In the past few years, we’ve become dramatically more interested in supply chains, thanks to both pandemic-related shortages and ethical concerns. But while we think a lot about where things come from, Oliver Franklin-Wallis wanted to write about where things eventually go—as waste.
“We’re only the middle point” in the journey of most objects we use, Franklin-Wallis told Quartz. His new book, Wasteland: The Secret World of Waste and the Urgent Search for a Cleaner Future, details the real journey of things we regularly dump and forget about.
In the US, the world’s most wasteful nation, each person produces around two kilograms of waste a day, according to a 2018 World Bank report. Partly, it’s human nature to want to distance ourselves, physically and mentally, from our refuse. In the global North, efficient waste collection systems also mean that “we see it as something we’ve solved: ‘Everything’s going to get recycled!’” Franklin-Wallis said.
Wasteland reveals a much more complicated reality. In large part, it’s the story of the thriving waste industry, a profitable business that makes its money by turning scrap into reusable material. But it’s also a tale of crime, corruption (in more than one sense), and the terrible toll our waste takes on both the environment and the humans whose lives revolve around it.
To illustrate these points, Franklin-Wallis described the journey of just five of the most common items we discard. How many of these have you chucked out in the past month?
Most plastic water bottles are made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), by far the most recycled plastic. About 480 billion plastic bottles were sold worldwide in 2016, the last year for which reliable data is available, according to Wasteland.
In the global North, if you wash and throw away a Coke bottle, it will be taken to a recovery facility, baled with other plastic of the same type, and sold to a processor. There the plastic is cleaned, chopped up, and turned into nurdles—the pellets used to make new plastic items.
Unfortunately, Franklin-Wallis explained, every time a plastic is recycled, it becomes more impure and degrades; chemically, it begins to break down. The bottle’s next life might come as a thread in a T-shirt, or as a toothbrush bristle. The next time still, it will degrade further, often getting smokier and darker, ending up perhaps as a drainpipe.
Still, the process is fairly efficient and lucrative. “In the West, waste processing can be incredibly profitable because you have a bunch of people doing the processing for you in their homes, for free, and providing you with an essentially free raw material,” Franklin-Wallis said. But in most of the global South, no such infrastructure is in place, for a mix of reasons including tax systems and the allocation of that money, education, and government will.
In India, the empty soda bottle will probably be collected by waste pickers, the lowest-earning members of society; often, they’re families that include children. Pickers sort plastics and sell whatever they can in bulk, likely to a small local factory. The rest will be burned, end up down drains or in landfills, and often ultimately find its way into rivers and seas.
When it comes to unused bread or other kinds of food waste, most of us are probably guilty of throwing away too much. But an even bigger problem, Franklin-Wallis said, is food waste on an industrial scale. Takeaway sandwiches are a prime example. No company uses the ends of loaves, and just that wastage is “astronomical,” he said. Putting food into landfills produces methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.
Supermarkets are a big part of the problem, because their job is to provide whatever customers might want and ordering farmers to produce that much, but taking no responsibility for the waste created.
Some inventive solutions have been tested, including Toast Ale in the UK, which collects bread scraps to make starters for beer brewing. Some industrially wasted food is also fed into anaerobic digestion plants, creating energy.
But in one “grotesque side effect” of supermarkets demanding food at ever-lower prices (despite current inflation) and the pressures being placed on farmers, Franklin-Wallis said, some farms have begun growing edible corn and selling it straight to power plants. All the land and water use involved in grain production takes place without that crop ever going through the middle stage of feeding people.
The market for recycled clothing is big, but also problematic. Globally, the trade is worth £3.6 billion ($4.5 billion), and most used garments in the West head overseas: 70% of the UK’s discarded clothes were exported in 2018, an amount worth £451 million ($567 million). The biggest recipient was Ghana.
Shoes are among the hardest pieces of clothing to reuse or recycle. Often they’re worn until they can’t be passed on, but they’re also mostly made of multiple materials, typically held together with strong glue. Most can’t be recycled, so they will be burned. Anything reusable will end up in often-vast secondhand shoe markets in the global South, where a skilled local workforce grinds down and bleaches their soles to whiten them, washes uppers, and adds new laces.
In an effort to counteract the waste they help create, some of the world’s biggest sportswear companies are developing glueless shoes, or footwear only made from one material. But Franklin-Wallis suggested that since most of their businesses are based on selling high-priced, brand-new sneakers, such moves should be taken with a pinch of salt.
Electronics are our fastest-growing waste stream, Franklin-Wallis said, and mobile phones are a uniquely special case. “They’re an incredibly complex piece of engineering, but actually the materials inside them are really valuable,” including gold, scarce minerals like tantalum, and rare earths like neodymium, he said. These metals are valuable, but companies have made phones hard to recycle. Their cases are fused and impossible to take apart, and we still don’t have a good, large-scale way to recycle their lithium ion batteries.
For usable smartphones, there’s a secondhand market, again mostly in the global South, which has a buzzing reuse and refurbishment business. But any phone truly at the end of its life will go to a waste electrical and electronic equipment facility. There, they will first be processed by what Franklin-Wallis calls “giant blenders,” before machines sort its constituent materials using magnets, eddy currents, and other means.
When it comes to the less valuable materials like plastic and glass, Franklin-Wallis said, we don’t really know what happens, because companies don’t disclose that information. This needs to change, he argued, and businesses urgently need to stop destroying unsold stock. The “dirty secret” of the industry is that brand-new phones and other devices often go straight into blenders to help drive sales for the latest models, Franklin-Wallis said.
Smoking has historically produced some of our most ubiquitous waste, like the four trillion plastic cigarette filters dropped on the ground every year worldwide, Franklin-Wallis notes in Wasteland.
Vapes help solve that problem but cause others. Franklin-Wallis told Quartz that single-use vapes are “a fascinating microcosm of waste and product design.” The first vapes were mostly reusable and battery-operated. But in the past few years, the market has been flooded with single-use models. These often end up in recycling systems. But their tiny batteries, when crushed or heated, are liable to explode.
One of the biggest causes of fires in the electronics recycling industry is lithium ion batteries. Now that vapes are getting into the recycling stream so often, the waste industry is campaigning against them, because the batteries keep exploding and burning all the stock. If vapes can’t somehow be screened out of the process, facilities may stop taking domestic recycling altogether.