Silver Bullets or Stepping Stones: The Future of Waste
President Clinton once said “If you want to fight climate change, improve public health, find new sources of wealth for poor people and create new entrepreneurs; the closest thing to a silver bullet in the world in most countries is closing all the landfills in all the cities.”
His sentiment was helpful, framing the waste challenge as an opportunity – for the environment, people and economy. However, it oversimplifies a very complex challenge:
- Open dumps are an open source of income for the poorest people in the world.
- Waste has value and if government claims ownership over the waste, it removes the ability of the poorest to make a living from the available material.
- Good waste management relies on good governance.
- Many international aid projects that have closed dump sites have failed, because a workable alternative hasn’t been successfully implemented.
Waste and Climate
With the eyes of the world on Paris for COP21, the potential for waste management to help reduce climate changing emissions has never been more pertinent. Methane generated from biodegradable wastes is a powerful greenhouse gas, and when it’s not captured and used as a fuel it contributes to rapid warming of the atmosphere.
Estimates suggest that biodegradable waste in dump sites and uncapped landfill sites are contributing far more methane to the atmosphere than previously thought. What’s more, urban food waste is predicted to increase by 44% from 2005 to 2025, and with no proper management in place, will significantly add to global greenhouse gas emissions.
Waste management is an important tool for curbing climate change and for keeping our environment clean and healthy. Worryingly, 38 of the world’s 50 largest dumps are close to the sea, contributing to marine and coastal pollution. The accumulation of plastics in the marine food chain is causing global concern. While we don’t yet know how to clean the oceans, stemming the flow of waste into marine environments would be a step in the right direction.
40% of the world’s waste ends up in open dumps. These aren’t even what you’d call “landfill”. They don’t have any impervious lining to prevent noxious leachate from entering the surrounding environment, nor are they capped to prevent the spread of disease. In fact, in India, the Philippines and Indonesia, the health risk from open dumping of waste is greater than the risk of malaria[i].
3.5 billion people in the world lack access to proper waste management. That figure is expected to grow to 5 billion by 2050. Respiratory diseases, gastrointestinal diseases and occupational health risks add to the misery experienced by the 50,000+ people living from open dumps. If we’re serious about the Sustainable Development Goals, then we could do worse than see waste management as a major opportunity.
A Source of Wealth
Waste is any material that is no longer wanted for its original purpose. The owner doesn’t have a need for it, and so discards it. Even valuable items can and do end up as waste purely because someone has thrown them away. The recent (and rather brilliant) BBC programme Hugh’s War on Waste shone the spotlight on attitudes towards disposable fashion. A look through the bins of a typical street uncovered a startling amount of clothing that had been thrown away, despite it still being in perfectly good condition.
This highlights a simple fact: there is plenty of value in waste. Waste management wouldn’t be such very big business if there wasn’t:
- Estimates suggest there are 40 million people globally who are making their living from waste – half of these are working informally.
- During the last recession in the UK, the waste management sector was the only industry to keep growing, resulting in it being termed the Green Star of the economy.
Showing people how to turn a waste stream into something valuable isn’t rocket science. There are lots of examples of informal, community-based, grassroots recycling and upcycling projects that generate wealth for the poorest in society. The internet is allowing simple waste processing techniques to be replicated all over the world, and helping make that information accessible is one of the most fulfilling aspects of my career.
These are recent graduates of WasteAid UK’s work with Women’s Initiative of the Gambia. They have received waste processing and business management skills to enable them to set up their own recycling enterprises.
“Give a man a fish and he can eat for a day. Show a man how to fish and he can eat for the rest of his life.” Teaching people how to make valuable products from waste is important. But just as important, is passing on the business skills to be able to identify a market, factor in costs, check out the competition, market their products and run a successful business.
Development work in the waste arena needs to address both sides of the coin, and in doing so will enable people to start up their own businesses, in their own communities, and generate wealth organically. That’s far more valuable than delivering aid in a ready-made package (which incidentally rarely works – there’s a great TED Talk on this topic by Ernesto Sirolli, called “Want to help someone? Shut up and listen”).
Why Closing Dumps Is Not a Silver Bullet
The proliferation of megacities, particularly in developing countries, is causing a health crisis. Decent waste management is an indicator of good governance – that is, if a council or government can collect taxes and provide a waste management service, then it most likely isn’t (very) corrupt. However, in many places where corruption or other forms of bad or weak governance prevail, top-down solutions are notoriously difficult to implement.
