Among the sustainability challenges, waste management is probably the most visible and therefore the easiest recognized component. However, having all the technology and knowledge needed to address the pertinent issues, we are still far from acting accordingly and a satisfactory level of achieving responsible conduct in the business and private environments. How is this possible?

In our highly urbanised, and particularly in parts of Asia and Africa overcrowded planet, we simply cannot afford gradual and slow adjustments, we need to recognize the urgency of the situation and align our life styles and business models to the requirements for keeping our planet less polluted, healthier and safer.

How serious has it become? According to the IPCC report on the Physical Science Basis (covering the period 2000-2010), the atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have increased by 40% and of CH4 by 150% since pre-industrial times. These amounts have further increased since then.

Largely as a consequence of environmental degradation and pollution, only since 1970, the vertebrate population has fallen by 40% for land-based species, 84% for freshwater species, and 35% for marine species.

Scientists insist that much of the damage inflicted on our planet (demonstrated particularly by global warming, and reduced biodiversity) is already irreparable. How many more serious reminders do we need to start using common sense and behave more responsibly – not just towards ourselves, but also towards our next generations?

Waste is not only the most visible of the manifestations of insufficient sustainability, it is actually also the easiest to address. There are already many voices being raised around the globe, but they will be registered better if connected and mutually reinforced. This is exactly what our initiative with the Sustainability Network of Networks is all about.

Evolution of waste management

Humanity has been faced with the waste issue from its early days. Studies suggest that 6,500 years BC an average person has produced about 3 kg of waste daily. Before urbanisation this was not a problem. In ancient Athens, 500 years BC municipal dumps were already practiced, and they were allowed at least a mile from city limits. In England, in 1388 the Parliament has prohibited waste dispersal in public waterways and ditches, and in 1885 the first incineration was introduced in New York. And in 1965 the USA was the first to introduce a solid waste management law.

Quite logically, the waste management issue is closely linked to urbanisation, plus the density of the population generally.

Waste management has become a major issue of modern civilization – particularly in view of the following factors:

  • the industrial society implies massive transformation, processing and consumption of resources, which creates more massive waste than ever before in history;
  • though better than in the past, as consumers we still pay inadequate attention to how to go about waste, and yet we increasingly want to live in a clean and healthy environment;
  • governments are trying to regulate various aspects of waste management appropriately, but are still far from influencing business and consumers in a satisfactory manner, neither as much as they could;
  • explosion of population in the developing world is creating additional pressure on waste management, which is difficult to address due to lack of necessary funds.

Gradually, the understanding that waste management is an important aspect of sustainable life and economy is evolving into an indispensable aspect of the development strategy at any level, from a single company to the international community. It actually goes beyond disposal or recycling and is gradually becoming an aspect of the whole economic process, from product/service development to selection of our life style and in particular consumption patterns - producing waste.

Modern understanding of waste management

Waste management includes today the activities which are required to manage waste from its inception to its final disposal: collection, transport, treatment and disposal of waste through recycling – constituting an important element of a sustainable economy. This also includes monitoring and regulation of the waste management process. Let us point out that according to standard ISO14001, the goal of which is to improve the environmental footprint, companies eliminate their waste through recovery practices such as recycling materials (glass or paper, for example). Many inorganic waste streams can be used to produce materials for construction. Concrete and bricks can be recycled as artificial gravel.

Waste management deals with all kinds of waste: solid, liquid, or gaseous; industrial, biological and household. Since waste can be a serious direct or indirect (through consumption of water or food) threat to human health and the environment, waste management does reduce all these negative effects.

Let us point out that waste management is a big challenge for many countries. Even more, successful waste management is expensive – it usually takes between 20% and 50% of the municipal budget. It requires huge integrated sustainable and socially supported systems.

There are many approaches and different methods of handling waste – the main goal of all these methods being to minimize the adverse effect and reduction of harmful substances in our environment.

