June 22nd, 2018
by Tanguy Tomes
Since starting my career as an environmental consultant, I’ve had the chance to work on a variety of projects dealing with waste management around the globe. In Europe, where formal recycling systems are already widespread, the challenges often involve finding new ways to increase capture rates and process difficult materials. To this end, I’ve seen exciting innovations in the systems and technologies used to manage our waste that look likely to transform the industry in coming years.
However, I’ve also been exposed to the problems faced by developing nations, where the challenge is often one of establishing basic waste infrastructure. From within the Western bubble, it can be easy to get carried away with new technologies and imagine that they are the key to a world without (residual) waste; but we must be careful not to overstate the immediate role that they are able to play on a global scale.
Current and future technological innovations do promise fantastic opportunities. For example, widespread digital watermarking on packaging could facilitate a new era of engagement, allowing consumers to trace the path and impacts of products, enabling them to make much better informed choices. In a culture newly sensitive to issues of plastic pollution, the effect of such awareness could be phenomenal.
The same technology working alongside increasingly intelligent and automated MRFs could revolutionise material sorting. Secondary streams would be produced more quickly and cleanly and economically than ever before, strengthening and widening secondary materials markets. Undeniably, such innovation is exciting, and may well prove to be critical to achieving the increasingly ambitious municipal waste recycling targets being set in those nations with advanced waste management industries.
Tech a turn for the worse
In stark contrast, consider the shocking statistics on waste collection rates in the developing world. According to World Bank data, less than two thirds of all waste in South Asia is collected, while in Africa the proportion is well below half. Overall, it’s estimated that two billion people in the world do not have access to solid waste collections. Much of this waste will either be burnt in the open air or dumped, whether on land or in watercourses. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising, therefore, that globally up to 70% of the plastic entering our oceans comes from mismanaged waste in developing countries.
With global waste arisings projected to double over the next two decades it is vital, both from public and environmental health perspectives, that when working in the developing world waste management professionals advocate solutions that are both effective and appropriate.
How effective would it be to push for digital watermarking on plastic bottles in areas without collections? What use would a fully automated robotic sorting facility have for the one billion people around the world who don’t have access to electricity? These are extreme examples, but there are many cases of relatively high-tech facilities installed with the best of intentions but inappropriate to the regional context. Ultimately, such facilities are abandoned by local communities – white elephants, waste infrastructure itself now going to waste.
Back in 2007, the EU tried to invest in improving Guatemalan public health by installing a modern wastewater treatment plant. With neither community ownership nor relevance to existing waste management systems, it was never used. On the other side of the world, in Kathmandu, Nepal, no fewer than three countries have tried to help improve residual waste management. None of them were able to provide a long-term sustainable solution and the waste management option of choice remains, to this day, dumping in the local river.
As waste managers we need to think carefully and within context when reaching out beyond our own borders. But if technological innovation isn’t going to solve global waste crises, what is?
Researchers examining the failings of foreign aid in Kathmandu concluded that the area would benefit from a participatory style of waste management focussed on developing solutions tailored to the community. It was also important to understand who within local networks would take which responsibilities and how solutions would be sustained. The emphasis was on the people involved, with little mention of new technologies.
Similarly, other Isonomia authors have explored the advantages of simple, tailored waste management solutions in central Asia, and have recognised that less technically ambitious projects could create more sustainable solutions at a faster rate.
There are great examples of waste managers putting this approach into practice. The charity WasteAid has been established to share practical and low-cost knowledge and skills with developing countries at a local level. A colleague of mine has also written here on Isonomia about the local MRFs established in the Philippines by the Mother Earth Foundation.
It is these kinds of solutions, ones that formalise, support and improve upon existing systems with relatively basic infrastructure, that are critical to increasing recycling and limiting plastic pollution around the globe. In this context, evolution is more powerful than technological revolution.
While nascent technologies can provide exciting opportunities and challenges across the sector, it’s important for waste professionals to remember that the problems faced by the developing world are often best addressed by developing effective local collection systems. Where treatment technologies are deployed, it’s important to tailor the tried and tested – perhaps starting with engineered landfill – to local contexts. In the search for a healthier, wealthier world without waste, it’s important to keep this global perspective.
What’s more, the benefits of low-tech solutions aren’t limited to the developing world. Recent Green Alliance research into where resource efficiency could provide the UK with the greatest greenhouse gas emissions savings has shown much potential in the widespread adoption of simple, low-tech solutions like increasing the reuse of construction materials. Both at home and abroad, widespread adoption of simple infrastructure would bring a wide range of benefits and co-benefits, not just environmental well-being but also human health and employment – sustainable development in every sense.
An abridged version of this article has been submitted to the 2018 ISWA Young Professionals Group blog-writing competition.