A groundbreaking study has found that trash burning around the world is contributing significantly to global pollution levels — and that Brazil and Mexico are two of the countries most guilty of the practice.
The study, published Tuesday in the Environmental Science and Technology journal, found that more than 40 percent of all the world’s trash is burned, the majority of it in developing and industrializing countries.
This research, led by scientists at the U.S. government-funded National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, is the first comprehensive study of garbage burning around the world. It includes data on multiple pollutants and greenhouse gases –including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and mercury — and contains the first ever index of carbon dioxide emissions listed by country.
After analyzing population data, trash production and official reports on waste disposal from individual countries, the researchers behind the study concluded that 41 percent of the 2 billion tons of trash produced annually is burned, either at dumps or homes.
However, researchers caution that this data is just a “first draft” and acknowledge that their data estimates could be wrong by anywhere from 20-50 percent.
Part of the reason for the uncertainty is the fact that, while governments around the world track emissions from official incinerators, it is much more difficult to find accurate data about trash burned in backyards, fields and dumps, which is mostly unregulated and often goes unreported.
A large part of global air pollution comes from burning trash, including objects like plastics, electronics, furniture and even food waste. According to the study, 10 percent of toxic mercury emissions come from garbage fires, and trash burning is responsible for releasing about 5 percent of human-created carbon dioxide emissions.
At the global level, about 110 million tons of crops are lost each year due to air pollution, according to a study by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short Lived Climate Pollutants, an offshoot of the United Nations Environmental Program.
The majority of trash-burning occurs in populous developing countries, particularly in Asia and Africa. However, Latin America had two of the top countries when it came to garbage burning at dumps.
While China and India were the worst offenders for trash burned by individual residents, China, Brazil and Mexico were the countries that burned the most garbage at dumps. Both Latin American countries have enacted laws that allegedly punish people for burning or otherwise illegally disposing of trash, but the legislation seems to have had little effect.
Brazil, Latin America’s largest nation with a population of more than 200 million, generates an average of 170,000 tons of garbage per day, with up to 70 percent of that trash ending up in unregulated dumps or other locations.
Mexico has introduced various measures to combat climate change, even receiving international recognition for legislation passed in 2012 to reduce long-term greenhouse gas emissions. However, as the new study shows, the country still has a long way to go to towards seriously cracking down on air pollution and contaminants.
Environmental scientists not affiliated with the study cautioned that the data should be viewed with caution, since many of the conclusions were estimates based on available information, which may not all be accurate or comprehensive.
Still, the research is useful for bringing more attention to “the emerging crisis humanity is already facing,” said Arun K. Attri, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s School of Environmental Sciences in New Delhi, India.
“The findings should get to the ears of individuals who frame the policies,” said Attri. “Open burning of waste is harmful, and it is well known and does not require rocket science to understand.”
Additional reporting by Associated Press