  • Landfill is a site for the disposal of waste materials by burial. Historically, landfills have been the most common method of organized waste disposal and remain so in many places around the world.
  • Incineration is a disposal method in which solid organic wastes are subjected to combustion so as to convert them into residue and gaseous products. This method is useful for the disposal of both municipal solid waste and solid residue from wastewater treatment. Incineration is carried out both on a small scale by individuals and on a large scale by industry. It is used to dispose of solid, liquid and gaseous waste. Incineration is common in countries such as Japan, where land is more scarce, as the facilities generally do not require as much area as landfills. Waste-to-energy (WtE) or energy-from-waste (EfW) are broad terms for facilities that burn waste in a furnace or boiler to generate heat, steam, or electricity.
  • Recycling is a [resource recovery] practice that refers to the collection and reuse of waste materials such as empty beverage containers. There are numerous benefits of recycling, and with so many new technologies making even more materials recyclable, it is possible to clean up the Earth. Recycling not only benefits the environment but also positively effects the economy. The most common consumer products recycled include aluminium, such as beverage cans, copper such as wire, steel from food and aerosol cans, old steel furnishings or equipment, rubber tyres, polyethylene and PET bottles, glass bottles and jars, paperboard cartons, newspapers, magazines and light paper, and corrugated fiberboard boxes. PVC, LDPE, PP, and PS (see resin identification code) are also recyclable. These items are usually composed of a single type of material, making them relatively easy to recycle into new products. The recycling of complex products (such as computers and electronic equipment) is more difficult, due to the additional dismantling and separation required. The type of material accepted for recycling varies by city and country. Each city and country has different recycling programs in place that can handle various types of recyclable materials. In July 2017, the Chinese government announced an import ban of 24 categories of recyclables and solid waste, including plastic, textiles and mixed paper, creating an unexpected challenge for several advanced Western countries, who got used to export massively these wastes directly or indirectly to China.
  • Biological reprocessing: Recoverable materials that are organic in nature, such as plant material, food scraps, and paper products, can be recovered through composting and digestion processes to decompose the organic matter. The resulting organic material is then recycled as mulch or compost for agricultural or landscaping purposes. In addition, waste gas from the process can be captured and used for generating electricity and heat (CHP/cogeneration) - maximising the efficiency of these processes.
  • Energy recovery from waste is the conversion of non-recyclable waste materials into usable heat, electricity, or fuel through a variety of processes, including combustion, gasification, pyrolyzation, anaerobic digestion, and landfill gas recovery. Using energy recovery to convert non-recyclable waste materials into electricity and heat, generates a renewable energy source and can reduce carbon emissions by offsetting the need for energy from fossil sources as well as reduce methane generation from landfills. Globally, waste-to-energy accounts for 16% of waste management.
  • Pyrolysis is often used to convert many types of domestic and industrial residues into a recovered fuel. Different types of waste input (such as plant waste, food waste, tires) placed in the pyrolysis process potentially yield an alternative to fossil fuels.
  • Resource recovery is the systematic diversion of waste, which was intended for disposal, for a specific next use. It is the processing of recyclables to extract or recover materials and resources or convert them to energy. Resource recovery uses LCA (life cycle analysis) attempts to offer alternatives to waste management. As an example of how resource recycling can be beneficial, many items thrown away contain metals that can be recycled to create a profit, such as the components in circuit boards. Wood chippings in pallets and other packaging materials can be recycled into useful products for horticulture. The recycled chips can cover paths, walkways, or arena surfaces.

Application of rational and consistent waste management practices can yield a range of important benefits, including:

  • Economic: Improving economic efficiency through the means of resource use, treatment and disposal, and creating markets for recycles can lead to efficient practices in the production and consumption of products and materials resulting in valuable materials being recovered for reuse and the potential for new jobs and new business opportunities.
  • Social: By reducing adverse impacts on health by proper waste management practises, the resulting consequences are more appealing to civic communities. Better social advantages can lead to new sources of employment and potentially lifting communities out of poverty, especially in some of the poorer developing countries and cities.
  • Environmental: Reducing or eliminating adverse impacts on the environment through reducing, reusing and recycling, and minimizing resource extraction can result in improved air and water quality and help in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Inter-generational equity: Following effective waste management practises can provide subsequent generations a more robust economy, a fairer and more inclusive society and a cleaner environment.

