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Episode
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Where Does All Our Rubbish Go?

Apr 22, 2022
How Stuff Works
-
19
minutes

Worldwide we produce over 2 billion tonnes of rubbish every year.

In this episode, we explore the history of rubbish collection and look at what happens to our rubbish after the truck comes to take it away.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and this episode is going to be released on April 22nd, Earth Day, a day when we think about this wonderful planet we all live on.

[00:00:34] So, the theme of today’s episode is going to be rubbish. That’s right — rubbish, trash, junk, waste. 

[00:00:43] Specifically, what actually happens to it after the rubbish truck comes to take it away?

[00:00:50] OK then, let’s talk about rubbish.

[00:00:56] One thing that unites every human being on Earth is that we are all responsible for some sort of rubbish. 

[00:01:05] Whether you are rich or poor, whether you live in the desert, the countryside, or in a big city, we all create some sort of waste. 

[00:01:15] Of course, not every country produces the same amount of rubbish.

[00:01:20] On a per-person basis, Iceland actually produces the most waste of any country in the world, at 4.5 kilos per person per day, or 1.6 tonnes a year— that’s a small elephant worth of rubbish every year for every man, woman and child living in Iceland. 

[00:01:42] The average person in Lesotho, on the other hand, produces just 110g per day, just 2.4% of what someone in Iceland produces.

[00:01:55] And, in general, for all the talk about going green and recycling, the richer a country is, the more waste each person in it produces.

[00:02:07] Indeed, of the 2 billion tonnes of rubbish produced every year, 34 percent is produced by only 16 percent of the world’s population. 

[00:02:19] This might be sad, but it is unsurprising, when you think about the fact that rubbish production throughout history is correlated with the development of society. 

[00:02:32] As societies develop, they make more, which means there is more to throw away.

[00:02:38] If you were a caveman, living tens of thousands of years ago, you still produced rubbish but the odds are that you didn’t worry too much about it. 

[00:02:49] You might produce some “food waste” from the bits of animals that you cannot eat or turn into tools, but that was about it. 

[00:02:59] Rubbish disposal likely consisted of throwing a piece of animal bones outside your cave and you wouldn’t think twice about it. 

[00:03:09] Perhaps it would be eaten by a nearby wolf or fox, or it would simply decay

[00:03:16] You knew not to leave the decaying corpse of a deer right outside your cave, because it would smell horrible and attract unwanted visitors, but that was probably the extent of how much you needed to worry about disposing of rubbish.

[00:03:34] But over thousands of years, as we humans figured out how to produce more and more, and we started living together in increasingly urban environments, the amount of waste we produced, and the nature of that waste started to look quite different.

[00:03:53] And you might be thinking that this was purely a modern, post-Industrial problem, but it’s certainly not.

[00:04:02] The first ever people to dump rubbish into large holes dug in the ground were in Knossos, in Crete, back in 3,000 B.C. Once the rubbish pits were full, they were covered up with earth to protect them from attracting vermin and producing foul smells. 

[00:04:23] Later, in around 500 B.C, the leaders of Athens in Greece started to dispose of rubbish at least one mile away from the city so invaders couldn’t use piles of rubbish to climb over the city walls. 

[00:04:39] And you probably know that Rome has 7 hills, but you might not know that there’s another one in southern Rome called Monte Testaccio, which is thought to contain up to 50 million broken olive oil amphorae, the clay containers used to hold olive oil in Roman times.

[00:05:03] So, the problem of what to do with rubbish is really as old as civilisation, or at least urbanisation itself.

[00:05:13] And throughout history, including the present day, there have really been four broad categories of things you can do to rubbish, to anything that you no longer need.

[00:05:26] It can be buried in the ground, so that it either decomposes over time or simply remains there, hidden from view.

[00:05:35] It can be put into rivers and ultimately washed out to sea.

[00:05:40] It can be burned, incinerated, so that it literally no longer exists.

[00:05:46] Or it can be reused for another purpose - whether that’s recycled, repaired, or in the case of food or human waste, used as fertiliser, to grow new crops

[00:06:00] So, to try to answer the question of “where does all of our rubbish go”, let’s take a look at what a typical person might throw away on a typical day, and see where modern rubbish ends up in this categorisation of four different final destinations.

[00:06:20] Of course, there is no typical person, what you throw away is different from what I throw away, and every country deals with its rubbish slightly differently.

[00:06:32] But, for the sake of this exercise, let’s take the example of the average person in the UK, let’s even give him a name, Frank.

[00:06:42] Over the course of a day, Frank throws away a little over 1 kilo of rubbish. 

[00:06:50] About a quarter of that is food, and the rest breaks down into things like plastics, paper, glass, tins and electronics.

[00:07:00] Frank is a good, law-abiding citizen, and he has separate rubbish bins for his mixed waste, his food waste, and his recycling.

