Since early 2016, I have traveled to six major cities around the world (Jakarta, Tokyo, Lagos, New York, Sao Paulo and Amsterdam) to investigate how they manage — or mismanage — their waste. There are some remarkable differences. And a question emerges: Is this just garbage, or is it a resource? ¶ The world generates at least 3.5 million tons of solid waste a day, 10 times the amount a century ago, according to World Bank researchers. If practices aren’t changed, that figure will grow to 11 million tons by the end of the century, the researchers estimate. On average, Americans throw away their own body weight in trash every month. In Japan, meanwhile, the typical person produces only two-thirds as much. It’s difficult to find comparable figures for the trash produced by mega-cities. But clearly, New York generates by far the most waste of the cities I visited: People in the broader metropolitan area throw away 33 million tons per year, according to a report by a global group of academics published in 2015 in the journal of the National Academy of Sciences. That’s 15 times the Lagos metropolitan area, their study found. ¶ With a sharp increase in the world population and many economies growing, we are producing more waste than ever. In Europe and the United States our trash is largely invisible once it’s tossed; in other parts of the world it is more easily seen in waste dumps, sometimes in the middle of cities.
Since early 2016, I have traveled to six major cities around the world (Jakarta, Tokyo, Lagos, New York, Sao Paulo and Amsterdam) to investigate how they manage — or mismanage — their waste. There are some remarkable differences. And a question emerges: Is this just garbage, or is it a resource?
The world generates at least 3.5 million tons of solid waste a day, 10 times the amount a century ago, according to World Bank researchers. If nothing is done, that figure will grow to 11 million tons by the end of the century, the researchers estimate. On average, Americans throw away their own body weight in trash every month. In Japan, meanwhile, the typical person produces only two-thirds as much. It’s difficult to find comparable figures for the trash produced by mega-cities. But clearly, New York generates by far the most waste of the cities I visited: People in the broader metropolitan area throw away 33 million tons per year, according to a report by a global group of academics published in 2015 in the journal of the National Academy of Sciences. That’s 15 times the Lagos metropolitan area, their study found.
With a sharp increase in the world population and many economies growing, we are producing more waste than ever. In Europe and the United States our trash is largely invisible once it’s tossed; in other parts of the world it is more obvious, in the form of waste dumps, sometimes in the middle of cities.
Dumps are a problem because they release methane, a potent greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere. Burning trash outdoors is also harmful, to the environment and people’s health.
Landfills and waste dumps are quickly filling up — with many of the largest receiving on average 10,000 tons of waste per day.
As a country becomes richer, the composition of its waste changes — more packaging, electronic components, broken toys and appliances, and relatively less organic material.
New York and San Francisco now have a goal of “zero waste” to be achieved by a reduction in trash and more recycling, but they still have a long way to go. In New York, plastic shopping bags are still provided in almost every store. The world produces over 300 million tons of plastic each year, of which only a small fraction is recycled.
By 2050, there will be so much plastic floating in the ocean it will outweigh the fish, according to a study issued by the World Economic Forum. Scientists estimate that there are at least 5.25 trillion plastic particles — weighing nearly 270,000 tons — floating in the oceans right now.
On average, a person in the United States or Western Europe uses about 220 pounds of plastic per year, according to the Worldwatch Institute, a research organization. The packaging industry, growing thanks to the rise of online stores and other factors, poses a huge challenge.
About one-third of the food produced in the world gets thrown away or otherwise wasted, according to U.N. data. The Dutch toss out the equivalent of over 400,000 loaves of bread per day, on average. The United States wastes by far the most food, due in part to fast-food restaurants at which employees and consumers dump unsold items or leftovers.
Most waste in Africa, the United States and Asia ends up in dumps, many of which are already at capacity. Europe sends less of its waste to dumps or landfills and more to incinerators. While some of them are relatively clean, many are a threat to the environment and public health. Tokyo has more than 20 garbage incinerators in the metropolitan area. The city says they are not hazardous to public health, because they burn mostly organic material and use an advanced system to filter out damaging gases.
But if the world is not prepared to think about waste reduction and actually treat garbage as a resource, future generations will drown in their own waste.
In Jakarta, nowhere to go but up
Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, has grown extremely fast in recent years, partly because of a national economic boom. Most of Jakarta’s waste ends up at Bantar Gebang, one of the biggest landfills in the world: It covers 272 acres and receives over 6,000 tons of trash per day.
The thousands of people who scavenge at Bantar Gebang work in dangerous conditions, navigating mountains of unstable trash at risk of toppling in avalanches of garbage.
Jakarta doesn’t have incinerators and has no space for another landfill. And the scavengers who work in the streets and at the landfill play an important role in recycling, in a city with hardly any formal recycling industry.
Waste flowing into the canals and rivers of Jakarta also causes issues. The waterways clog, causing extensive flooding. For the past two years, Jakarta has made a big effort to clean the garbage from its waterways.
