Where does the world's garbage go?

How much waste do you create from the time you wake up to the time you go back to sleep? And ever wondered where it all goes? Here is a dirty and stinky story on all the world's waste.

 |  6-minute read |   22-02-2022
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Have you ever calculated how much waste you create in a day - from taking a dump in the morning, taking a bath, preparing meals, buying vegetables, using plastic bags and wrappers and dumping them in the dustbin, shopping and everything else?

If you were the only person handling the waste you create, dealing with it by recycling or cleaning up being environmentally responsible, would you be able to do it? Of course not; we just like to get the trash out of our home, and boom, we’ve dealt with it.

Out of sight, out of mind, and it’s a golden star achievement in keeping our surroundings clean.

But what happens to that trash, that has become someone else’s problem? The problem is not an individual issue, but a global one.

2-647_022222015132.jpgRepresentative Image. Photo: Reuters


Recently, Sri Lanka sent back the last of hundreds of containers filled with tonnes of waste to the UK. Sri Lankan authorities said that the waste from the UK was illegally imported to its shores between 2017 and 2019 listed as ‘used mattresses, carpets and rugs’, while it was in reality much stinky and unrecyclable garbage.

Authorities said it contained hazardous biowaste including medical waste such as human body parts. The 45 containers sent back were part of the 263 containers holding around 3,000 tonnes of waste.

Southeast Asian countries like Sri Lanka have become global hotspots for developing nations to dump their trash. However, lately, we have been seeing a wave of refusal from Southeast Asian countries to accept the White Man’s trash. Not just Sri Lanka; countries like the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and more are sending back containers filled with tonnes of trash back to their rightful first-world country owner.


5-647_022222015232.jpgRepresentative Image. Photo: Reuters

Let’s look a little into the history of the global trash trade to understand today’s situation:

Not long ago, China used to be the world’s largest importer of global trash. The trash would come mostly from developed countries the world over to be sorted, and recycled in China. However, not all the trash that came in could be recycled. According to Statista, less than 20% of the global waste is recycled.

Whatever could be recycled, like uncontaminated plastic, would be reused in manufacturing. However, the global trash accumulation in China caused major pollution problems. Moreover, the country had to deal with its own burgeoning waste problem.

So in 2018, Beijing said it will only import 99.5% pure and uncontaminated waste, an impossible standard, according to Council for Foreign Relations report (CFR).


China’s ban created major upheavals for developed countries, especially the US, the world’s single largest waste generator by country. While much recyclable waste was burned in landfills in the US, those involved in shipping the waste turned their ships to the shores of other Southeast Asian countries.

Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam became the major destinations for global trash. Other countries including India, Sri Lanka and others too had to pick up the slack. India used to be the second-largest importer of US scrap plastic, however, it too announced a ban on most types of plastic trash import in 2019.

Now, usually, some containers are mislabelled by exporting countries and the trash is sent. The waste is at other times illegally dumped and smuggled, which India has also been a victim of. 

According to a report, over 25 countries dumped 1,21,000 metric tonnes of plastic waste in India, illegally imported by private companies. Landfills in Uttar Pradesh received the highest quantity, with landfills in Delhi receiving the second-highest quantity.   

India is on a mission to destroy landfills like the Ghazipur one and more. PM Modi on February 19, 2022, said that all waste dumping sites will be converted into green zones in the next 2-3 years.  

In recent times, we have heard instances when countries like Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam all sent back containers and containers filled with tonnes of garbage back to the exporter. The Philippines and Canada even had a brief diplomatic spat with the former, calling back its diplomats from Ottawa over the issue.

In Europe, there are some other countries that are treated as dumping grounds for the European Union countries – like Turkey and Greece among others. Turkey and Germany also had a spat over the latter’s trash ending up in containers at the former’s shores.


The world produces 2.01 billion tonnes (or 2.01 lakh crore kg) of municipal solid waste annually, according to the World Bank data. Waste generation is supposed to increase to 3.40 billion tonnes by 2050. Out of this, 33% (a very conservative estimate) is managed poorly and in an environmentally unsafe manner.

And out of this, high-income countries, accounting for just about 16% of the world’s population, generate 34% of the world’s waste, that is, 683 million tonnes.

Developed nations have been hard-pressed against their own waste problem now, trying to figure out a solution on where to send it and what to do with it. While earlier, they dealt with the problem by exporting it to developing nations with a poor record of handling their own waste, now they are unable to rely on the quick fix. They have their eyes set on some African nations too.

The developed nations, with green goals, have to show recycling ability and cannot just incinerate the waste risking their already burgeoning carbon footprint.

So who’s going to take of the White Man’s trash? How will the developed countries be able to argue and reprimand Asian countries for the environmental problems of the world if they can’t keep their own surroundings clean? The world is still trying to figure out the answers.


Amrutha Pagad Amrutha Pagad @amrutha_pagad

Amrutha loves writing on Humour, Politics, Environment and Gender. She is a Senior Sub editor at DailyO.

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