A Life Without Structured Waste Management

Ed Cook, senior consultant at Resource Futures, ponders what it would be like to live without waste collection, as he looks back over his time at a WasteAid UK & CIWM event in The Gambia.

What’s it like to live without waste collection? If our services were taken away tomorrow, how long would it take for it to become a major health problem in our community? These are questions that two-billion people don’t ask because they’ve never had access to the highly organised systems we enjoy in the UK.

Last week I travelled to a conference in The Gambia organised by WasteAid UK and the Arkleton Trust as part of some work that Resource Futures carried out for WasteAid UK and the CIWM; carrying out research into local solutions to this mounting problem.

Walking to the shops last night in my home town of Bristol, I started thinking about what might happen in my own community if our waste collections were to stop.

The trip enabled me to observe the waste management issues first-hand. Compared to my experience of waste management in the UK, The Gambia has virtually no structured municipal waste management at all. Waste is often burned or stored in the family garden, dumped or burned on the street, informally deposited in open dumpsites or simply tossed over the back fence.

The consequences are far reaching. Poor health and environmental degradation hamper development and drain resources from the country’s economy, reducing further the ability to make proper arrangements. It’s a downward spiral experienced by a quarter of all people, that the global community has so far failed to mitigate.

The focus of the CIWM/WasteAid 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.

A key focus 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 think about waste in less technologically and structurally-complex context and to start plugging the gaps in our global waste management infrastructure by working from the bottom up.

The remains of a cow… with plastic in its decomposing belly

The WasteAid conference provided an opportunity for delegates from around the world to share ideas and innovations aimed at developing resilience against the threats posed by improper waste management and came up with some innovative solutions for doing so.

If you’ve got this far, you might still be wondering what the picture in the middle of the article is all about. The more observant reader may have correctly identified it as being the remains of a cow.  If you look closely, you’ll notice that it’s decomposing belly is filled with plastic film.

Walking to the shops last night in my home town of Bristol, I started thinking about what might happen in my own community if our waste collections were to stop. I began to eye up local pocket parks as potential storage areas; imagining the local brook full of plastic bottles and cardboard boxes.

How would we cope with the increasing volumes of waste? Fires would cause smog to return to our city as it was prior to the Clean Air Act. Rodents would flourish with increasingly large families and plenty of food to eat. We’d experience floods in the winter caused by the clogging of the sewerage system and in the summer, the whiff of decomposing food would fill the air.

I asked a local Gambian whether he’d be happy to eat a cow that had lived on an open dump-site – his response was “yes because I wouldn’t know …”

In its first year, WasteAid UK helped develop 34 community recycling facilities across nine countries, and had a positive impact on the lives of 124,000 people. To find out more visit wasteaid.org.uk


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