Burning Trash Can Be Blamed for Much of World's Air Pollution, Study Says
Published: August 27, 2014

Much of the world's air pollution can be blamed on burning garbage, including discarded plastics, busted electronics, broken furniture and food scraps, according to a new study that estimates more than 40 percent of the world's garbage is burned.

Burning trash throws pollution and toxic particles into the air than governments are reporting, according to the study published Tuesday in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. The study attempts the first comprehensive assessment of global trash-burning data, including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, mercury and tiny particulate matter that can dim the sun's rays or clog human lungs.

"Doing this study made me realize how little information we really have about garbage burning and waste management," said lead researcher Christine Wiedinmyer of the government-funded National Center for Atmospheric Research, in Boulder, Colorado. "What's really interesting is all the toxins. We need to look further at that."

It also presents the first country-by-country index of rough emissions estimates for both carbon dioxide and toxic pollutants linked to human disease, though researchers acknowledged the index is a "first draft" based on estimates and so some measures could be off by 20-50 percent.

"There is a lot of room for improvement in the index," Wiedinmyer said, but expressed hope it would still help policy-makers set agendas to clear the air. "Most health regulations are based on the total mass of particles in the air, based on their size. But that's not getting at what the particles are made of. That can have different health impacts as well as different impacts on the climate."

(MORE: Cities Around the World With the Worst Garbage Problems)

While many governments tally emissions from incinerators, trash that is burned in back yards, fields and dumps is mostly unregulated and unreported.

Researchers pulled together existing data on population, per capita production of trash and official reports on waste disposal to calculate how much garbage is burned around the world each year. The answer: 41 percent of our global 2 billion-ton annual output goes up in flames.

China and India were found to have the most trash burned by residents, while China, Brazil and Mexico burned the most at garbage dumps.

According to the study, 29 percent of global particulate matter called PM 2.5, which can penetrate deep into the lungs, comes from such fires, as well as 10 percent of toxic mercury emissions.

China's trash-burning emissions, for example, are not reflected in official data for slightly larger PM10 particulate matter, though the study shows those emissions are equal to 20 percent of what's reported.

The study also showed that global trash burning releases about 5 percent of the world's man-made emissions of carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas.

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