Indonesia is one of the world’s biggest sources of plastic that is dumped into the oceans.
A bold goal in the Big Apple: ‘Zero Waste’
The New York metropolitan area produces 33 million tons of garbage per year, according to a group of global scientists that calculated all the trash being tossed out by the city and its sprawling suburbs and exurbs. That puts it well ahead of the rest of the world’s major mega-cities, according to the researchers.
The United States is one of the planet’s biggest generators of waste, and New York presents a particular challenge because it is so densely populated. In most parts of the world, growing wealth is associated with an increased output of trash. But in the United States, the poorer population also contributes a considerable amount of garbage, much of it fast-food packaging. Food waste is also a huge issue, in New York and the rest of the country.
Despite its problems, New York does better in some ways than other U.S. cities when it comes to trash: Paper, plastic bottles and cans are often separated for recycling, even though the recycling industry is limited in size. Most of New York’s waste goes to landfills or to incinerators out of state.
Under Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), New York City has begun its “Zero Waste” initiative, which among other things will aim to reduce the amount of non-compostable trash and improve recycling. The city’s goal is to eliminate the transfer of garbage to out-of-state landfills by 2030.
In recycling and management, New York is more advanced than many other American cities, but the sheer amount of garbage it generates would be difficult for any municipal government to deal with.
Lagos works to slow a rising tide
Lagos has a population of around 21 million people but produces only around 2.5 million tons of waste a year, according to a study by a global group of academics published in the journal of the National Academy of Sciences. Some estimates are higher. One of the fastest-growing cities in the world, Lagos struggles not only with how to deal with its own waste but with garbage sent to Nigeria illegally from Europe and the United States.
The biggest landfill in Lagos, Olusosun, is near capacity, and there is no viable alternative set to take its place in the near future. It receives about 3,000 to 5,000 tons of trash per day, officials say.
The thousands of scavengers who work at the landfill help the recycling efforts, albeit under harrowing conditions. What looks apocalyptic is actually a well-organized work site. What is surprising is that the landfill doesn’t smell as bad as others do around the world. This is largely due to the fact that Nigerians hardly waste any food.
The city is planning to close the landfill and build transfer and sorting stations and incinerators — as well as another major dump 40 miles away, in the city of Badagry — but these steps will take years. In the meantime in some areas of Lagos, people use waste to create land, building homes on it.
Short on space, Tokyo gets proactive
The Tokyo metropolitan area is one of the most populous in the world, with at least 36 million people, and produces around 12 million tons of waste a year, according to a report published in the journal of the National Academy of Sciences.
Constrained by a lack of space, Tokyo puts a lot of emphasis on recycling. It has 48 incinerators, which also convert garbage into energy. Authorities claim that the facilities are very clean and don’t pose a threat to public health. Households separate their waste into categories — such as burnable, nonburnable, bottles and cans, and oversize items — that are collected on different days.
There are 12 landfills, the largest of which is on reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay and is expected to last for about 50 years.
In Sao Paulo, relying on people power
About 21 million people live in the Sao Paulo metropolitan area in Brazil. As the number of middle- and upper-class residents has grown over the past decade, Sao Paulo has produced ever more waste.
Most of it has ended up at landfills.
Sao Paulo is one of the few cities where “garbage picker/scavenger” is an officially recognized profession. Such workers are organized in cooperatives and collect mainly plastic, cans and paper from the streets, to be sold to companies that handle recycling. The scavengers are seen as a solution to the problem.
Amsterdam looks to burn less, recycle more
Amsterdam has a population of around 900,000, a number that swells to over 2 million if the surrounding area is included.
Much of what people throw in the garbage goes to an incinerator, with metals removed. There are plans by the end of this year to open a new facility that will take out plastics and other recyclables, but it will not be able to handle all the city’s garbage.
The incinerator also receives British household waste: Britain doesn’t have enough incinerators, and Amsterdam has surplus capacity. Because the Dutch use waste as a source of fuel, they might be less likely to separate out recyclable material, burning it instead.
Paper and glass are pretty well separated by the residents of Amsterdam, and they are starting to set aside plastic. At shops you have to pay for plastic bags. About 28 percent of the city’s waste is recycled.
Food waste is a huge issue in Amsterdam and around the world. The Dutch alone throw away more than 400,000 loaves of bread per day.
Kadir van Lohuizen is an Amsterdam-based freelance photojournalist and founding member of the social documentary photography agency Noor. He began his career in 1988 as a conflict photographer and has been internationally recognized for his long-term projects on life along the world’s major rivers, the perils of rising sea levels, the blood-diamond industry and the impact of migration in the Americas.
Photo and videos by Kadir van Lohuizen/Noor. Photo editing by Nick Kirkpatrick and MaryAnne Golon. Video editing by Sarah Parnass. Content editing by Mary Beth Sheridan. Design and development by Brian Gross and Courtney Kan.