The United Nations says that sustainability means “meeting the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  In other words, people living today shouldn’t use up the world’s resources so that there are none left for those who live after us.

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Waste not, Want not

As well as thinking about the things that people consume, living more sustainably also means thinking about what to do with the rubbish that humans create. By 2050, the world is expected to generate 3.4 billion tons of waste annually, a dramatic increase from today’s already huge 2.01 billion tons.  Much of this waste ends up in landfill sites, huge rubbish tips buried in the ground, or in rubbish tips and sitting on the surface. Landfill sites cause many problems. Not only are they ugly and smelly for people who live and work on them, they contribute to climate change.  As organic materials such as food scraps break down in a landfill, they release methane into the atmosphere.  Methane from landfill sites account for 12% of total global methane emissions and almost 5% of total greenhouse gas emissions. 

We still don’t even fully understand the risks that all this rubbish might be creating for future generations.  Waste such as plastic creates toxins (poisonous substances) as it breaks down and these seep into the soil and waterways over time.  Because plastic has only been around for a relatively short time, and because it can take many hundreds of years to break down, we have no evidence yet for the harm that it could cause to the environment. 

Every year over 8 million tons of plastic ends up in the sea.  It gets mistaken for food by birds, turtles, whales and other marine life and it piles up on our shorelines.  Yet the piles of plastic that we see account for less than 1% of the plastic that is actually in the oceans.  Much of this is now in tiny pieces, known as microplastic, with some trapped deep on the ocean floor and some forming clouds of tiny particles in the water.  And a 2017 research paper predicted that 196 million tons of plastic may have settled from the surface into the deep ocean since 1950. 

Continuing to produce this much waste and to dispose of it in the same ways is not sustainable. Investigations are being done into finding different packaging materials that are biodegradable, meaning they break down naturally without releasing harmful pollutants.  It is also possible that there are some types of worms and fungi that might be able to process waste such as plastics in the future.  Meanwhile, it is important for everyone to try to throw less away!

Read More: Reduce, re-use, recycle

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