How can we help communities manage their own waste better? Mike Webster, chair of WasteAid UK and an RWM ambassador, poses the question and sets out the approaches that can help, as the charity embarks on its second year of operation…
As we enter our second year, and working busily in Ghana, Kenya and Gambia/Senegal, WasteAid UK is constantly developing our thinking around how we give more help to the 2 billion people who don’t enjoy formal waste collection. Let’s just think what that means – in its essence, this means that no-one takes the rubbish away and there is nowhere safe for it to be put. This is a public health and environmental crisis – take a look at our blog to find out more.
So whilst we campaign and raise awareness of the problems that this causes, and to encourage more governments and municipalities to improve their waste collections, we are trying to take practical that will help communities clean up their act in the short to medium terms.
We have learnt that there is no one-size-fits-all approach, but we are establishing an ‘armoury’ of approaches that we think together can provide a total solution:
- Understand and tap in to local markets for recyclables: Wherever we work there are always vibrant markets for secondary materials – metals, a variety of plastics, sometimes food waste for animal feed – providing an immediate value chain (i.e. source of income) for those willing to collect and bulk materials. But we are always equally surprised to find significant levels of readily recyclable materials within dumped waste. There is a job to do to link waste creator and the secondary markets. Of course, by the time recyclable material has found its way into the residual waste stream the value is often lost or much reduced and presents a challenge for waste pickers to recover safely. Introducing simple source segregation offers a route to retaining that value and providing income for the individual or community that is overseeing its collection. Furthermore, where local salaries are much lower as compared to the value of recyclables, the opportunities to generate significant incomes are much higher.
- For those materials that there are not a ready market for, investigate the potential of waste livelihoods: Waste livelihoods are small to medium scale waste reprocessing industries – for instance briquetting organic waste for biofuels or creating building materials from waste plastic. They have an important role to play when considering materials where there are no ready markets, or where the economics of getting the materials to market are not favourable. Organic waste is often suitable for this treatment given that it is typically a major part of the waste stream in low income countries, is expensive to transport given its density and generates relatively low-income products. Conversion to bio-fuels (for instance, charcoal) has a major potential given demand for cooking fuels. Plastics can also be suitable – HDPE for building materials, LDPE for floor tiles, and interventions where such materials can be prepared for onward reprocessing (e.g. investment on flaking and washing for PET) can also add value.
- Don’t ignore disposal: Whilst we reckon up to 90 percent of materials can be either source segregated or dealt with via waste livelihoods, there will of course always be a fraction for disposal. Whilst small scale incineration has been developed, we typically find that even the capital and maintenance costs of such systems are out of reach for many of the communities in which we work. Therefore a carefully sited small scale landfill site, constructed using basic principles, fenced off, and maintained and attended, and strictly only for residual waste, is a much preferable solution to the open dumping in water courses and communal areas that we typically witness. Furthermore, the salary costs of attendants any maintenance costs can be addressed via income from approaches 1 and 2.
Finally, we have to work with a strong, committed local partner, often one who has not been working in solid waste before, for instance local youth or women’s groups, but have a long term commitment to the improvement of a community and the wellbeing of its people. In this way, we can get much improved waste services delivered now, in a realistic way, and if possible also create some income.
Solid waste management in low income countries is grossly underfunded, with only 0.2 percent of international aid going on this key area. Fortunately for us, the RWM Ambassador’s Fund had the vision to provide us the seed funding that allowed WasteAid UK to establish itself. Quite simply, without them we would not be here and to start addressing the global waste emergency and for that we are eternally grateful.