Accumulation of waste has been a cause of issues for larger human settlements from the beginning of civilisation. But the problem has never been as dire as in the 21st century, with the global upsurge of consumer culture and singe use products, mostly made of or packed in plastic. Communities are trying to tackle this problem with cleanups, Zero Waste schemes and strengthening their local economy (where packaging is minimal). As much as such practices are necessary, the problem needs to be addressed globally at the level of corporations and international politics.
In 2019 the European average of communal waste production per capita was 502 kg. But that's just the tip of the iceberg, as the majority consists of industrial and construction waste. Synthetic materials have become ubiquitous and polutants leaking from them into our drinking water, air and soil are a major problem.
Many community-led initiatives recognise the severity of this problem try to tackle it with practical solutions working towards the ideal of Zero Waste.
Before the 20th century, most waste was organic and thus biodegradable. Main problems with the accumulation of untreated organic waste had to do with infectious diseases. Construction waste used to be consist mostly of rock, clay, wood and straw, and thus didn't pose harm to the environment. Some toxic waste has been produced even before the 18th century, but only with the industrial revolution and the rapid population growth has waste pollution started to turn into a massive problem.
The era of consumerism came with the so called throw-away culture and getting rid of waste became more and more cumbersome. Incineration and landfilling were two standard approaches, with recycling covering only a fraction of the total waste, especially with the less valuable fractions. Local communities and schools in many European countries would turn some waste into income by collecting and selling waste paper, glass and metals to the waste management companies.
Spring cleanups were common across Europe, with people joining forces periodically to pick up litter around their neighbourhoods together. Some illegal dumpsites around urban areas kept growing beyond the capacity of self-organised groups to clean up. This is a burden in the majority of European countries and official institutions are unable to cope with it.
In an increasing number of countries (in Europe and worldwide) community-led initiatives are organising to mobilise their entire populations on massive national cleanups, such as Let's Do It World which organises World Cleanup Day every year on the third Saturday in September.
Origins and history
Practical application in communities
Solid waste is the most tangible of all pollutants. It is in the power of people to collect and sort it, and to create less of it in the fist place.
Communities tackle waste by:
- regular cleanups
- Zero Waste schemes
- tool rentals
- repair caffees
- local gardens
- clothe exhchanges
- community composting
- composting toilets
Links to key examples
Research on Waste and community-led initiatives
- https://environmentalchemistry.com/yogi/environmental/wastehistory.html The History of Waste web article
- https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Municipal_waste_statistics Eurostat's municipal waste statistics