21 September, 2018

David Lerpiniere, Head of Waste, Resources and Development at Resource Futures reflects on this new report and its potential impact in the global waste sector.

In a sector where it is often said that there is ‘bad data and worse data’, the release of the World Bank’s data digest on global waste management – What A Waste 2.0:  A Global Snapshot on Solid Waste Management to 2050 – is a much-needed resource to help us understand what is happening around the world.

It suggests that things are improving: for instance, the coverage of the waste collection services in low income countries has increased from 22 percent, as reported in 2012, to 39 percent now. But it also highlights that a huge effort is still needed to tackle rapidly rising quantities of waste and the serious impacts it causes – unsanitary conditions that are dangerous to health, the escape of plastics into the oceans, air pollution from open burning of waste, and the loss of valuable resources.

Here are my initial take-aways from What a Waste 2.0:

  1. The amount of waste generated across the globe is still rising rapidly. Overall, the estimated global average for 2016 is 0.74 kilogram of waste per capita per day. Total generation of solid waste is about 2.01 billion tonnes and is expected to increase to over 3 billion by 2050. Quantities of waste generated in Sub-Saharan Africa are expected to triple by 2050 and the amount of waste generated in South Asia and the Middle East and North is expected to double over the same time period.
  2. Waste collection coverage is improving but there are still many communities across the world without access to waste collection services. Even in the cities of low-income countries, less than 50% of the population have access to waste collection services. In rural areas the levels are much lower at 26%. And in lower-middle and upper middle-income countries, collection coverage is also far from universal (51% and 82% respectively).
  3. Dumping and burning are still the dominant means of disposal for a large proportion of the world’s population, with data suggesting that at least 33% of the global population, and probably far more, still rely on these options. In low-income countries the proportion relying on uncontrolled disposal is estimated at a staggering 93%. At the other end of the income scale, we have seen a big increase in large-scale incineration, particularly driven by China’s large shift towards this route for waste disposal.
  4. The proportion of plastics and paper in the waste stream is steadily increasing as income levels rise. This has important implications for the escape of waste plastics into the oceans and air emissions from burning plastics, particularly in low and lower-middle income contexts where these are still the dominant forms of disposal.
  5. Organic waste is the largest fraction of the waste stream. Actions to address organic waste will be critical in tackling the negative impacts of poor organic waste management, particularly unsanitary conditions, greenhouse gas emissions from uncontrolled disposal and in the wider impacts of food waste and loss. With such a big focus on plastics issues at present, it’s important that we don’t miss the opportunity to tackle this issue. Afterall, better organic waste management through separation at source also maximises the value of waste plastics by reducing contamination.
  6. Data is playing an increasing role in waste and resources management, in both low and high-income contexts. Twenty nine countries and 49 cities reported that they have a formal information system for waste (I suspect that actual numbers are even higher). In upper-middle and high-income contexts, this typically comprises data management systems for monitoring and regulating the waste management system. There are also numerous examples in low and lower middle-income contexts of data being used to facilitate better resource management, particularly by the informal recycling sector (e.g. the I Got Garbage app).

We have to mindful that these types of headline figures can obscure the challenges and successes that exist at a local level. Even within a single city, the nature of waste management can vary enormously (for example, between a wealthy business district and an urban slum area). I know from my work in different parts of the world that there are lots of great, local initiatives tackling the impacts of poor waste management, improving communities and creating livelihoods.

Overall, the release of What a Waste 2.0 represents a big step forward in the availability of global waste data. And it’s great to see it in the public domain. I have high hopes that it will provide a key building block in the drive to steadily improve data on waste and resource management. Information that will be increasingly important if we are manage resources sustainably as part of a circular economy.

Photo credit: David Lerpiniere, 2016

For more details you can find the ‘What a Waste 2.0’ report, along with the World bank press release, Global Waste to Grow by 70 Percent by 2050 Unless Urgent Action is Taken, on the World Bank website.