by WasteAid UK’s Patron, Professor David C Wilson
Solid waste management is a key utility service and a critical element of the infrastructure that underpins society. Despite being rated in the top three priorities faced by many cities in developing countries, it tends also to be ‘taken for granted’. UNEP’s inaugural Global Waste Management Outlook (GWMO), which I edited, estimates that around 2 billion people worldwide still lack access to regular waste collection; while a larger number, around 3 billion, lack access to controlled disposal services for municipal solid wastes.
This reality is both a global public health and environmental crisis, and a financial burden on society. The public health and environmental damage costs of uncollected waste, uncontrolled disposal, open burning and unsound resource recovery include additional health care costs, lost productivity, flood damage, damage to businesses and tourism and longer-term clean-up costs. Measuring these ‘intangible’ costs is notoriously difficult, but the evidence collected together for the GWMO suggests that the economic costs to society of inaction are 5-10 times greater than the financial costs of proper waste management.
Without concerted international action, the crisis is likely to get worse rather than better. Cities in lower income countries, particularly those in Africa, will double their municipal solid waste generation within 15-20 years, as a result of growing populations, continued migration from rural to urban areas and the inexorable rise in waste per capita as economies develop. So, even if action is taken now to bring the currently generated wastes under control, there is the risk of simply ‘running to stand still’ as the quantities mushroom.
Addressing the waste crisis is embedded within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but the relevant goals are dispersed over 11 of the 17 higher-level SDGs. The GWMO thus collated the waste elements of the SDGs into five Global Waste Management Goals, and also put together a 10-point Global Call for Action to achieve them.
Call for Action
The first point in the Call for Action is for the international community to mobilise international aid, and environmental and climate funds, to assist the poorest countries to provide basic waste services to all in urban areas. Specifically, to increase the level of funding on waste management by a factor of 10, from the 0.3% achieved over the last decade to an average of 3% of total international aid funding in the period from 2015 to 2030.
But simply calling on the international community and national governments to address this crisis is not enough on its own. Local communities can do a lot to help themselves and both waste professionals and concerned citizens in the Global North can help them achieve that. This is where WasteAid UK comes in, set up by professionals to mobilise the UK waste and resource industry both to campaign and to address directly the global waste crisis.
The particular niche where WasteAid UK has chosen to start its work is supporting unserved communities in Africa in establishing a sustainable solid waste collection and management system.
Cities often want to extend services to unserved neighbourhoods, but lack the finance. People want their wastes collected, and are generally prepared to pay a small fee to keep their communities clean and improve the health of their children, provided that they have a source of income.
What can ‘square the circle’ is to utilise more of the waste, for example to produce charcoal briquettes from organic wastes or pavers from plastic wastes as in The Gambia. This reduces the amount of waste requiring disposal and thus the disposal costs. But more importantly it improves the livelihoods of the local community, providing both new ‘green’ jobs and also a small income to everyone who separates their waste for recycling.
So extending waste services is no longer ‘just’ an environmental and public health issue, it also becomes a driver for sustainable development.