Financial models

The World Bank finances and advises on solid waste management projects using a diverse suite of products and services, including traditional loans, results-based financing, development policy financing, and technical advisory. World Bank-financed waste management projects usually address the entire lifecycle of waste right from the point of generation to collection and transportation, and finally treatment and disposal. A large portion of waste management practices deals with municipal solid waste (MSW) which is the bulk of the waste created by household, industrial, and commercial activity.

In most developed countries, domestic waste disposal is funded from a national or local tax, which may be related to income, or property values. Commercial and industrial waste disposal is typically charged for as a commercial service, often as an integrated charge which includes disposal costs. This practice may encourage disposal contractors to opt for the cheapest disposal option such as landfill rather than the environmentally best solution such as re-use and recycling.

Financing solid waste management projects can be overwhelming for the city government, especially if the government sees it as an important service they should render to the citizen. Donors and grants are a funding mechanism that is dependent on the interest of the donor organization. Therefore, it may be a challenge for a city government to dictate how the funds should be distributed among the various aspect of waste management.

In some areas like Taipei, the city government charges its households and industries for the volume of rubbish they produce. Waste is collected by the city council only if it is put in government issued rubbish bags. This policy has successfully reduced the amount of waste the city produces and increased the recycling rate.

Waste management systems in various countries

Indeed, waste management is not uniform among countries. Here are big differences between developed and developing nations; urban and rural areas; residential and industrial parts. But the goal stays the same: to build a sustainable society, environment and business.

While waste transport within a given country falls under national regulations, trans-boundary movement of waste is often subject to international treaties. A major concern to many countries in the world has been hazardous waste. The Basel Convention, ratified by 172 countries, deprecates the movement of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries. The provisions of the Basel convention have been integrated into the EU waste shipment regulation.

Curbside collection is the most common method of disposal in most European countries, Canada, New Zealand, the United States, and many other parts of the developed world in which waste is collected at regular intervals by specialised trucks. This is often associated with curb-side waste segregation. In rural areas, waste may need to be taken to a transfer station. Waste collected is then transported to an appropriate disposal facility. In some areas, vacuum collection is used in which waste is transported from the home or commercial premises by vacuum along small bore tubes. Such systems are in use in Europe and North America. In some jurisdictions, unsegregated waste is collected at the curb-side or from waste transfer stations and then sorted into recyclables and unusable waste. Such systems are capable of sorting large volumes of solid waste, salvaging recyclables, and turning the rest into biogas and soil conditioner. In San Francisco, the local government established its Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance in support of its goal of "Zero waste by 2020", requiring everyone in the city to keep recyclables and compostables out of the landfill. The city's Department of the Environment's Zero Waste Program has led the city to achieve 80% diversion, the highest diversion rate in North America.

Areas with developing economies often experience exhausted waste collection services and inadequately managed and uncontrolled dumpsites. Waste management in these countries and cities is an ongoing challenge due to weak institutions, chronic under-resourcing and rapid urbanization. All of these challenges, along with the lack of understanding of different factors that contribute to the hierarchy of waste management, affect the treatment of waste. In these countries, waste management activities are usually carried by the poor, for their survival. It has been estimated that 2% of the population in Asia, Latin America and Africa are dependent on waste for their livelihood. The family-organized, or individual manual scavengers are often involved with waste management practices with a very little supportive network and facilities with increased risk of health effects. Additionally, this practice prevents their children from further education.

Traditionally, the waste management industry has been a late adopter of new technologies such as RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags, GPS and integrated software packages which enable better quality data to be collected without the use of estimation or manual data entry. This technology has been used widely by many organizations in some industrialized countries. Radiofrequency identification is a tagging system for the automatic identification of recyclable components of the municipal solid waste stream.

The European Union's approach to waste management is based on the waste hierarchy which sets the following priority order when shaping waste policy and managing waste at the operational level: prevention, (preparing for) reuse, recycling, recovery and, as the least preferred option, disposal (which includes landfilling and incineration without energy recovery).

