“The Wonders Of Waste”

An enduring challenge of global waste management is that of perception, says WasteAid UK’s Zoe Lenkiewicz as she discusses the success of the WasteAid photo competition on the theme “The Wonders of Waste”…

An enduring challenge of global waste management is that of perception. It is not uncommon for people to report to us that, while they would like to start up a waste management initiative in their local town, they struggle to garner support from their friends and neighbours because to work with waste is the “lowest of the low”.

My own personal experience of working in waste over the last 13 years is testament to this. At the turn of the millenium, if I said I worked in waste management people would say “eugh”. By 2010 people viewed it in a more positive light because recycling had become mainstream. However this change is yet to reach many  less affluent parts of the world where the concept of sustainable waste management is novel.

While just scratching the surface, the WasteAid photo competition on the theme “The Wonders of Waste” was a success insofar as it attracted entries full of pride in waste reprocessing. Many of the entrants were from lower-income countries, and were excited to have the opportunity to contribute to improving people’s perceptions of waste and of those who work with it.

The demand for waste management and global development expertise is growing. Entrepreneurs, community groups and municipalities around the world are becomingincreasingly aware of their own need for no-cost and low-cost waste management skills and technologies. While we have some ideas, we still don’t have all the answers.

People in lower-income countries are often surprised to hear that, even in the wealthiest countries in the world, we cannot recycle a large proportion of our household waste. Metallised plastic, multimaterial laminates and polystyrene are the obvious offenders. What advice can we give about managing materials that we ourselves can only burn or bury?

Whilst energy from waste often seems immediately attractive to countries struggling to cope with waste and lacking electricy generatin capacity. Whilst there is a clear place for it in those countries with strong environmental regulation, adequate investment and revenue and waste with a suffucient calorific value, these requirements are often not met in lower income countries.

A pro-poor approach to sustainable waste management will follow the waste hierarchy and seek to recover the maximum value from all waste materials. The reuse and recycling value will almost always be higher than the energy value of a waste stream (unless the waste material is consistently highly calorific, in a place with an urgent need for a regular energy supply). Likewise high-tech sorting facilities remain unsuitable for places where people are time-rich but cash-poor.

People can sort waste materials, and in turn be paid a wage. Conversely a mechanical sorting process will require energy, which will invariably be in diesel form, and so any value in the materials will be used to pay for the fuel. Isn’t it ironic to buy oil to deal with plastic waste?

Looking again at the nexus of poverty and pollution, it is the poorest who suffer the most. It is the poorest who are least likely to be served by waste collection system, and so either dump or burn their waste. Dumped waste ends up polluting soils, blocking drainage ditches and leaking into the oceans.  Plastic blocking drains is most prevalent in poor communities: the kinds of places that don’t have sewerage systems. It is no surprise then, that in rainy season we see a sharp spike in water-borne diseases, including cholera, dysentry and diarrhoea.

Poverty, waste and pollution are intrinsically linked. There are twice as many people in the world without a decent waste management system as there are with. That’s what makes the current spotlight on extended producer responsibility so relevant.

“We need to be careful not to allow solid waste pollution to be strategically PR’d in the way that climate change has. The biggest climate change polluters have succeeded in making us think climate change is down to individual choices. It isn’t”

Poor people do not know how to manage the waste that ends up blighting their communities and shortening their lives. Most people in the UK are only just realising that crisp packets aren’t recyclable. Most people around the world have no clue. What’s more, they lack the affluence that allows for decent education and the societal improvements that come from an educated and empowered population.

Managing non-biodegradable, and especially non-recyclable waste, needs to be a global public health priority. We need to recognise the huge cost to society of our current inaction. The health of current and future generations depends on our actions today.

It’s not a challenge that can be solved overnight, or by any one organisation or programme. It will take a many-pronged approach to solve the global waste crisis, and it’s reassuring that there are so many people in the UK and around the world wanting to do their bit to make real progress.

We need to be careful not to allow solid waste pollution to be strategically PR’d in the way that climate change has. The biggest climate change polluters have succeeded in making us think climate change is down to individual choices. It isn’t. It’s down to global institutional practices and powerful vested interests. Let’s make sure we keep solid waste the responsibility of those who are profiting from it. Producer responsibility has never been so important.

In the meantime WasteAid continues to partner with communities to help them manage, as best they can, the complex materials entering their environments. By adopting a pro-poor approach, maximising the recovery of value, creating jobs and supporting the disempowered, entrepreneurs, community groups and municipalities can make significant progress towards sustainable waste management that protects the health of families across the globe.

Individuals, businesses and organisations in the UK are very welcome to support the work of WasteAid. There is far more demand for our support than we can possibly ever meet, and so it’s aposite to end on the cliche that every little helps.


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