In 1998, the municipal waste generated in England and Wales could, at 27m tonnes, have covered an area the size of Hyde Park with an 80-foot layer. A decade later, the amount of waste in England and Wales had risen to about 150m tonnes. In 2010, Americans produced 250m tonnes of rubbish – roughly the same weight as 685 Empire State Buildings. Even tiny Singapore puts out impressive volumes, producing 6.5m tonnes (about 18 Empire State Buildings) in 2010.
Much of the waste ends up in landfill, eating up precious land and creating air, water and soil pollution. As rubbish decomposes, it generates carbon dioxide and methane (a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide) and releases chemicals and pesticides into groundwater. Food waste is a particular problem, releasing methane as it rots. And we throw away staggering amounts of edible substances – some 34m tonnes a year in the US, making this the largest component of municipal solid waste in the country’s landfills and incinerators.
Yet not all landfills are bad. Spaarnwoude, in the Dutch province of North Holland, instead of building expensive artificial hills, the public authority persuaded landfill developers to build a varied, natural-looking landscape from the trash to create a park. The site is now one of the region’s most popular destinations, transforming the residential areas around it. People living next door to Spaarnwoude were once very concerned about the value of their property. But when the park opened, their property value went up like crazy – suddenly it was a very attractive place to live. In the US Staten Island’s famous Freshkills landfill is being transformed from giant trash receptacle to nature reserve. When completed in 25 years, Freshkills Park will give New Yorkers hills and wetlands, creeks and rivers, hiking and biking trails in a landscape three times the size of Central Park. Now, they can see that “a place that was so awful could become something so beautiful”. Freshkills is harvesting and purifying methane from the decomposing waste. While it lasts, this can heat 22,000 homes.
In Amsterdam, 99 per cent of domestic and industrial waste is converted into energy that powers the city’s trams, underground trains and streetlights, as well as 75 per cent of city households. Heat generated during the incineration process provides 12,000 homes with heating and hot water. Materials that fail to burn during incineration are used, too. The city’s waste and energy company, AEB, extracts metals such as iron, copper and aluminium and sends them to specialised recycling facilities, and turns what remains into a construction material for use in roads.
Bjarke Ingels, a Danish architect, plans to combine a giant incinerator with a ski slope at the heart of Copenhagen. The idea is that below the slopes, household and other solid waste will be turned into power to heat the city’s homes. Ingels argues that all pollution is a byproduct that can be repurposed.
“Waste is an unexploited resource,” he says. “All you have to do is find out what it’s good for and how to feed it back into the metabolism of the city.”