Often, when the world’s attention turns to an open dump, the government responds by closing it and the journalists go home. This is what happened with Smokey Mountain dumpsite in the Philippines (and many others around the world). All that happens is another open dump emerges nearby, and the scavengers move to the new site.
The problem is that if there is no alternative solution in place, people will discard of their waste in the only ways available – dumping it or burning it; and the poor will follow the waste.
Replacing an open dump with a government-controlled waste management system isn’t a silver bullet either. The losers, again are the hundreds, and sometimes thousands of men, women and children who live from scavenging from the dump. It may seem horrific to many of us, but the truth is that if you take that opportunity to earn a paltry living away from the poorest in society, they will starve. Solutions need to be inclusive.
I recently met one of the most inspiring individuals working in this sector – Jane Walker MBE. Jane has worked tirelessly with the families living off open dumps in the Philippines, set up the Philippines Community Fund, and built a school to enable the poorest and most vulnerable children to create a better life for themselves. Her story is fascinating and I invite readers to visit the website and watch Jane’s presentation to the Rotary Club of GB and Ireland, in which she explains her story far more eloquently than I have space (or capacity) for here.
Power To The People
To close dump sites, you need to have a workable alternative solution in place. You need to have regular waste collection taking place, and you need somewhere to take it. Building materials recovery facilities alongside existing open dumps is one idea. Informal waste pickers who are currently working in dangerous conditions on the dumpsite can gain employment (or better still, form a cooperative) sorting recyclable materials and reducing the amount of real “waste” that needs to be disposed of.
For example, Wecyclers in Lagos, Nigeria employs people to cycle around collecting recyclable materials from households. In return for their source-separated waste, the householder receives a small reward.
In Bangalore, IGotGarbage has harnessed the power of phone apps to enable people who were previously waste pickers to be called directly to a house to collect the waste materials. Solutions like this work because they continue to provide livelihoods for people, while taking waste off the streets.
The Need For Appropriate Technology
There will always be something left though: the stuff that really has little value other than the energy embodied in it. In industrialised countries, energy-from-waste incinerators have become popular. Seen as a clean alternative to landfill, these facilities burn the waste, release the energy, and convert it into heat, electricity and ash. Some of that ash (from the air pollution control system) still needs to be disposed of in specially-prepared hazardous waste landfill sites. The remainder, being fairly benign, can be used to make concrete building blocks.
However, incinerators are fairly technology-heavy, rendering them unsuitable for many developing country contexts.
A problem that we’ve witnessed is that waste management companies from industrialised nations try to wholesale their technology in developing countries. The technology is usually unaffordable, and even if the capital can be raised to procure a facility, as soon as something breaks down the whole solution can fall apart.
There is a need for information about simple waste processing technologies to become more open-sourced. Smart future-thinking businesses could capitalise on selling blueprints rather than entire prefabricated facilities. Most of the time it’s far cheaper to fabricate something locally, and also means that when something breaks it can be fixed.
The Continuing Need For Landfill
The fact is that in most cases, a standard, lined landfill site with landfill gas capture is still the most appropriate answer for non-recyclable waste. Add to that a well-organised, low-cost waste collection service with source separation of recyclable materials and biodegradable waste, and you have a relatively affordable solution that is better for the climate, better for health, better for the local economy, and contributes to a more sustainable future.
Landfill may seem very unfashionable to those of us who work in the recycling sector, but nevertheless it will remain a necessity both in developed and developing countries for the foreseeable future. (That is, until we stop producing waste, or learn how to make it disappear.)
Joining Forces and Stepping Stones
Miguel Arias Cañete, the EU climate commissioner, said the Climate Coalition alliance showed that developed and developing countries could work together with a common interest. “These negotiations are not about them and us. They are about all of us, developed and developing countries, finding common ground and solutions together. We urge other countries to join us. Together we can do it.”
Necessity is the mother of invention, and we are facing a waste crisis of unprecedented proportion. Waste and development practitioners, academics and entrepreneurs around the world are working together more and more to help bring about the change we want to see, which will benefit the billions of people suffering from poor waste management, and the rest of us who share a warming planet and share the burden of climate change and poverty.
No silver bullets, but lots of small stepping stones in the right direction.
- Chatham-Stephens et al., Burden of Disease from Toxic Waste Sites in India, Indonesia and the Philippines in 2010, Environmental Health Perspectives, 2013.