[00:07:10] He puts everything into the right bin, takes it out to the side of the road on the appropriate day, the rubbish truck comes along and that’s the last Frank thinks about his rubbish.

[00:07:24] But what actually happens?

[00:07:27] Well, Frank’s mixed waste, his general rubbish, is probably taken either to a landfill or it’s incinerated, it’s burned.

[00:07:37] Things haven’t really changed all that much since Knossos in ancient Crete, and around a quarter of all the waste produced in the UK is simply buried in the ground.

[00:07:50] Sure, landfills have become more regulated, and they are typically lined to stop hazardous liquids getting out and entering the ground, but the general concept is pretty simple: there’s a big hole that’s dug into the ground, rubbish is put in there and when it's full, the entire thing is closed so we don’t have to see it any more.

[00:08:15] There’s a phrase in English which is “out of sight, out of mind”, meaning if you can’t see something you don’t think about it, and there is probably no more appropriate use for it than our attitude towards burying rubbish in landfills.

[00:08:33] Another potential destination for this mixed waste is the incinerator, where it is burned and turned into electricity. 

[00:08:43] In the UK it’s a relatively small amount, around 5%, but in places such as Norway, Sweden, and Denmark up to 50% of all rubbish is incinerated.

[00:08:57] Now, there’s an interesting debate on the pros and cons of incineration, of burning rubbish, instead of sending it to landfill.

[00:09:08] Proponents of incineration, of burning, say that it’s actually better for the environment, because it produces energy and eliminates or at least reduces the carbon emissions that would have come from transporting the rubbish to a landfill

[00:09:26] The actual incineration process is now advanced, safe, and harmful fumes are typically caught before they are released into the atmosphere.

[00:09:37] Plus, leaving rubbish in a landfill often causes methane to be released, and incineration fixes this because methane isn’t released.

[00:09:48] But incineration is, of course, not an ideal solution - it requires large expensive plants, can cause air pollution, and if people think that they don’t have to care about their rubbish because it will simply be burned and turned back into useful electricity then they will stop caring about using less in the first place, and reusing or recycling their waste.

[00:10:15] And this brings us very nicely on to our next point, the big green bin that Frank has in his house with a recycling symbol.

[00:10:26] Frank might think of himself as an environmentally conscious person. He reuses plastic bags, perhaps he says no to plastic straws in restaurants, he tries to cycle everywhere and he drinks water from the tap.

[00:10:42] But he likes yoghurt for his breakfast, he gets a copy of the newspaper delivered every morning, he likes tinned baked beans on toast [he is British after all], and he enjoys the occasional bottle of wine.

[00:10:57] No problem, Frank thinks, plastic, paper, tins, cans, and glass, it all gets recycled anyway.

[00:11:06] So, Frank throws the yoghurt pot, the newspaper, the tins and the glass all into the recycling bin. Perhaps there are different recycling bins, but it’s always a bit confusing to Frank. Does he need to take the lid off the yoghurt pot? And what about if there’s a metal cap on the glass wine bottle - does he take that out and put it in with the tin?

[00:11:33] Frank does his best, and at the end of the day it’s all taken away when the rubbish collectors arrive.

[00:11:39] But what happens to his recycling?

[00:11:43] Well, before we get into exactly where Frank’s recycling goes, let me add that recycling is actually nothing new.

[00:11:51] People have been recycling in some way or another for millennia; in fact, evidence dating back to the Chinese Bronze Age — roughly 2000 B.C. — shows that the Chinese were already recycling metal. 

[00:12:08] This wasn’t out of any great care for the environment - it simply made sense.

[00:12:14] It was cheaper to re-use than to make from scratch

[00:12:19] And until it became cheaper to make products from scratch than to re-use them, recycling and reuse was the norm.

[00:12:28] In the 19th century, one of the main ways people recycled was via someone called the ‘rag-and-bone-man’ — a man who would go door-to-door and collect rubbish, especially metal, cloth, and bone, to sell to merchants who would reuse these materials.

[00:12:48] During World War II, materials like nylon and tin cans were collected and recycled into things like bombs and ammunition

[00:12:59] But as the cost of production of goods continued to decrease, there was less and less of an incentive to reuse and recycle. 

[00:13:09] And at the same time, developed countries produced more and more.

[00:13:15] With the 1950s and 1960s came the arrival of “throwaway culture”, with companies advertising single-use knives and forks to be used at home, so that there was no washing up to be done.

[00:13:29] And this brings us to where we are today, with Frank and his recycling bin.

[00:13:35] Frank might think that his recycling all goes off to a nice plant nearby and it’s all reused and turned into more yoghurt pots, more newspapers, baked bean tins and bottles for his favourite Shiraz, but if he really followed his recycling he would likely be disappointed.

