Like me, those of you in the waste business will probably find the interpretation of the Waste Hierarchy below, thought-provoking. For low- and middle-income countries, landfill has a comparatively modest status when compared to incineration without sophisticated gas cleaning and controlled dumping. What’s missing from the diagram, is the uncontrolled dumping which, according to the Global Waste Management Outlook, is contributed to by around three billion people.
Two billion citizens worldwide do not have access to a waste collection service either. Those people often live in the poorest countries where growing urban populations and greater consumption puts an even bigger strain on the problems associated with lack of waste infrastructure. This paucity of adequate service provision causes public health problems, damage to the environment and hampers productivity.
The knowledge, experience and technology to improve waste management exists, but lack of funding and political will can hamper the development of infrastructure and organised collection systems. Self-financing, community-led solutions can be quick to implement and are cost effective; reducing the impact of waste whilst generating income. For every £1 spent on improving waste management in lower-income countries, it is estimated that up to £10 of savings are made through health protection, flood prevention and creating sustainable livelihoods.
The founders of WasteAid UK recognised this and set up the charity last year in an attempt to make an impact on the global waste emergency. It does this by partnering with local organisations in low- and middle-income countries to improve the health, environment and livelihoods of people without waste services, and building the skills of local people to deliver practical solutions in their own communities. It also works to raise awareness of the benefits of proper waste management.
The charity has worked in the Gambia, Senegal, Ghana and Kenya, setting up community recycling facilities and positively impacting the lives of over 124,000 people. It has seen how effective small amounts of training and resource input can be, and plans to scale up its impact by sharing best practice as widely as possible.
Back in 2005, I built shelters in Pakistan following the earthquake that killed nearly 80,000 people and destroyed the homes of 3.5 million. We recovered debris from damaged homes and municipal buildings and used the materials to make new ones. Much of the region’s basic infrastructure had been damaged, roads, bridges were collapsed and whole villages had disappeared in landslides.
But even then, as a relatively new waste manager, I was struck by the fact that much of the waste infrastructure that we take for granted in the west hadn’t existed even before the earthquake. When I asked locals where they disposed of waste, shoulders were shrugged, and eyes rolled “off the cliff” or “in the river” came the replies. And sure enough, when presented with the debris from millions of homes, the response was broadly similar. I watched as debris from damaged buildings was piled up in the river, along with hundreds of tonnes of unwanted clothing donated by the well-meaning Europeans. I personally incinerated clinical waste on an open fire through lack of resources to do anything else; the situation was desperate at times.
In 2006 my career brought me back to the UK and I spent the next decade dealing with the waste challenges we face in a high-income country. This winter I was really excited to find myself working on a project with the CIWM and WasteAid UK which combines my experiences of working in developing countries with my career as a waste manager here in the UK.
The focus of the project is on empowering communities to manage their own waste through a sustainable livelihoods approach. The guidance will be centred around quick and simple reprocessing technologies that require little investment and make products for local markets. Case studies and “how-to” kits will be developed to encourage replication and easy adoption.
The output will be a bit like a pick-and-mix bar of tech, ranging from a basic mould for briquetting waste charcoal, through to a community-scale anaerobic digestion plant or small-scale composting operation. Depending on the economic situation, composition of waste and local practices, communities will be able to find something which is appropriate.
We’re already part-way through the project and I’m discovering all sorts of possibilities from aluminium smelting on an open fire, through to maggot farming for chicken or fish feed. A key facet will be the replicability of projects and the ability of recipients to build self-sustaining businesses. Mechanisms and repairs must be simple – no computer screens or sensing equipment. It’s really exciting to find myself thinking about waste in less technologically- and structurally-complex context again and to start plugging the gaps in our global waste management infrastructure by working from the bottom up.
Resource Futures has a 30-year history of working with community-led initiatives and wanted to lend its expertise to WasteAid’s global efforts on a pro-bono basis. This project exemplifies why I work for Resource Futures; it puts social values at its core and is prepared to invest significant resources to support these values. This is not just a CSR exercise, this is business as usual.
Professor David C Wilson MBE, the Senior Vice President of the CIWM, is leading the report and together with Mike Webster from Waste Aid, has been an inspiration to work with. In Spring 2017 WasteAid UK will host a community waste management conference in The Gambia, in partnership with the Arkleton Trust. The event will give WasteAid UK the chance to discuss, explore and ‘field test’ the guidance and technologies with community waste managers.
The final guidance document will be launched at the next CIWM Presidential inauguration in October 2017, after which WasteAid UK will disseminate the report.