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Organic waste as a valuable resource: A call for action

Farouk Banna's picture

Management of organic waste is a major dilemma for developing countries. It generates unpleasant odors and helps rats, flies, bugs and mosquitoes multiply and spread diseases.  As it decomposes, organic waste generates methane, a gas that contributes significantly to global warming.  Last year Daniel Hoornweg, Perinaz Bhada-Tata and Chris Kennedy predicted in an article in the magazine Nature that the global rate of solid waste generation is expected to triple by 2100.  This is bad news because if the investment for solid waste management in developing countries remains as low as it is today, the world is at risk of irreversible environmental deterioration.

Organic waste grinderDiverting organic waste for use as a resource is a missed opportunity for some developing countries since 64 % of the waste generated in low income countries is organic according to the What a Waste report. There is tremendous incentive for developing countries to turn organic waste into a resource.  The benefit for the environment is huge, and this could be done in a cost effective way.  For example, organic waste could be turned into compost to grow crops, reducing dependency on chemical fertilizers, or clean organic waste could be used to feed animals.

Decision makers in some developing countries are already proactively implementing policies and providing incentives to reduce the quantity of waste going to landfills.  The municipality of Ningbo (China), for example, generates about 3,300 tons of waste per day, overwhelming its two landfills and two incineration plants. Responding to this crisis, the municipality in partnership with the World Bank is implementing the Ningbo Municipal Solid Waste Minimization and Recycling Project which will allow the municipality to acquire technologies and equipment necessary to support a new program aiming to increase the separation of waste at source into four streams: recyclable, organic waste, hazardous waste and other waste.  Separated organic waste will be processed into electricity and fertilizer for crops. To increase participation, financial incentives are provided to community groups for proper separation of waste into the four streams. We hope this will lead to an increase in waste separation and encourage communities to be more aware and act to reap its benefits.

Similarly, the State of Penang (Malaysia) adopted a policy in 2012 aiming to divert as much organic waste as possible from its landfill. Following this new policy, local private sector entrepreneurs are responding by developing new technologies to turn organic waste into fertilizer and generate income.

Developed countries are also trying to address organic waste management issues. The state of Massachusetts has recently passed a new regulation banning commercial organic waste from landfills in an effort to reduce the quantity of waste disposed into landfills.  The rationale for banning commercial organic waste in Massachusetts is driven by the growing quantity of waste generated in this small and densely populated state where landfill capacity is limited and disposal costs are high. Massachusetts became the first US state to impose such a ban, and we hope other US states will follow. We should not underestimate the value that is in our trash.  With fast growth in waste quantity and soaring constraints in resources, we have to become creative in how we transform our trash into a valuable resource.  Organic waste which generally makes most of the trash that we discard can be managed in a smarter way.