[00:13:56] In the UK there is a large incentive for recycling to be sent abroad, to be exported. Once it is exported, it’s meant to be recycled, but there are very few checks on what actually happens to it. 

[00:14:12] And the UK isn’t really an exception here.

[00:14:16] Indeed, if we are talking about Frank’s yoghurt pot, and plastics in general, it’s estimated that only 14% of all plastic waste is actually recycled. About 14% of it is burnt, 40% goes into a landfill and the remainder, a third of all plastic waste, pollutes the environment, going into rivers, and ultimately being washed into the sea.

[00:14:46] Why, you might ask, are we so bad at actually recycling plastic?

[00:14:51] Well, countries like the UK tend to adopt a mentality of “out of sight, out of mind”. 

[00:14:59] Recycling is sent abroad in vast containers. The rubbish to be recycled is weighed, and the country gives itself a pat on the back because it has “recycled” a certain amount of waste. 

[00:15:13] The problem is that a lot of this rubbish to be recycled is almost completely unusable. There was an excellent documentary from 2018 called Dirty Business that exposed exactly how this worked, and it contained shocking footage of huge piles of waste that had been set aside for recycling lying in places like Hong Kong, Malaysia and even Poland.

[00:15:42] So Frank, and perhaps even you and me, might think that we are doing our bit for the environment, but the reality is that in many cases the final destination for that yoghurt pot is not to be turned into a water bottle but to sit in a field in Malaysia or to bob around in the Pacific Ocean.

[00:16:06] So what is Frank to do, and is there any light at the end of this particular tunnel?

[00:16:13] Well, environmental groups would tell Frank to consume less, and to reuse and repair whenever he can.

[00:16:22] Frank can also take some comfort in the knowledge that, although yes we might still put rubbish in landfills similar to the ancient Greeks, technology is improving and helping us get better at managing rubbish. 

[00:16:37] In particular, when it comes to Frank’s favourite subject, recycling, technological improvements mean that it is easier than ever to separate waste, to separate Frank’s bottle tops from the glass or to separate the plastic from the cardboard, so that an increasing amount of whatever is put in the recycling bin actually gets recycled.

[00:17:01] So, to end on a slightly optimistic note, sure there has never been a point in human history where so much rubbish has been produced by so many people. 

[00:17:13] To be precise, there’s over 2 billion tonnes of rubbish produced every year worldwide, and even in the countries that typically don't produce much rubbish now, rubbish production per capita is increasing.

[00:17:29] But never before in human history has there been a better system in place for actually dealing with it. 

[00:17:36] Yes, it is far from perfect, and there are many many holes, flaws, and misaligned incentives, but this is no reason to give up all hope, and certainly no reason for Frank to give up his beloved tinned baked beans.

[00:17:54] OK then, that is it for today's episode on where all of our rubbish goes. I hope it's been an interesting and thought-provoking one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:18:06] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode.

[00:18:09] Do you know much about where rubbish is sent in your country? 

[00:18:13] Is it a subject that you had ever spent much time thinking about, or is it someone else’s problem once it’s thrown in the bin?

[00:18:21] How do you think people should be encouraged to consume less, or should we put more of a focus on dealing with our rubbish appropriately? 

[00:18:30] Or is it a delicate balance between the two?

[00:18:33] I would love to know.

[00:18:35] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com, and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:18:43] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:18:48] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and this episode is going to be released on April 22nd, Earth Day, a day when we think about this wonderful planet we all live on.

[00:00:34] So, the theme of today’s episode is going to be rubbish. That’s right — rubbish, trash, junk, waste. 

[00:00:43] Specifically, what actually happens to it after the rubbish truck comes to take it away?

[00:00:50] OK then, let’s talk about rubbish.

[00:00:56] One thing that unites every human being on Earth is that we are all responsible for some sort of rubbish. 

[00:01:05] Whether you are rich or poor, whether you live in the desert, the countryside, or in a big city, we all create some sort of waste. 

[00:01:15] Of course, not every country produces the same amount of rubbish.

[00:01:20] On a per-person basis, Iceland actually produces the most waste of any country in the world, at 4.5 kilos per person per day, or 1.6 tonnes a year— that’s a small elephant worth of rubbish every year for every man, woman and child living in Iceland. 

[00:01:42] The average person in Lesotho, on the other hand, produces just 110g per day, just 2.4% of what someone in Iceland produces.

[00:01:55] And, in general, for all the talk about going green and recycling, the richer a country is, the more waste each person in it produces.

[00:02:07] Indeed, of the 2 billion tonnes of rubbish produced every year, 34 percent is produced by only 16 percent of the world’s population. 

[00:02:19] This might be sad, but it is unsurprising, when you think about the fact that rubbish production throughout history is correlated with the development of society. 

