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growth in, garbage out

A year ago, the World Bank published a report with the tempting title “More growth, less garbage”. It didn’t raise much attention and maybe that’s a good thing.

The World Bank has always been the pro-growth center of the world. They have my support in their efforts to purge dictators and trade-barriers that are keeping low-income countries from growing their way out of poverty. And I always hoped that the Bank’s endeavours for good governance, healthy populations and clean environments would eventually result in some kind of a new definition of economic growth itself. That may be naive.

The report is about waste generation and the suggestion is that economic growth leads to wealthier countries that are able to reduce their waste generation. Societies cannot only grow their way out of poverty but also out of waste. Indeed, it’s a convenient conclusion for the pro-growth Bank community.

But it’s not true, for many reasons:

  • The report mixes up generation of waste and the way it is managed. One may conclude that wealthier societies show better waste management and increased recycle rates but that doesn’t mean that there’s less waste. Only that less waste is going to disposal.

  • The report only deals with municipal waste from households and small businesses. Other wastes are left out of the picture. This means that definition-effects, shifts and spillovers between different types of waste are not accounted for.

  • Reported lower per-capita generation rates for municipal waste in wealthier countries may be the result of other mechanisms. For example, more stringent law enforcement forbids companies and institutions to make use of municipal collection services. As a result, municipal waste goes down but construction and demolition waste and industrial waste go up.

  • It may also be the result of the way food in wealthier countries is produced. Ready-made vegetables and meals have the side effect that food waste is no longer generated within the households but in the food industry.

  • Systems for Extended Producer Responsibility have the effect that packaging materials and household electronics can be returned to the shops where we bought the products. It then enters into reversed supply chains that are out of sight for the authorities that monitor our waste generation.

I very much agree with the observation that wealthier societies are better equipped for performing on re-use and recycling. But the suggestion that economic growth leads to less waste is a dangerous one. It covers up the fact that growth of economies, consumption and populations lead to an exponential increase in the depletion of our planet’s resources. All too often I read about cities and countries who claim to be on a path towards full circularity and zero-waste where, in fact, it is the result of out-sourcing and off-shoring their waste generation to other regions and countries.

Our addiction to resources and consumption is not cured by denial. We have to accept the fact that waste exists and that we should push as hard as possible on re-use, recycling and recovery. As with many addictions, its acceptance is the first step towards a cure. And that cure can only be in less consumption.


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