Waste and Pollution

As countries develop and consumption increases so does the amount of waste per capita, and pollution becomes a greater problem. There are global, national and local strategies in place to reduce levels of waste and minimise impact on the environment.

Global waste production

The amount and type of waste produced varies between countries.

MEDCs have higher levels of consumption, so many produce more waste thanLEDCs. Ireland and the USA produce over 700 kg of waste per person per year. In LEDCs the figure is around 150 kg per person per year. This difference is due to different levels of consumption; it is also more common to reuse items in LEDCs.

As a country becomes more wealthy, the demand for consumer items increases. This means that items are replaced more frequently – leading to larger quantities of waste. For example, mobile phones and computers that still work may be discarded for a newer version.

In LEDCs waste production is lower because:

  • Less is bought because people are typically on lower incomes
  • Less packaging is used on products
  • Disposable items (eg razors, plastic plates and nappies) are used less
  • Lower literacy levels means there is less production of written material

Reducing waste

The image below shows that preventing waste in the first place is the most favourable option. Where this is not possible, then re-using products or recyclingis better for the environment than disposal in a landfill.

Waste hierarchy diagram

                                                     Waste hierarchy diagram


National strategies and targets

  • The government sets recycling targets for local councils.
  • Government grants are available for businesses and households installing environmentally friendly technologies, such as solar panels.
  • New buildings have strict national guidelines for energy efficiency.

Local strategies and targets

  • Combined Heat and Power systems can be put in place.
  • One example is the Southampton Community Heating Scheme where luxury apartments are served by one community boiler, reducing energy wastage and costs.
  • Schools and communities can also put in place measures – such as recycling bins or informative posters – to raise awareness of energy wastage (eg reminding people to turn lights off).

Household responsibilities

Solar panels on the roof of a house

Solar panels on the roof of a house, converting sunlight directly into electricity


  • Households are given different types of bin to sort their waste into. Recycling bins are sometimes collected more frequently to encourage their use.
  • People can install insulation and double glazing to conserve household energy.
  • There is reduced VAT to pay for installing environmentally friendly technologies in homes.

The image below shows some ways of saving energy and using environmentally friendly technology.

Energy saving house diagram

                  There are many ways in which a household can save energy

Recycling strategies by retailers

Many major food, clothing and furniture retailers, now have ‘zero waste to landfill’ targets. This means that within a few years, they aim to recycle 100% of their waste, with none of it going to landfills. To do this they look at sustainable ways to process and recycle waste. An audit of materials used has to take place to identify where waste is occuring, and then strategies are undertaken to recycle or cut down on this material.

Activities that recycle waste

  • Waste plastics from the stores should be recycled into carrier bags for customer use.
  • Packaging for products should be minimised.
  • Waste packaging is recycled into products such as tissues.
  • Organic (food) waste is converted into biomass energy, which can be sold back into the national grid.

Industrial pollution

Any large-scale economic activity may have a negative impact on the natural environment. Manufacturing industries in particular can cause air, water and noisepollution. Industrial pollution can affect the environment in a number of ways:

Air pollution in Shanghai

        Air pollution in Shanghai


  • It may damage the wellbeing of humans and other species. For example, industrial waste can pollute drinking-water supplies or poison plants and animals.
  • It may interfere with natural processes. For example, industrial waste could change local climatic conditions or destroy wildlife habitats.
  • It may impact on people’s livelihoods. For example, pollution of the sea will affect people who are involved in the fishing and tourism industries.

Some governments have introduced legislation to try to cut down on avoidable pollution and to encourage industries that are more sustainable. These laws need to be enforced by courts.

Case study: Gulf of Mexico oil spill and BP

On 20 April 2010 a deepwater oil well exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.

Gulf of Mexico Oil spill location map


The immediate effect was that it killed 11 people and injured 17 others. Oil leaked at a high rate which is difficult to calculate. Some estimates are around 40,000 barrels a day. The oil spill posed risks to the environment and affected local industry.

The impact this oil spill was depended on which parts of the coastline you look at. It is difficult to measure the effects because of seasonal changes in wildlife.

Economic impact

  • The government asked for $20 billion in damages from BP and BP’s share price fell.
  • Local industries, such as fishing was threatened. There was a ban on fishing in the water.
  • Tourism declined.

Environmental impact

Gulf of Mexico oil spill rescue, 2010

Environmental worker rescuing an oil-covered pelican

  • Plants and animals were completely covered in the oil. Seabirds, sea turtles and dolphins have been found dead.
  • Oil that entered wetland areas meant recovery would be slow.
  • Fish stocks were harmed, and productivity decreased.

The size of the oil spill was one of the largest America had seen. However because the oil entered warm waters, organisms in the water helped to breakdown the oil. The overall effect may be less than Exxon Valdez Oil spill in 1989 which happened in colder water.

Solutions to industrial energy wastage

In the EU there are strict guidelines and targets to be met, which came into force in 2008. They include:

  • rules on the disposal of hazardous waste
  • limiting pollution released into the air or groundwater from landfill
  • restrictions on the use of hazardous materials in vehicles
  • strict standards for packaging design

The car industry

For example, the car industry has seen many changes due to recent regulations and pressure to reform. One project, called the LIFE project (based in the Netherlands) aims to reuse second-hand car components when repairing cars. By developing links with car dismantlers, body shops and owners, 6,000 cars were repaired with used parts.

Carbon footprints

A carbon footprint is a measure of the impact our activities have on the environment. It calculates all the greenhouse gases we are expected to produce in all our activities and measures them in units of carbon dioxide. The world average is about 4,000 kg of carbon dioxide per person. In the UK it is nearly 10,000 kg per person.

Pie chart showing a break down of a typical persons footprint in a MEDC

        Pie chart showing a break down of a typical persons footprint in a MEDC


As a country develops, its carbon footprint tends to increase. This pattern is shown in the table below, with MEDCs emitting the most carbon dioxide.

Carbon dioxide emissions per capita, per person (in tonnes)

Country 1990 2006
Australia 17.4 18.1
United States 19.0 19.0
Germany 12.1 9.7
Japan 9.5 10.1
Italy 7.5 8.1
United Kingdom 10.0 9.4
Singapore 15.6 12.8
United Arab Emirates 29.4 32.8
Qatar 25.2 56.2
Brazil 1.4 1.9
Thailand 1.8 4.3
Egypt 1.4 2.2
South Africa 9.1 8.6
Kenya 0.2 0.3
Bangladesh 0.1 0.3
Ethiopia 0.1 0.1
Sierra Leone 0.1 0.2


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