[00:02:32] As societies develop, they make more, which means there is more to throw away.

[00:02:38] If you were a caveman, living tens of thousands of years ago, you still produced rubbish but the odds are that you didn’t worry too much about it. 

[00:02:49] You might produce some “food waste” from the bits of animals that you cannot eat or turn into tools, but that was about it. 

[00:02:59] Rubbish disposal likely consisted of throwing a piece of animal bones outside your cave and you wouldn’t think twice about it. 

[00:03:09] Perhaps it would be eaten by a nearby wolf or fox, or it would simply decay

[00:03:16] You knew not to leave the decaying corpse of a deer right outside your cave, because it would smell horrible and attract unwanted visitors, but that was probably the extent of how much you needed to worry about disposing of rubbish.

[00:03:34] But over thousands of years, as we humans figured out how to produce more and more, and we started living together in increasingly urban environments, the amount of waste we produced, and the nature of that waste started to look quite different.

[00:03:53] And you might be thinking that this was purely a modern, post-Industrial problem, but it’s certainly not.

[00:04:02] The first ever people to dump rubbish into large holes dug in the ground were in Knossos, in Crete, back in 3,000 B.C. Once the rubbish pits were full, they were covered up with earth to protect them from attracting vermin and producing foul smells. 

[00:04:23] Later, in around 500 B.C, the leaders of Athens in Greece started to dispose of rubbish at least one mile away from the city so invaders couldn’t use piles of rubbish to climb over the city walls. 

[00:04:39] And you probably know that Rome has 7 hills, but you might not know that there’s another one in southern Rome called Monte Testaccio, which is thought to contain up to 50 million broken olive oil amphorae, the clay containers used to hold olive oil in Roman times.

[00:05:03] So, the problem of what to do with rubbish is really as old as civilisation, or at least urbanisation itself.

[00:05:13] And throughout history, including the present day, there have really been four broad categories of things you can do to rubbish, to anything that you no longer need.

[00:05:26] It can be buried in the ground, so that it either decomposes over time or simply remains there, hidden from view.

[00:05:35] It can be put into rivers and ultimately washed out to sea.

[00:05:40] It can be burned, incinerated, so that it literally no longer exists.

[00:05:46] Or it can be reused for another purpose - whether that’s recycled, repaired, or in the case of food or human waste, used as fertiliser, to grow new crops

[00:06:00] So, to try to answer the question of “where does all of our rubbish go”, let’s take a look at what a typical person might throw away on a typical day, and see where modern rubbish ends up in this categorisation of four different final destinations.

[00:06:20] Of course, there is no typical person, what you throw away is different from what I throw away, and every country deals with its rubbish slightly differently.

[00:06:32] But, for the sake of this exercise, let’s take the example of the average person in the UK, let’s even give him a name, Frank.

[00:06:42] Over the course of a day, Frank throws away a little over 1 kilo of rubbish. 

[00:06:50] About a quarter of that is food, and the rest breaks down into things like plastics, paper, glass, tins and electronics.

[00:07:00] Frank is a good, law-abiding citizen, and he has separate rubbish bins for his mixed waste, his food waste, and his recycling.

[00:07:10] He puts everything into the right bin, takes it out to the side of the road on the appropriate day, the rubbish truck comes along and that’s the last Frank thinks about his rubbish.

[00:07:24] But what actually happens?

[00:07:27] Well, Frank’s mixed waste, his general rubbish, is probably taken either to a landfill or it’s incinerated, it’s burned.

[00:07:37] Things haven’t really changed all that much since Knossos in ancient Crete, and around a quarter of all the waste produced in the UK is simply buried in the ground.

[00:07:50] Sure, landfills have become more regulated, and they are typically lined to stop hazardous liquids getting out and entering the ground, but the general concept is pretty simple: there’s a big hole that’s dug into the ground, rubbish is put in there and when it's full, the entire thing is closed so we don’t have to see it any more.

[00:08:15] There’s a phrase in English which is “out of sight, out of mind”, meaning if you can’t see something you don’t think about it, and there is probably no more appropriate use for it than our attitude towards burying rubbish in landfills.

[00:08:33] Another potential destination for this mixed waste is the incinerator, where it is burned and turned into electricity. 

[00:08:43] In the UK it’s a relatively small amount, around 5%, but in places such as Norway, Sweden, and Denmark up to 50% of all rubbish is incinerated.

[00:08:57] Now, there’s an interesting debate on the pros and cons of incineration, of burning rubbish, instead of sending it to landfill.

[00:09:08] Proponents of incineration, of burning, say that it’s actually better for the environment, because it produces energy and eliminates or at least reduces the carbon emissions that would have come from transporting the rubbish to a landfill

[00:09:26] The actual incineration process is now advanced, safe, and harmful fumes are typically caught before they are released into the atmosphere.

