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What a Waste: Time to Pick It Up

Dan Hoornweg's picture

What a Waste publication coverAsk any city manager or mayor what their top priority is and you’re likely to get ‘solid waste’ as an answer. You would think in today’s age we would have solved the waste management challenge and moved on to the next slightly more glamorous municipal service. Not so; and more than ever cities now need to pick it up a notch on solid waste management.

Solid waste is still probably the world’s most pressing environmental challenge. In poorer countries, solid waste can use up to more than half of a city’s overall budget; around the world there are more solid waste workers than soldiers; and despite the more than $225 billion spent every year on solid waste, in many low income countries less than half the waste is collected in cities.

This week’s release of What a Waste: A Global Review of Solid Waste Management highlights the pressing need for better waste management, especially in low-income country cities. Currently cities generate about 1.3 billion tonnes of waste per year. This is expected to increase to 2.2 billion tonnes by 2025. The impact is most severe in low-income country cities where management costs are expected to increase more than five-fold. And most low-income cities are already having trouble dealing with today’s waste management challenges, leave alone handling the expected increases.

In addition to the enormous budgetary implications, the environmental and health impacts from solid waste management are enormous. Solid waste represents about 5% of the world’s total GHG emissions, and most of this is methane, a particularly powerful GHG in the shorter term; solid waste incineration is one of the largest sources of persistent organic pollutants (POPs); uncollected solid waste burned around people’s homes is a significant source of respiratory ailments, and; uncollected solid waste is a big help to rats, flies and mosquitos and the diseases they spread, as well as floating out to sea where it kills sea life and ends up in our food chain.

In addition to the current problems cities face in terms of managing solid waste a new priority is emerging; the growing link between waste and climate change mitigation and adaptation, especially in low-income countries. A related study from the Mayors’ Task Force on Climate Change Adaptation and the Urban Poor illustrated the critical link between uncollected waste, increasing storm intensity and flooding. In some cities, like Jakarta, as much as 40% of the storm water drainage capacity can be lost to uncollected garbage in the drains.

Solid waste management is that one service that every city needs to provide, but many cities need assistance urgently. As cities deal with an additional annual one billion tonnes of garbage over the next ten years they will need much more help – a lot more money, greater efforts on the part of citizens, and a much higher priority by everyone to manage waste properly.


Submitted by SJose on
Apart from the challenge of collecting solid waste within the city, another big challenge is disposing them. In the Philippines, landfills are still the norm and recycling and reuse is gaining ground now. It is not feasible for each and every city to maintain its own dumpsite. This is one public service which is best shared by several cities, like in the case of Metro Manila. (Still there are moral hazards on the receiving areas ...) More importantly, the lessons of Payatas should be kept in memory to remind us of the need for integrated solid waste system, from segregation - collection - disposal. All of these strain city budgets and governance structures, especially in a changing climate era.

Submitted by george fitch on
A book, more like a guide, was just published on how local governments can and should use their wastes to produce electricity and biofuel for their community in partnership with a private company that will build, finance and operate a WTE plant at the landfill. For more info, go to

Submitted by Kurt Nemes on

The composition of municipal waste in the low income countries are dominated with organic waste. Therefore, the prioritized treatment method should be biological such as composting and anaerobic digestion. However, the condition of mixed waste results in low quality products and plant failures. It is not a rare story where the communities have separated the waste at source but collection is mixed and only to be dumped in the landfill. It is very discouraging when community's improvement in awareness is not appreciated by the public service sector. Moreover, wrong placed subsidies, tax and unfavourable policies makes the right movements hard to excel. In the case of Indonesia, the cleaning department is prohibited to gain income from producing and selling compost fertilizer. Therefore composting is done by other parties. And since compost quality is not appropriate for food crops, one of the potential markets of municipal waste compost is the city park division. However, auction is required to select fertilizer to be purchased by city park division. In the auction, compost is competing with large mineral fertilizer producers who provide reliable and stable quality and supply because they are subsidied by the government. Priorities should be given to rethink and redesign related policies, in parallel with holistic community and public service personell's improve in awareness and capacity building. It is also important to encourage favourable local knowledges and values to guarantee the sustainability of a more environmentally sound technology adaptation.

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