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Challenges to the Solid Waste Sector

Child walking through landfill

A child at a landfill - by Tinnakorn Jorruang

Solid waste management is a universal issue affecting every single person in the world. Individuals and governments make decisions about consumption and waste management that affect the daily health, productivity, and cleanliness of communities. Poorly managed waste is contaminating the world’s oceans, clogging drains and causing flooding, transmitting diseases via breeding of vectors, increasing respiratory problems through airborne particles from burning of waste, harming animals that consume waste unknowingly, and affecting economic development such as through diminished tourism. Unmanaged and improperly managed waste from decades of economic growth requires urgent action at all levels of society.

As countries develop from low-income to middle- and high-income levels, their waste management situations also evolve. Growth in prosperity and movement to urban areas are linked to increases in per capita generation of waste. Furthermore, rapid urbanization and population growth create larger population centers, making the collection of all waste and the procuring of land for treatment and disposal more and more difficult.

Urban waste management is expensive. Waste management can be the single highest budget item for many local administrations in low-income countries, where it comprises nearly 20 percent of municipal budgets, on average. In middle-income countries, solid waste management typically accounts for more than 10 percent of municipal budgets, and it accounts for about 4 percent in high-income countries. Budget resources devoted to waste management can be much higher in certain cases.

Costly and complex waste operations must compete for funding with other priorities such as clean water and other utilities, education, and health care. Waste management is often administered by local authorities with limited resources and limited capacity for planning, contract management, and operational monitoring. These factors make sustainable waste management a complicated proposition on the path of economic development, and most low- and middle-income countries and their cities struggle to address the challenges. The impacts of poor waste management are dire and fall disproportionally on the poor, who are often unserved or have little influence on the waste being disposed of formally or informally near their homes.

Waste management data are critical to creating policy and planning for the local context. Understanding how much waste is generated—especially with rapid urbanization and population growth—as well as the types of waste being generated, allows local governments to select appropriate management methods and plan for future demand. This knowledge allows governments to design systems with a suitable number of vehicles, establish efficient routes, set targets for diversion of waste, track progress, and adapt as waste generation patterns change. With accurate data, governments can realistically allocate budget and land, assess relevant technologies, and con-sider strategic partners, such as the private sector or nongovernmental organizations, for service provision.