Smelly, Contaminated and Overflowing with Disease: How Mountains of Trash Affect the World Community

Smelly, Contaminated and Overflowing with Disease: How Mountains of Trash Affect the World Community

We have a problem with trash. Not just in the U.S., but around the world. The piles are unsightly, to be sure, but the concern goes well beyond aesthetics. The issues relating to mounting waste include risks to public health, e.g., polluting groundwater, and the refuse dirties the environment, increasing risks of diseases like asthma.

In fact, in a Premise-designed survey, we learned residents in 41 countries have noticed waste-related issues such as strong odors of garbage, water contamination, rodents and insects in residential areas, and trash buildup blocking roads and walkways, among many other dangerous issues.

More than half the world’s population doesn’t have access to regular trash collection, according to The World Bank, and some international health organizations believe trash has reached a crisis level. 

To learn more about issues surrounding trash—including who should be responsible for collecting it and how such collection is paid for—we used the Premise app to create a survey about trash and waste collection. More than 17,000 residents in countries ranging from Australia to Yemen, from Iraq to Peru, responded to our survey. What we found was enlightening. And concerning. 

A significant percentage (nearly two-thirds) reported that trash has contributed to health problems in their city or town. Almost half of the respondents reported they know someone who has had a health problem related to trash, and that same percentage say their governments do too little to address trash-related health issues. 

Remember the movie Wall-E? In that dystopian vision, rampant consumerism and environmental neglect have turned earth into a literal garbage heap.  Humans have vacated the planet to live on giant spaceships and all that’s left on earth are robotic trash compactors. While the story might seem extreme, it’s not too difficult to imagine a future where trash is an even bigger problem than it is today. Each year, humans generate 1.3 billion tons of waste and that number may reach 4 billion tons by 2100, according to the World Bank’s Social, Urban, Rural and Resilience Global Practice.

The world’s top trash generators include the U.S., China, Brazil, Japan and Germany, according to The World Bank. In the U.S., each person creates seven pounds of material every day. That’s 2,555 pounds of material per person every year, according to Columbia University

Part of the problem is that in developed countries, consumers are encouraged to buy new goods instead of fixing old ones. And in many regions, residents pay the same amount of trash pick-up no matter how much garbage they leave on the curb. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that waste management businesses and land-fill operators increase profits when the volume of garbage they pick up increases.  

More than half of our survey respondents also believe their governmental representatives do too little to reduce incentivize recycling.

In other parts of the world, the problems are different. Many developing nations don’t have organized trash collection. In regions where industrialization is happening at a rapid pace, the problems are even more pronounced because they don’t have the systems in place needed to deal with hazardous waste.

In our survey, we learned that a full one-third of respondents believe their government representatives are “somewhat ineffective” or “very ineffective” when it comes to collecting trash from the respondents’ neighborhoods. Only 19 percent believe their governments are “very effective” at managing trash. 

According to The United Nations Environment Program, trash production goes up as countries become more industrialized. That means developing regions like India and are poised to have more problems with trash even as people are lifted out of poverty. 

In America, we have a different problem. We have efficient collection systems in most regions, which means we don’t see evidence of our collective mindset that everything is disposable. And because most cities include trash collection in property taxes, or charge a flat fee for trash collection, we don’t pay much attention to the amounts of trash we toss. Yet even the most well-run landfills can be bad for the environment. 

As organic material decomposes, it releases methane gas. And methane is a potent greenhouse gas, trapping heat in the atmosphere. When rain falls on landfill sites, organic and inorganic matter dissolves, forming toxins that can leach into groundwater. 

The Health Threats are Real

Even in the United States, runoff from trash can flow into rivers, lakes and oceans. Pollution can seep into groundwater. Uncollected garbage can clog drains which in turn leads to flooding. 

In other parts of the world, uncollected waste tends to be more problematic near poorer neighborhoods and slums, where the human toll is even more apparent since people who scavenge can be exposed to lead and other toxic metals, or infectious materials. 

Trash is Expensive

Changing behavior so that people and societies are encouraged to reduce and recycle waste is also crucial. In the United States, where recycling programs have been operating in full force for years, some experts believe the answer to reducing waste lies in charging for its disposal by weight or other metrics.

In our survey, only about six percent of respondents reported the city or town where they lived charged for collection based on weight or volume. In other words, most regions don’t appear to incentivize people to reduce the amount of trash they dispose of. About half said they pay for waste collection, either as part of their property taxes or in a flat fee. 

One of the amazing capabilities of Premise is the access we have to a worldwide network of on-the-ground Contributors who can collect and share information in real-time. These Contributors can even play a meaningful role in solving some of these health-related problems. 

For example, in the context of trash, citizens could be hired for small fees to monitor unsafe dumps and alert officials as to their presence, allowing the officials to take the steps necessary for cleaning them up. \


Premise can help you collect data around the globe quickly and cost-effectively on a number of different topics. Visit our website at or email us at to learn more about our different solutions. 

This survey was comprised of 17,661 people in 41 countries around the world. The responses were collected during a ten-day period in May 2019. All of the was collected through the Premise App.