most MSW with over 621,000 tonnes per day closely followed by China at 521,000 tonnes per day. However, big variation amongst developed countries with the US generating almost 7 times as much as France
  • On a per person basis OECD countries generate more than 2kg per person per day whereas people in South Asia generate less than 0.5 kg per person per day. In Europe, Latin America, North Africa and the Middle East the figure is slightly more than 1kg per person per day.

Municipal Solid Waste by waste stream    Municipal solid waste per person per day

  • The type of waste varies based upon urbanisation and income. In wealthier regions MSW contains more plastics, paper and aluminium whereas in low income regions there is a greater percentage of organic waste (>60%). Rural areas also have a larger organic content (40 – 85%) than urban areas.
  • 25% of the world’s MSW is diverted from landfill through recycling, composting and digestion. Mainly in developed countries. However, there is a lot of “informal” recycling in low income countries carried out by “waste pickers”. Estimates are that this could be as much 20 – 50%.
  • The UNEP estimates the global waste management market (from collection through recycling) to be worth more than $400B.
  • The UNEP also estimates that a 3.5 X increase in recycling is required in order to “green the waste stream”.

Some big challenges ahead…..who would have thought? :-). However, what if there was an alternative view of the road ahead for waste? Is it possible that MSW volumes, particularly in developed countries, may actually decrease by 2025 instead of increasing? According to renowned economist Harry S. Dent who has been studying and accurately predicting the economic effects of demographics for the past 30 years, the world and in particular the developed world is about to enter into an economic winter season brought about primarily by the largest generation in history, the “baby boomers”(those born during !946 – 1964) moving out of their peak spending years. In his book, The Great Crash Ahead, Dent outlines that we now experiencing a slow-down in the economy primarily due to the fact that over 92 million US “boomers” are now leaving the workforce and moving into retirement and as they do so their spending habits and consumption radically changes from large purchases (homes, cars) to saving.

The demographic picture is similar in Europe. Dent believes that we are poised to move into a long period of deflation resulting reduction in the value of goods and services and high unemployment. So my question is what will this do to waste volumes?  Reduced consumption should result in reduced waste. Less money in people’s pockets will also presumably mean a drive to make consumer goods and big tickets items last longer. Are we already seeing the effects of this in food waste? According to a recent report by Waste Watch, since 2008, there has been a 13% drop in food waste with overall food purchasing also in decline.

What about China and other emerging geographies? The picture in China and other countries is complex due to a combination of different rates of urbanisation (China 50 – 65%, Brazil 70 – 80%) and demographics (China peak 2015) and is probably worth of a separate blog post but Dent argues that the bubble may be about to burst in China.

There are certainly a lot of factors at play here. How do we make sense of this at a local authority level in the UK where most of our MSW is collected? Well our demographic cycle peaked in line with the US. If we buy into Dent’s argument then it is likely that UK consumption will drop and waste volumes will also drop over the coming decade. How are local authorities currently modelling waste services and infrastructure? The Green Oak team has developed a detailed and comprehensive modelling tool called Waste Buddy which is free to download and use.

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I’d be interested to know whether Local Authorities are currently planning for a contraction in MSW volumes? This clearly could have a big impact in budgetary terms if resources could be diverted from collection into recycling? I would be interested in the views of our LA colleagues out there.


Global Municipal Waste Continues to Grow -

The Great Crash Ahead by Harry S. Den, Jr. -

Our changing diet in difficult times - Waste Watch -

Tags: Local authority waste, Food Waste Collection