[00:09:37] Plus, leaving rubbish in a landfill often causes methane to be released, and incineration fixes this because methane isn’t released.

[00:09:48] But incineration is, of course, not an ideal solution - it requires large expensive plants, can cause air pollution, and if people think that they don’t have to care about their rubbish because it will simply be burned and turned back into useful electricity then they will stop caring about using less in the first place, and reusing or recycling their waste.

[00:10:15] And this brings us very nicely on to our next point, the big green bin that Frank has in his house with a recycling symbol.

[00:10:26] Frank might think of himself as an environmentally conscious person. He reuses plastic bags, perhaps he says no to plastic straws in restaurants, he tries to cycle everywhere and he drinks water from the tap.

[00:10:42] But he likes yoghurt for his breakfast, he gets a copy of the newspaper delivered every morning, he likes tinned baked beans on toast [he is British after all], and he enjoys the occasional bottle of wine.

[00:10:57] No problem, Frank thinks, plastic, paper, tins, cans, and glass, it all gets recycled anyway.

[00:11:06] So, Frank throws the yoghurt pot, the newspaper, the tins and the glass all into the recycling bin. Perhaps there are different recycling bins, but it’s always a bit confusing to Frank. Does he need to take the lid off the yoghurt pot? And what about if there’s a metal cap on the glass wine bottle - does he take that out and put it in with the tin?

[00:11:33] Frank does his best, and at the end of the day it’s all taken away when the rubbish collectors arrive.

[00:11:39] But what happens to his recycling?

[00:11:43] Well, before we get into exactly where Frank’s recycling goes, let me add that recycling is actually nothing new.

[00:11:51] People have been recycling in some way or another for millennia; in fact, evidence dating back to the Chinese Bronze Age — roughly 2000 B.C. — shows that the Chinese were already recycling metal. 

[00:12:08] This wasn’t out of any great care for the environment - it simply made sense.

[00:12:14] It was cheaper to re-use than to make from scratch

[00:12:19] And until it became cheaper to make products from scratch than to re-use them, recycling and reuse was the norm.

[00:12:28] In the 19th century, one of the main ways people recycled was via someone called the ‘rag-and-bone-man’ — a man who would go door-to-door and collect rubbish, especially metal, cloth, and bone, to sell to merchants who would reuse these materials.

[00:12:48] During World War II, materials like nylon and tin cans were collected and recycled into things like bombs and ammunition

[00:12:59] But as the cost of production of goods continued to decrease, there was less and less of an incentive to reuse and recycle. 

[00:13:09] And at the same time, developed countries produced more and more.

[00:13:15] With the 1950s and 1960s came the arrival of “throwaway culture”, with companies advertising single-use knives and forks to be used at home, so that there was no washing up to be done.

[00:13:29] And this brings us to where we are today, with Frank and his recycling bin.

[00:13:35] Frank might think that his recycling all goes off to a nice plant nearby and it’s all reused and turned into more yoghurt pots, more newspapers, baked bean tins and bottles for his favourite Shiraz, but if he really followed his recycling he would likely be disappointed.

[00:13:56] In the UK there is a large incentive for recycling to be sent abroad, to be exported. Once it is exported, it’s meant to be recycled, but there are very few checks on what actually happens to it. 

[00:14:12] And the UK isn’t really an exception here.

[00:14:16] Indeed, if we are talking about Frank’s yoghurt pot, and plastics in general, it’s estimated that only 14% of all plastic waste is actually recycled. About 14% of it is burnt, 40% goes into a landfill and the remainder, a third of all plastic waste, pollutes the environment, going into rivers, and ultimately being washed into the sea.

[00:14:46] Why, you might ask, are we so bad at actually recycling plastic?

[00:14:51] Well, countries like the UK tend to adopt a mentality of “out of sight, out of mind”. 

[00:14:59] Recycling is sent abroad in vast containers. The rubbish to be recycled is weighed, and the country gives itself a pat on the back because it has “recycled” a certain amount of waste. 

[00:15:13] The problem is that a lot of this rubbish to be recycled is almost completely unusable. There was an excellent documentary from 2018 called Dirty Business that exposed exactly how this worked, and it contained shocking footage of huge piles of waste that had been set aside for recycling lying in places like Hong Kong, Malaysia and even Poland.

[00:15:42] So Frank, and perhaps even you and me, might think that we are doing our bit for the environment, but the reality is that in many cases the final destination for that yoghurt pot is not to be turned into a water bottle but to sit in a field in Malaysia or to bob around in the Pacific Ocean.

[00:16:06] So what is Frank to do, and is there any light at the end of this particular tunnel?

[00:16:13] Well, environmental groups would tell Frank to consume less, and to reuse and repair whenever he can.

