Developing Case

CIWM’s chief executive, Dr Colin Church, sets out the moral and environmental case for increasing the proportion of UK aid spent on waste management in developing countries, and asks… why should we care how poorer countries manage their waste?

Dumpsite in Maputo, Mozambique

Much has been said about the UK’s commitment to meet the UN target of spending 0.7% of gross national income on official development assistance (ODA) – getting on for £14bn a year. Without stepping into some of those controversies, I want to highlight why there is a moral and environmental case for some of that aid money supporting better waste management in poorer countries.

First, some background. A growing population, increasing urbanisation, and a shift to a consumer lifestyle are leading to the generation of ever great volumes of municipal solid waste around the world, with estimates suggesting it will double in the next 15-20 years from its current level of 2bn tonnes a year.

At the same time, 2bn people have no waste collection service at all, and the waste of a further 3bn, whilst collected, is not controlled and can end up in dumps or burned in the open. 40% of the world’s waste is disposed of at uncontrolled dumpsites.

The Moral Case

Those who suffer from a lack of collection coverage are predominantly the poorest, with national collection rates as low as 25% in Africa and 50% in parts of Asia, with poorer areas of countries (such as slums) having even lower rates. In fact, the poor suffer a double whammy – not only are they more likely to not have proper waste management, but also, they are much more likely to live next to those uncontrolled dump and open burning sites; the 50 biggest dumpsites in the world have around 64m (mostly poor) people living next to them.

Poor waste management is linked to a range of health impacts, including by creating breeding grounds for diseases. These impacts include:

  • childhood diseases, eg diarrhoea
  • infectious diseases, eg cholera
  • eye & skin infections
  • acute respiratory health problems
  • children’s growth stunted

Approximately 9m people die of diseases linked to mismanagement of waste and pollutants, twenty times more than die from malaria. 92% of these deaths occur in low and middle-income countries, with children facing the highest risks.

There are numerous health impacts on children of unmanaged waste

Finally, some of the waste being mismanaged in these countries comes from the UK and other wealthy countries, whether exported ostensibly legally or not. Examples include open burning of waste electrical and electronic equipment to remove the plastic and recover the metal and extra sorting of secondary raw materials to remove contamination before reprocessing.

The Environmental Case

There are local and global environmental impacts from poor waste management. The local ones are things like groundwater contamination, poisoning of local wildlife and livestock, air pollution from burning and decay and so on. These tend to be linked to health impacts. The key global environmental impacts – ones with an impact on us here in the UK and Ireland – are climate change and the cause célèbre du jour, marine plastics.

Climate Change

The waste management sector has historically been considered a relatively minor contributor to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at around 3% n 2010. However, if the growing volume of waste in emerging economies is not properly controlled, dumpsites could account for 8-10% of global GHG emissions by 2025.

Another factor is the role of black carbon (soot), produced by open burning of waste. It is second only to carbon dioxide in contribution to global warming, and because of its short lifetimes, reducing emissions could result in near-term climate benefits. Black carbon makes up a substantial part of the contribution from many developing countries in Asia and Africa.

Philippines – burning waste in an open dump site in General Santos. Picture credit: Global Environment Facility

The third element is the role that a more circular economy can play in reducing GHG emissions in other parts of the economy. As a simple example, recycling a tonne of aluminium cans saves 95% of the energy required to produce them from bauxite (aluminium ore).

Overall, the potential impact of improved resource and waste management on reducing GHG emissions across a broad range of economic sectors could be 15-20%.

Marine Plastics

There is increasing international concern associated with the health impact of microplastics and the conservation impact of macroplastics in the marine environment. The amount of plastics entering the oceans is estimated to be at least an order of magnitude greater than the visible quantities in the oceans or on beaches. Without action, the oceans will contain 1 tonne of plastic for every 3 tonnes of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish by weight.

If we want to tackle marine plastics, we have to address waste management in poorer countries

More than 90% of marine plastic comes from land-based sources. Some 4-12m tonnes per annum comes from mismanaged solid wastes generated within 50 km of the coast, of which more than 50% comes from just five east Asia countries. Another 0.4-4m tonnes come via rivers, with more than 90% of that from 10 major rivers in Asia and Africa. 38 of the world’s 50 largest uncontrolled dumpsites are in coastal areas, many of them spilling waste directly into the sea.

There are many land-based sources including litter from all countries and so on. Definitive data is scarce, but mismanaged municipal solid wastes in developing countries probably accounts for 50-70% of plastics entering the oceans.

So, if we want to tackle marine plastics, we have to address waste management in poorer countries. Doing so could halve the quantity of plastics entering the oceans.

So What?

The moral and environmental cases for action are overwhelming. As part of its international remit, CIWM has therefore joined forces with others to call on the UK government to:

  • commit to increasing the proportion of its aid spent on waste management to at least 3% from its current estimated level of 0.3%
  • champion the need for increases in aid to waste management at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting and at the G7 this year
  • spearhead negotiation of a binding international treaty to tackle marine plastic pollution, which should have at its core prevention through proper solid waste management, as well as efforts to clean up existing pollution.

If you want to know more about this issue, you can read the CIWM/WasteAid UK briefing paper published recently.


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  1. Excellent article Colin. The ideas here need to be shouted loud and clear across Europe because if we want real solutions to the environmental problems we in the developed countries are creating across the globe we need combined European action. If we can get 3% of all foreign aid allocated to waste management in developing countries as part of a combined EU wide programme we would have a much greater impact on these global problems.

    We also need to start showing leadership in creating markets for secondary raw materials. The real reason these materials are dumped is that they have insufficient value in the market place and cannot compete against the price of primary plastics. Better waste management is an essential start in solving the problem, as deposit return systems are for single use bottles, but without creating an economic market for their re-use the best we can expect is to see collected plastics converted into energy or heat.

    So lets build up the pressure for the UK to zero waste VAT on secondary raw materials and tilt taxation away from taxes on labour to taxes on primary raw materials.

  2. Just got back from India with the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce Circular Economy mission.
    While the flagship landfills are top-shape (Surat), no thought is yet given to community-size facilities. While our containerised LandGenerators solve the waste problem on the small scale, the additional benefits are – no or little waste transportation and practically no-cost electric power.
    A lot of inquiries were also made about solar cooling for both residents and food preservation.

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