In line with this, the 7th Environment Action Programme sets the following priority objectives for waste policy in the EU:

  • to reduce the amount of waste generated;
  • to maximise recycling and re-use;
  • to limit incineration to non-recyclable materials;
  • to phase out landfilling to non-recyclable and non-recoverable waste;
  • to ensure full implementation of the waste policy targets in all Member States.

Solid waste policy in the United States is aimed at developing and implementing proper mechanisms to effectively manage solid waste. For the solid waste policy to be effective, inputs should come from stakeholders, including citizens, businesses, community-based organizations, non-governmental organizations, government agencies, universities, and other research organizations. These inputs form the basis of policy frameworks that influence solid waste management decisions. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates household, industrial, manufacturing, and commercial solid and hazardous wastes under 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Effective solid waste management is a cooperative effort involving federal, state, regional, and local entities. Thus, the RCRA's Solid Waste program section D encourages the environmental departments of each state to develop comprehensive plans to manage non-hazardous industrial and municipal solid waste.

In most Asian countries, solid waste management is one of the major responsibilities of local governments. They are mandated to collect municipal solid waste, treat it at composting plants or energy plants, and to dispose of it in landfills. However, most waste is not collected or is improperly disposed of on open dumpsites. Developing Asian countries, such as China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand, are regarded as a major source of marine plastic debris. To treat and dispose of municipal solid waste properly, local government should invest in good facilities, such as sanitary landfill, or contract with private companies investing in appropriate technology. Such technologies usually have the characteristics of the economy of scale. The unit cost of investment in waste treatment and disposal technology is getting cheaper as the capacity of facilities becomes bigger. The necessity of such investment may stimulate regional solid waste management, through inter-municipal cooperation and/or privatization of waste treatment and disposal services. Authorities, particularly at the regional level should effectively encourage the pulling of resources to get the needed infrastructure developed – including through public-private partnerships.

Closing thoughts

The inherited economic models and practiced life styles have treated waste as an unavoidable by-product of production and consumption, to be disposed of as quickly and as inexpensively as possible – but it should be added: it was to be the least expensive for the generator of waste – not necessarily for the respective society. For far too long societies and governments have tolerated such an attitude, and now we have arrived at the stage when this is simply neither possible, nor acceptable anymore.

Who can take the credit for the gradually increasing realisation that we need to act much more sustainably and responsibly towards the coming generations. Undoubtedly, it is the NGOs who keep alerting the authorities, as well as the general public, that fundamental change in our attitude towards waste (being an unavoidable component of the total reproduction and consumption system) is absolutely necessary – and without delay! Secondly, there are the international organisations – particularly the entire UN system, including the UNEP – who have developed and adopted a whole range of international conventions and action programmes (including the SDS 2030 Strategy), which are addressing the issues energetically and specifically with the intention to produce results. It is now up to the organised civil society, enjoying support from the scientists, who claim that too much time has already been wasted, to push the issue consistently. They have to insist that only a holistic approach, defined targets at the global level, and relentless efforts by all actors of civil society may be productive enough in exerting the pressure upon governments and parliaments. These have to urgently adopt effective measures in favour of proper waste management practices, as well as to monitor the implementation of the measures at the national, regional and local levels.

Improvement can be expected only if the entire regulatory system will encourage companies and individuals to behave sustainably. At the same time, everybody should understand and appreciate the tangible benefits to be enjoyed from a cleaner, healthier and safer environment. And for this to be achieved, everybody should be motivated to contribute consistently and according to their capacity.

Lack of funding is often, but not necessarily a major obstacle in building the needed infrastructure. As we have seen the waste management projects’ funding conditions could be favorably adjusted since they directly serve the public interest. Unfortunately, this has been understood only in some countries – where tax-payers money is used only for the interest subsidies to the banks. With relatively modest amounts measured in a couple of %-tage points of the volume of project budgets, these projects immediately become more attractive to the banks, plus usually, these projects are less risky than usual commercial projects. If necessary even a bank guarantee could be issued by local/regional authority in order to secure a favourable loan from a commercial bank. This all costs taxpayers much less than financing projects from the budget.

(Prepared by the KEN Secretariat: prof. dr. Ajda Fošner and prof. dr. Boris Cizelj).


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