[00:16:22] Frank can also take some comfort in the knowledge that, although yes we might still put rubbish in landfills similar to the ancient Greeks, technology is improving and helping us get better at managing rubbish. 

[00:16:37] In particular, when it comes to Frank’s favourite subject, recycling, technological improvements mean that it is easier than ever to separate waste, to separate Frank’s bottle tops from the glass or to separate the plastic from the cardboard, so that an increasing amount of whatever is put in the recycling bin actually gets recycled.

[00:17:01] So, to end on a slightly optimistic note, sure there has never been a point in human history where so much rubbish has been produced by so many people. 

[00:17:13] To be precise, there’s over 2 billion tonnes of rubbish produced every year worldwide, and even in the countries that typically don't produce much rubbish now, rubbish production per capita is increasing.

[00:17:29] But never before in human history has there been a better system in place for actually dealing with it. 

[00:17:36] Yes, it is far from perfect, and there are many many holes, flaws, and misaligned incentives, but this is no reason to give up all hope, and certainly no reason for Frank to give up his beloved tinned baked beans.

[00:17:54] OK then, that is it for today's episode on where all of our rubbish goes. I hope it's been an interesting and thought-provoking one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:18:06] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode.

[00:18:09] Do you know much about where rubbish is sent in your country? 

[00:18:13] Is it a subject that you had ever spent much time thinking about, or is it someone else’s problem once it’s thrown in the bin?

[00:18:21] How do you think people should be encouraged to consume less, or should we put more of a focus on dealing with our rubbish appropriately? 

[00:18:30] Or is it a delicate balance between the two?

[00:18:33] I would love to know.

[00:18:35] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com, and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:18:43] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:18:48] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and this episode is going to be released on April 22nd, Earth Day, a day when we think about this wonderful planet we all live on.

[00:00:34] So, the theme of today’s episode is going to be rubbish. That’s right — rubbish, trash, junk, waste. 

[00:00:43] Specifically, what actually happens to it after the rubbish truck comes to take it away?

[00:00:50] OK then, let’s talk about rubbish.

[00:00:56] One thing that unites every human being on Earth is that we are all responsible for some sort of rubbish. 

[00:01:05] Whether you are rich or poor, whether you live in the desert, the countryside, or in a big city, we all create some sort of waste. 

[00:01:15] Of course, not every country produces the same amount of rubbish.

[00:01:20] On a per-person basis, Iceland actually produces the most waste of any country in the world, at 4.5 kilos per person per day, or 1.6 tonnes a year— that’s a small elephant worth of rubbish every year for every man, woman and child living in Iceland. 

[00:01:42] The average person in Lesotho, on the other hand, produces just 110g per day, just 2.4% of what someone in Iceland produces.

[00:01:55] And, in general, for all the talk about going green and recycling, the richer a country is, the more waste each person in it produces.

[00:02:07] Indeed, of the 2 billion tonnes of rubbish produced every year, 34 percent is produced by only 16 percent of the world’s population. 

[00:02:19] This might be sad, but it is unsurprising, when you think about the fact that rubbish production throughout history is correlated with the development of society. 

[00:02:32] As societies develop, they make more, which means there is more to throw away.

[00:02:38] If you were a caveman, living tens of thousands of years ago, you still produced rubbish but the odds are that you didn’t worry too much about it. 

[00:02:49] You might produce some “food waste” from the bits of animals that you cannot eat or turn into tools, but that was about it. 

[00:02:59] Rubbish disposal likely consisted of throwing a piece of animal bones outside your cave and you wouldn’t think twice about it. 

[00:03:09] Perhaps it would be eaten by a nearby wolf or fox, or it would simply decay

[00:03:16] You knew not to leave the decaying corpse of a deer right outside your cave, because it would smell horrible and attract unwanted visitors, but that was probably the extent of how much you needed to worry about disposing of rubbish.

[00:03:34] But over thousands of years, as we humans figured out how to produce more and more, and we started living together in increasingly urban environments, the amount of waste we produced, and the nature of that waste started to look quite different.

[00:03:53] And you might be thinking that this was purely a modern, post-Industrial problem, but it’s certainly not.

[00:04:02] The first ever people to dump rubbish into large holes dug in the ground were in Knossos, in Crete, back in 3,000 B.C. Once the rubbish pits were full, they were covered up with earth to protect them from attracting vermin and producing foul smells. 

[00:04:23] Later, in around 500 B.C, the leaders of Athens in Greece started to dispose of rubbish at least one mile away from the city so invaders couldn’t use piles of rubbish to climb over the city walls. 

[00:04:39] And you probably know that Rome has 7 hills, but you might not know that there’s another one in southern Rome called Monte Testaccio, which is thought to contain up to 50 million broken olive oil amphorae, the clay containers used to hold olive oil in Roman times.

