ISWA and UNEP present : The Global Waste Management Outlook 2024

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In recent decades, the importance of proper solid waste management has grown significantly. However, the most recent data from the Global Waste Management Outlook 2024, jointly published by UNEP and ISWA, reveals a delicate situation, requiring urgent action to reverse the historical trend of a linear solid waste management system.

One of the main findings of the Outlook indicates that if there is no change in current patterns, the total generation of municipal solid waste worldwide is projected to increase by about 80% between 2020 and 2050, from 2.12 billion tonne s per year to 3.78 billion. Furthermore, the report demonstrates how higher income will significantly impact future waste generation, prompting the need for concrete action to decouple economic growth from waste generation.

Related article: UN report: World must move beyond waste era and turn rubbish into resource

Figure 1. Contribution of GDP growth and population growth to the projected increase in global MSW generation in 2050

- © GWMO

From a management perspective, the GWMO 2024 indicates that the average recycling rate of municipal solid waste worldwide in 2020 was only 19%. Another 13% was incinerated and 30% was sent to landfills in that same year. The remaining 38% of the total waste generated had improper disposal, either sent to open dumpsites or openly burned, as shown in the following figure:

Figure 2. Global MSW destinations in 2020: Controlled and uncontrolled

- © GWMO

The figure below illustrates the evolution of this scenario over the coming decades and suggests that if the current model is maintained, the amount of waste going to uncontrolled destinations will double. This would have significant impacts, particularly in developing countries, where the demand for adequate infrastructure is more pronounced.

Figure 3. Projected global MSW destinations from 2020 to 2050 under a business-as-usual approach

- © GWMO

Therefore, considering the data from the GWMO 2024 and comparing it with the first edition of the Global Waste Management Outlook released in 2015, we can conclude that waste management has not effectively progressed in the last decade.

In this context, a global repositioning of the waste sector becomes imperative, shifting from an end-of-pipe sector for materials without value, commonly referred to as “garbage”, to taking a prominent role in reintegrating discarded items, materials and substances into the value chain, as resources.

According to the report, this trajectory of changing the paradigm from “waste as garbage” to “waste as resources”, offering society new raw materials and energy to replace virgin or fossil alternatives, is the only viable path to reverse the current trend, transforming waste management into a model that delivers positive outcomes for society as a whole.

According to the estimates presented in the GWMO 2024, the benefits of this transition are broad. Adopting more circular scenarios in the waste sector is an essential contributor to addressing the “triple planetary crisis” (a combination of pollution, climate change and biodiversity loss). Beyond the environmental aspect, the advantages of the new model also extend to the economy, creating numerous possibilities for innovation, revenue generation and new business opportunities. The different scenario possibilities are considered in the report, demonstrating how they can contribute to reversing the observed trends.


Under the scenario referred to as “Waste Under Control”, adequate waste management is the fundamental premise, combined with a slight reduction in waste generation, from 3,782 million tonnes per year (or 1.1 kg/person/day) in 2050 in the business-as-usual scenario to 3,146 million tonnes per year (or 0.92 kg/person/day). In the most ambitious and optimistic scenario, named “Circular Waste Management”, the fundamental premise is waste prevention, with a significant reduction – to a total of 2,126 million tonnes per year (0.62 kg/person/year) by 2050, combined with a substantial increase in recycling rates.

A one-of-a-kind analysis adopted in the report employs the principles of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). It is designed to examine and quantify the impacts and externalities under the different scenarios: continuing business-as-usual, implementing control measures and fully transitioning to a circular economy.

As a result, the report reveals that the global direct cost of waste management in 2020 reached USD 252.3 billion. When considering externalities – hidden costs of pollution, health impacts and climate change – the total annual cost rises to USD 361 billion, with the cost of externalities nearly equalling the direct costs. Without transformative action, meaning keeping the business-as-usual waste management approach, this global annual cost will almost double by 2050, reaching USD 640.3 billion.

The other two scenarios – “Waste Under Control” and “Circular Waste Management” – would yield more positive results. For instance, bringing waste under control has the potential to limit net annual costs to USD 270.2 billion by 2050 (a 25% reduction compared to the business-as-usual scenario). If a circular economy model is fully implemented, the costs would be reversed, resulting in a full net gain of USD 108.5 billion by 2050, as shown in the figure below:

Figure 4. The overall cost of global waste management (US$ 2020).

- © GWMO

The report makes a compelling case that maintaining the status quo in waste management is no longer an option. The figures show that the business-as-usual approach has not worked and will not work. Thus, there is an urgent need for a paradigm shift and a forward-looking approach.

A resounding recommendation emerges from the GWMO 2024: it is crucial to decouple economic growth from waste generation, it is imperative to design out waste, making products and resources available for new cycles, and it is urgent to adopt actions to decarbonise the whole system. Thus, the way forward is a shift from the traditional 3Rs approach to a more holistic 3D perspective.

The Global Waste Management Outlook 2024 serves as a guide and call for action to catalyse collective efforts to support bold and transformative solutions, reverse the adverse impacts of current waste management practices and provide clear benefits to every individual living on this planet.

Download the report here.

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