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A rubbish dump
Waste can be a problem - or a valuable raw materialImage: CC / Fruggo

The worth of waste

February 8, 2011

From household garbarge to electronic waste, today's world generates more trash then ever before, A lot of it can be recycled: One person's waste is another's raw material.


Modern society throws a lot away. In Germany, approximately half a ton of waste is produced per capita each year. That amounts to 1.4 kilograms (3.086 pounds) a day. But according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the world leader when it comes to waste is the US, where an annual 730 kilograms of waste is generated per person.

The million dollar question is: what to do with it? So long as there's enough space for them, public rubbish dumps do the trick. But not only are these a blot on the landscape, they also pose a risk to the environment and potentially a health risk to the public. Moreover, waste shouldn't be wasted – much of it can be recycled. To experts, waste is a promising raw material of the future.

In the developed world, recycling facilities are now commonplace. They allow waste to be sorted into plastics, glass and paper and re-used, while any waste that cannot be re-used is incinerated, in the process generating electricity and heat.

A thriving industry

The rubbish incineration plant at Spillepengen, Malmö, Sweden
Today's rubbish incineration plants are highly efficientImage: CC / jorchr

But developing countries are also well aware of the value of recycling. Guenther Wehenpohl works for Germany's state-funded GIZ group in Costa Rica, helping local initiatives improve the waste and recycling industry, which is already starting to thrive.

"In the past, used plastic bottles were exported to Asia and recycled in the textiles industry, for example, in the production of fleece jackets," he says. "These days, they're processed here in the country and recycled as bottles again, which is much more efficient."

Crucially, he points out, environmental awareness has dawned and new laws help facilitate waste collection and recycling schemes.

Efficient and green

Young Afghan Children Collect Waste
In some countries, people collect garbage to surviveImage: UN Photo/Shehzad Noorani

In other countries, organic waste is processed into compost. In Bali, Indonesia, the 100 residents of the village of Temesi have established a waste processing facility that is both practical and environmentally-friendly: landfills produce high levels of methane, which is an even more damaging greenhouse gas than CO2.

"Recycling is beneficial in terms both of raw materials and the environment," stresses Guenther Wehenpohl from the GIZ.

The recyling potential of electronic trash is especially significant. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that every year, the world generates about 40 million tons of E-waste, which contains valuable quantities of gold, silver and copper.

Hidden value

Cellphone pile
Few consumers realize what's in their cellphonesImage: CC / ario_

Thus, 40 cellphones, for example, contain about the same amount of gold as a ton of ore.

But vast amounts of raw materials are lost by standard waste disposal – and with them, several billions worth of euros. The UNEP estimates that in China alone, an annual four tons of gold, 28 tons of silver and 6,000 ton of copper are lost.

Researchers are currently exploring ways to mine these hidden treasures more efficiently.

Commissioned by the environnment Ministry and local authorities, Stefan Gaeth from the University of Giessen is examining three landfills sites in the states of Hessen and Baden-Wuerttemberg.

He estimates the medium-sized waste dump in Reiskirchen, Hessen, contains raw materials worth between 65 and 120 millions euros.

"Nonetheless, extraction of raw materials (from waste dumps) is not yet financially profitable," he says – firstly, because the technology is not yet up to speed and secondly, because of costs. Despite the record prices that certain precious metals can now fetch, the costs of extracting them from waste disposal systems are still prohibitive.

New mindset

Who knew that plastic bottles can be turned into fleece jackets?Image: Der Grüne Punkt – Duales System Deutschland GmbH

Experts believe the answer is 'urban mining' – the term applied to the process operated by companies of reclaiming compounds and elements from products, building and waste.

But as Gaeth points out, the consumer mindset needs to change – and the public needs to be better informed about the precious metals contained in the electrical goods they buy.

"They need to be told how much gold and copper is in their cell phone," he emphasizes.

He suggests promoting the idea of a 'raw materials' footprint,' much like the carbon footprint, for example, by introducing a deposit system. This way, consumers would return electronic waste such as used refrigerators and television sets to the manufacturer, which would recycle them. He also proposes storing used electrical appliances. "That way they can be recycled when raw material prices rise," he says.

Guenther Wehenpohl from the GIZ agrees that incentive schemes are a promising approach to ensuring that raw materials can be recycled.

One way or another, landfills are the new Wild West. "Waste dumps are goldmines," says Wehenpohl.

Author: Po Keung Cheung (jp)
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar

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