[00:05:03] So, the problem of what to do with rubbish is really as old as civilisation, or at least urbanisation itself.

[00:05:13] And throughout history, including the present day, there have really been four broad categories of things you can do to rubbish, to anything that you no longer need.

[00:05:26] It can be buried in the ground, so that it either decomposes over time or simply remains there, hidden from view.

[00:05:35] It can be put into rivers and ultimately washed out to sea.

[00:05:40] It can be burned, incinerated, so that it literally no longer exists.

[00:05:46] Or it can be reused for another purpose - whether that’s recycled, repaired, or in the case of food or human waste, used as fertiliser, to grow new crops

[00:06:00] So, to try to answer the question of “where does all of our rubbish go”, let’s take a look at what a typical person might throw away on a typical day, and see where modern rubbish ends up in this categorisation of four different final destinations.

[00:06:20] Of course, there is no typical person, what you throw away is different from what I throw away, and every country deals with its rubbish slightly differently.

[00:06:32] But, for the sake of this exercise, let’s take the example of the average person in the UK, let’s even give him a name, Frank.

[00:06:42] Over the course of a day, Frank throws away a little over 1 kilo of rubbish. 

[00:06:50] About a quarter of that is food, and the rest breaks down into things like plastics, paper, glass, tins and electronics.

[00:07:00] Frank is a good, law-abiding citizen, and he has separate rubbish bins for his mixed waste, his food waste, and his recycling.

[00:07:10] He puts everything into the right bin, takes it out to the side of the road on the appropriate day, the rubbish truck comes along and that’s the last Frank thinks about his rubbish.

[00:07:24] But what actually happens?

[00:07:27] Well, Frank’s mixed waste, his general rubbish, is probably taken either to a landfill or it’s incinerated, it’s burned.

[00:07:37] Things haven’t really changed all that much since Knossos in ancient Crete, and around a quarter of all the waste produced in the UK is simply buried in the ground.

[00:07:50] Sure, landfills have become more regulated, and they are typically lined to stop hazardous liquids getting out and entering the ground, but the general concept is pretty simple: there’s a big hole that’s dug into the ground, rubbish is put in there and when it's full, the entire thing is closed so we don’t have to see it any more.

[00:08:15] There’s a phrase in English which is “out of sight, out of mind”, meaning if you can’t see something you don’t think about it, and there is probably no more appropriate use for it than our attitude towards burying rubbish in landfills.

[00:08:33] Another potential destination for this mixed waste is the incinerator, where it is burned and turned into electricity. 

[00:08:43] In the UK it’s a relatively small amount, around 5%, but in places such as Norway, Sweden, and Denmark up to 50% of all rubbish is incinerated.

[00:08:57] Now, there’s an interesting debate on the pros and cons of incineration, of burning rubbish, instead of sending it to landfill.

[00:09:08] Proponents of incineration, of burning, say that it’s actually better for the environment, because it produces energy and eliminates or at least reduces the carbon emissions that would have come from transporting the rubbish to a landfill

[00:09:26] The actual incineration process is now advanced, safe, and harmful fumes are typically caught before they are released into the atmosphere.

[00:09:37] Plus, leaving rubbish in a landfill often causes methane to be released, and incineration fixes this because methane isn’t released.

[00:09:48] But incineration is, of course, not an ideal solution - it requires large expensive plants, can cause air pollution, and if people think that they don’t have to care about their rubbish because it will simply be burned and turned back into useful electricity then they will stop caring about using less in the first place, and reusing or recycling their waste.

[00:10:15] And this brings us very nicely on to our next point, the big green bin that Frank has in his house with a recycling symbol.

[00:10:26] Frank might think of himself as an environmentally conscious person. He reuses plastic bags, perhaps he says no to plastic straws in restaurants, he tries to cycle everywhere and he drinks water from the tap.

[00:10:42] But he likes yoghurt for his breakfast, he gets a copy of the newspaper delivered every morning, he likes tinned baked beans on toast [he is British after all], and he enjoys the occasional bottle of wine.

[00:10:57] No problem, Frank thinks, plastic, paper, tins, cans, and glass, it all gets recycled anyway.

[00:11:06] So, Frank throws the yoghurt pot, the newspaper, the tins and the glass all into the recycling bin. Perhaps there are different recycling bins, but it’s always a bit confusing to Frank. Does he need to take the lid off the yoghurt pot? And what about if there’s a metal cap on the glass wine bottle - does he take that out and put it in with the tin?

[00:11:33] Frank does his best, and at the end of the day it’s all taken away when the rubbish collectors arrive.

[00:11:39] But what happens to his recycling?

[00:11:43] Well, before we get into exactly where Frank’s recycling goes, let me add that recycling is actually nothing new.

