Published on Sustainable Cities

What a Waste: Time to Pick It Up

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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.


Dan Hoornweg

Professor and Jeff Boyce Research Chair, University of Ontario Institute of Technology

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