A black-and-white photo of the beach near Sidon, Lebanon contains what looks like a mountain, over 100 feet tall, looming above the water. When printed in color, however, the picture reveals a mountain built out of 30 years of accumulated garbage from the small city including household trash, medical waste, plastic bags and bottles, toxic fluids and dead animals. It is a small picture of a global problem: If we don’t fix our levels of consumption, our waste will consume us all.

In the United States alone more than 250 million tons of waste are generated every year, 136 million of which is dumped into landfills. While no one can calculate how much waste is generated globally, the numbers range in the billions: at least 200 billion plastic bottles, 58 billion disposable cups, and hundreds of billions of plastic bags are trashed annually.

Studies have shown that landfills will not be able to contain this growing amount of waste in a sustainable manner. As the earth’s population continues to grow exponentially, consumption will only grow apace. Lately, different groups and organizations have begun to wonder: how do we address this problem before it’s too late?

Let’s Talk Trash

A new documentary Trashed from filmmaker and journalist Candida Bradley discusses of the problem of global waste. The film opens with actor Jeremy Irons walking on the aforementioned beach near Sidon, Lebanon. He describes the scene with striking imagery. “It was appalling. I’ve never been so grateful to leave the “set” of a film,” said Irons to the New York Times. “It is certainly something to look at, but what people who see the film don’t experience is the smell of dead animals and wafting chemicals that make you gag. There are flies and fleas everywhere, stray dogs tripping over rubbish and yapping furiously at the scavenging birds circling overhead.”

In developed countries, waste may be isolated from more scenic locations. But still, garbage must go somewhere. In Trashed, Irons notes that his home country of Britain has the most landfill sites in Europe with 80 percent of the population living within 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) of one. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that while the number of American landfills has steadily declined, this has only served to force already existing landfills to rapidly (and un-preparedly) expand. Although both British and American landfills are closely regulated, landfills often violate safety regulations and are the source of multiple toxins and pollutants emitted into the air and leached into the soil, including formaldehyde, hydrogen cyanide, hydrogen sulfate, and nitrogen oxides, among others.

A government report in the United Kingdom recently warned that the country would run out of landfill space by 2018. As this problem occurs around the world, many countries are turning more to incineration to fix their garbage problem.

Another solution? The pros and cons of incineration

Incineration of garbage can reduce waste volume immensely. Incinerators can be used as an alternative means for disposal of waste, and new incinerators are often purported to be sources of “green” energy. TheEPA states that incinerators produce steam which can be utilized to fuel heating systems or generate electricity. Supporters of incineration claim that the clean generation of power, waste volume reduction, and money saved from paying landfill taxes and from garbage removal and transportation make this a viable option in addressing waste.

Yet incidents around the world have shown that incinerators release unprecedented amounts of dioxins, highly toxic environmental pollutants. While dioxins can be found in nature, released through volcanic eruptions and forest fires, they are released in unnaturally vast quantities as waste decomposes in landfills or is incinerated. One incident in France revealed that an incinerator was releasing dioxins at a level 13,000 times higher than the legal maximum. Dioxins emitted by incinerators can leach into soils and be absorbed by crops which then enter the food cycle through livestock.The World Health Organization (WHO) states that dioxins are already being found around the world in different human and animal populations where they accumulate in fatty tissues. Although all humans have some level of dioxins in their body, the question remains: how much dioxin is too much?

Experiments have shown that long-term exposure to dioxins can have wide ranging effects on the human body including impairment of the immune system, developing nervous system, endocrine system and reproductive functions. A study of areas with extremely concentrated levels of dioxins – like in Vietnam where 54 million liters of Agent Orange, a herbicide containing very high concentrations of dioxins, were released from 1962-1972 – show increased levels in birth defects and concluded that it is “quite possible that perinatal and current exposure to [dioxins] may be a co-factor in the rising incidence of breast cancer and diabetes, seen over the last decade.” Despite the studies, not everyone is convinced that dioxins are connected to health risks, but the WHO believes that it is still important to be cautious, stating, “due to the high toxic potential of this class of compounds, efforts need to be undertaken to reduce current background exposure.”

Since the notion that dioxins lead to adverse health effects has yet to be proven definitively, many governments and supporters of incineration who doubt its harmful impacts continue to increase the use of incinerators. Trashed notes that in addition to the 30 incinerators currently active, Britain has proposed the construction of 90 new incinerator facilities to address the problem of waste, the dwindling capacity of landfills, and to produce more energy. Though the long term effects of this practice remain unknown, for the time being incineration represents an attractive means by which to dispose of the massive excess waste being generated in developed countries.

How do we fix the problem? The economics of wasteful consumption

The EPA and other agencies suggest a healthier, non-toxic means for addressing waste management: reduction. In an interview with the BBC Radio, Irons argued for demanding from manufacturers less use of unnecessary packaging, and that consumers pay more attention to their waste generation. “We need investment, and we need thought, but more importantly we need the will,” states Irons. But there are many obstacles standing in the way of successful waste reduction. Chief among them is our consumer economy’s insatiable need to consume, and the types of production these lifestyles engender.

A recent report on global waste released by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) chiefly blames manufacturing processes for the global build-up of wastes. They blame the business strategy of “planned obsolescence” which ensures that products are made with limited durability:

“In a system in which production must increase steadily to cover credit interest payments and further investments, a limited service life allows the manufacturer to produce replacements, thus securing a regular revenue stream,” notes the UNEP report. “The strategy of planned obsolescence – shortening a product’s lifespan, manufacturing ‘made to break’ items or single-dose goods– undeniably leads to an increase in resource consumption and consequently more waste.”

The UNEP report also places responsibility on the consumer: “Ultimately, by discarding less and consuming differently (preferring durable goods or collaborative consumption) and through appropriate handling methods, consumers can reduce their own impacts.” But the report adds that while there must be some blame laid on consumers, they often have little capacity to make better choices given the products available to them, which makes finding a successful solution to this growing problem complex and layered.

Many argue the solutions need to come from even higher. The UNEP report argues that governments need to take responsibility through regulations which set environmental standards for products and public spending. “States have both the capacity and the responsibility to preserve the common interest, which in this case means promoting a sustainable economic system,” states the report. If governments and consumers can put pressure on corporations to manufacture less wasteful products, it could have a serious impact on the global production chain. But in a world dominated by the need for economic profit, this is much easier said than done.

Can we fix this problem now?

In his interview with The Times, Irons feels that while the global waste problem seems blatant when you see a landfill, the problem is that “much of that [waste] is so removed from our everyday lives that it’s a bit like climate change and Bangladesh — out of sight, out of mind.” Evidence suggests that the amount of waste globally generated is quickly and vastly affecting our bodies and our environment, noticeably or not. Whether the risks are to our health, our soil and water from leached chemicals, or simply the space on which future generations shall live, it is our onus to decide whether to minimize our waste now, or let it consume us later.

While to many this problem seems overwhelming, some see signs that change is under way. “Maybe I’m just getting old, and I know that buying things doesn’t make you happy,” states Irons. “But I feel like there’s a new social mood, maybe because of the economic crisis, that more of us are reflecting on what we really need and what we can do without.” Radical change on this issue may continue to be elusive. Yet small changes for the better seem to be providing inspiration to a growing number of activists willing and ready to tackle the issue of our global excess waste.