[00:11:51] People have been recycling in some way or another for millennia; in fact, evidence dating back to the Chinese Bronze Age — roughly 2000 B.C. — shows that the Chinese were already recycling metal. 

[00:12:08] This wasn’t out of any great care for the environment - it simply made sense.

[00:12:14] It was cheaper to re-use than to make from scratch

[00:12:19] And until it became cheaper to make products from scratch than to re-use them, recycling and reuse was the norm.

[00:12:28] In the 19th century, one of the main ways people recycled was via someone called the ‘rag-and-bone-man’ — a man who would go door-to-door and collect rubbish, especially metal, cloth, and bone, to sell to merchants who would reuse these materials.

[00:12:48] During World War II, materials like nylon and tin cans were collected and recycled into things like bombs and ammunition

[00:12:59] But as the cost of production of goods continued to decrease, there was less and less of an incentive to reuse and recycle. 

[00:13:09] And at the same time, developed countries produced more and more.

[00:13:15] With the 1950s and 1960s came the arrival of “throwaway culture”, with companies advertising single-use knives and forks to be used at home, so that there was no washing up to be done.

[00:13:29] And this brings us to where we are today, with Frank and his recycling bin.

[00:13:35] Frank might think that his recycling all goes off to a nice plant nearby and it’s all reused and turned into more yoghurt pots, more newspapers, baked bean tins and bottles for his favourite Shiraz, but if he really followed his recycling he would likely be disappointed.

[00:13:56] In the UK there is a large incentive for recycling to be sent abroad, to be exported. Once it is exported, it’s meant to be recycled, but there are very few checks on what actually happens to it. 

[00:14:12] And the UK isn’t really an exception here.

[00:14:16] Indeed, if we are talking about Frank’s yoghurt pot, and plastics in general, it’s estimated that only 14% of all plastic waste is actually recycled. About 14% of it is burnt, 40% goes into a landfill and the remainder, a third of all plastic waste, pollutes the environment, going into rivers, and ultimately being washed into the sea.

[00:14:46] Why, you might ask, are we so bad at actually recycling plastic?

[00:14:51] Well, countries like the UK tend to adopt a mentality of “out of sight, out of mind”. 

[00:14:59] Recycling is sent abroad in vast containers. The rubbish to be recycled is weighed, and the country gives itself a pat on the back because it has “recycled” a certain amount of waste. 

[00:15:13] The problem is that a lot of this rubbish to be recycled is almost completely unusable. There was an excellent documentary from 2018 called Dirty Business that exposed exactly how this worked, and it contained shocking footage of huge piles of waste that had been set aside for recycling lying in places like Hong Kong, Malaysia and even Poland.

[00:15:42] So Frank, and perhaps even you and me, might think that we are doing our bit for the environment, but the reality is that in many cases the final destination for that yoghurt pot is not to be turned into a water bottle but to sit in a field in Malaysia or to bob around in the Pacific Ocean.

[00:16:06] So what is Frank to do, and is there any light at the end of this particular tunnel?

[00:16:13] Well, environmental groups would tell Frank to consume less, and to reuse and repair whenever he can.

[00:16:22] Frank can also take some comfort in the knowledge that, although yes we might still put rubbish in landfills similar to the ancient Greeks, technology is improving and helping us get better at managing rubbish. 

[00:16:37] In particular, when it comes to Frank’s favourite subject, recycling, technological improvements mean that it is easier than ever to separate waste, to separate Frank’s bottle tops from the glass or to separate the plastic from the cardboard, so that an increasing amount of whatever is put in the recycling bin actually gets recycled.

[00:17:01] So, to end on a slightly optimistic note, sure there has never been a point in human history where so much rubbish has been produced by so many people. 

[00:17:13] To be precise, there’s over 2 billion tonnes of rubbish produced every year worldwide, and even in the countries that typically don't produce much rubbish now, rubbish production per capita is increasing.

[00:17:29] But never before in human history has there been a better system in place for actually dealing with it. 

[00:17:36] Yes, it is far from perfect, and there are many many holes, flaws, and misaligned incentives, but this is no reason to give up all hope, and certainly no reason for Frank to give up his beloved tinned baked beans.

[00:17:54] OK then, that is it for today's episode on where all of our rubbish goes. I hope it's been an interesting and thought-provoking one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:18:06] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode.

[00:18:09] Do you know much about where rubbish is sent in your country? 

[00:18:13] Is it a subject that you had ever spent much time thinking about, or is it someone else’s problem once it’s thrown in the bin?

[00:18:21] How do you think people should be encouraged to consume less, or should we put more of a focus on dealing with our rubbish appropriately? 

[00:18:30] Or is it a delicate balance between the two?

[00:18:33] I would love to know.

[00:18:35] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com, and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:18:43] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:18:48] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]