Cities were invented for a multitude of purposes. First was the need for the concentration of vital resources in a given region - then came their role as places for worship, trade, governmental control and military defence. But in our modern age, urban spaces were conceived and shaped primarily around mass market industrialisation.
Today the consequences of the post-industrial city have had an incredible impact on the environment. It is widely accepted cities impinge on areas well beyond their borders. Waste streams in cities are the leading factor in pollution of the areas outside their geo-political boundaries.
Urban waste must be reconfigured – our time has run out. Reports of garbage problems from Naples in Italy to Beijing in China underscore the size of the problem. Landfills are filled and incinerators have the potential to release poisons such as dioxin. We must have a new strategy towards refuse in urban places, one that includes the design of consumables in the first place. Many concepts exist already, but what are some of the most radical solutions to our wasteful ways?
Recently, the planet reached 400 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere for the first time since modern humans evolved. Reversing such wasteful habits will require tremendous effort, as minuscule changes will not alter this course. Humanity has reached its peak of one-way consumption.
Now is the time to design waste to regenerate our cities. What are the possibilities for urban environments after our aged infrastructure is recalibrated? How might bigger cities and waste mix? One key idea is that waste is not recycled through infrastructural mechanisms but instead up-cycled in perpetuity.
All over the globe municipal waste is on the rise. In China, the amount of municipal solid waste produced is rising by 6% per year. It has kept pace with the rapid urbanization in China. Many parts of South America are also rapidly urbanising and their waste has grown with it. Brazilian cities have had a steady 10% increase in waste headed for landfills. India will see a 500% increase in e-waste – materials from cell phones, TVs, refrigerators – destined for urban landfills. A lot of it is imported from developed countries. South Africa and China will also have to deal with 400% more garbage from foreign e-waste.
Mankind will have to solve our waste problem in cities. If we don’t, it’ll be the end of us. There are a number of possible solutions, and some of them are already being adopted.
The first credible step is to reduce trash by considering the life cycle of objects we make. Things that are designed for obsolescence should be outlawed. Additionally, products must be manufactured with the intent to reuse, disassemble, take back or upcycle. For instance, instead of tossing out bottles we could adapt them for use as planters, lighting fixtures, building wall elements.
Other cities have highly organised systems to solve these problems. In Zurich, the city requires individuals pay handsomely for waste that is simply discarded, while thorough recycling is encouraged by free citywide collection services. Therefore well over 90% of municipal waste inside Zurich is recycled and sent to incinerators to produce energy. Burning waste is not the answer but it does have opportunities in the mid-term. It requires substantial need for enforceable regulations, comprehensive industry controls, economic feasibility plans, and the latest ultra-expensive technology such as plasma gasification plants.
In similarly developed cities - Malmo, Tokyo, or Copenhagen – it makes sense to use a waste-to-energy processes. These prevailing urban populations are stable and easily taxed to support such a system – not so easy in developing cities such as Lagos or Jakarta.
Outreach programs that invite the public to observe civic waste systems as a spectacle are instrumental in spreading awareness. The Hangzhou Environmental Group in China has over 10,000 tourists a year visiting its landfill facility. Freshkills landfill in New York will be transformed into the largest public park in over 100 years that will showcase engineered nature from waste. Cuba, an island nation that has been cut-off from trade imports, has conserved almost everything through carful recycling of parts - from 1950’s cars to eyeglasses, nothing is wasted.