AP PHOTOS: As world marks Earth Day, trash still big problem

A group of wild elephants sift through garbage looking for food at a landfill in Sri Lanka. It’s a dangerous undertaking — around 20 elephants have died from consuming plastic trash from the landfill in the Ampara district over the last eight years.

A swan stands on a bank of the Danube River in Belgrade, Serbia, completely covered by plastic bottles and other solid waste.

And in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, a woman sells greens in front of a field of decomposing trash, some burning in piles.

“We are burying the planet in waste and this isn’t sustainable,” said University of Michigan environment dean Jonathan Overpeck. “Plastic pollution is particularly appalling. It’s becoming ubiquitous from the equator to the poles and the farthest reaches of the oceans. And much of it is simply unnecessary.”

As people worldwide on Friday mark Earth Day, an annual commemoration going back to 1970, the vivid images of garbage are a reminder of how much waste the planet still bears.

While conservation, environmental and recycling efforts have made strides, humans continue to generate a lot of trash, impacting animals, people and contributing to global warming.

Every year, 11.2 billion tons of solid waste is generated, and decay of the organic parts of such waste contribute to 5% of global greenhouse emissions every year, according to the United Nations Environmental Programme.

Garbage is found as deep as it is widespread: biologists told the Associated Press earlier this year that plastic pollution is found in the “deepest ocean trenches” and the amount found in Earth’s oceans could rise for decades. The coronavirus pandemic has worsened the world’s plastic waste woes, research shows.

“Garbage may be at the boring, stinky end of the spectrum of environmental challenges. But eventually, nothing else gets solved when we are up against a giant pile of garbage,” said Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

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Science writer Seth Borenstein contributed to this story.

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Follow Drew Costley on Twitter: @drewcostley.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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