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Industry’s expertise could avert a global health crisis

In September 2016, 1,300 people travelled to the picturesque Serbian city of Novi Sad for the annual congress of the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA). Alongside landfill gas collection and producer responsibility, a far more grimy topic was on the agenda: the global scourge of waste dumps.

Such sites are a global health and environ­mental emergency. They receive roughly 40% of the world’s waste and serve up to four billion people. The 50 biggest dumpsites affect the daily lives of 64 million people, a population the size of France.

International news stories reveal that, in the first half of 2016, more than 750 people died at waste sites, often due to collapsing walls of waste burying people alive. The numbers of people who have succumbed to gastrointestinal diseases, either from the sites directly or from the vermin they host, or of lung and skin dis­eases caused by exposure to acrid smoke and dangerous chemicals, are unknown.

Waste management is included explicitly and implicitly in more than half of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. But those goals and targets in the area of food security, health or sustainable cities, for example, cannot be reached without sound waste man­agement.

The ISWA turned the spotlight on dumpsites a year ago, when photographer and humanitarian Timothy Bouldry shared stories of the children living at La Chureca, a sprawling wasteland in Nicaragua. Spurred to action and in partnership with Bouldry, the ISWA launched its scholarship programme, Trading Trash for Education (see box above).

By focusing attention on the lives of people at La Chureca, it became even more apparent that the international body of waste manage­ment professionals needs to act urgently to prevent a global health crisis. ISWA’s latest report, A Roadmap to Closing the World’s Dumpsites, draws together the experience of technical, financial, legal and social profession­als in the field to tackle the challenge head-on.

Antonis Mavropoulos, ISWA president and co-author of the roadmap, says: “This report is the start of an effort that will stimulate a global movement for closing down some of the world’s biggest dumpsites. The ISWA will act as a catalyst that pushes potential donors or lenders to mobilise the necessary financial resources, and will support local authorities and governments to close the dumpsites and create alternative waste management schemes capable of delivering a sound level of health and environmental protection.”

While acknowledging that closing dumps can be difficult for a number of reasons, the ISWA is not backing down from the challenge. In some cases it will not be possible to actually close a site, but it will still be practicable to cre­ate a more controlled landfill operation and a less risky environment.

Waste sites need to be replaced with inte­grated solid waste management systems that include:

  • Physical elements: infrastructure for waste storage, collection, transport, transfer, recy­cling, recovery, treatment and disposal.
  • Stakeholders: municipal, regional and national governments, waste generators/ser­vice users, producers, service providers, civil societies, non-governmental organisations and international agencies.
  • Strategic aspects: political, health, institu­ tional, social, economic, financial, environmen­tal and technical facets.

Mavropoulos continues: “We are well aware that closing down a dumpsite is neither a simple nor an easy task. It requires an alterna­tive waste management system with adequate planning, institutional and administrative capacity, financial resources, social support and, finally, political consensus.

“All of these conditions are really difficult and sometimes impossible to meet in countries where dumps are the dominant method of waste disposal and level of governance quality is questionable. This is why the ISWA is calling for the creation of an international alliance that will drive the closure of dumpsites in the poor­est countries. We think this is the minimum response to an ongoing health emergency.”

Without international intervention, many poor countries will not be able to close their dumps or upgrade their waste management systems. So the ISWA is calling on interna­tional communities to co-operate in closing the world’s 50 most polluting sites.

This single, but not simple, target could immediately improve the quality of life of mil­lions of people, as well as the business land­scape in the developing world, because closing dumps is a catalyst for the development of new markets related to environmentally sound waste management and recycling services.

In addition, closing dumps will reduce car­bon emissions and marine pollution, since many are located near coastal or inland water­ways.

The roadmap report is a first step, after which the ISWA will create a collection of case studies with lessons learned from previous experiences. It is also aiming to develop a global campaign with communications that can be localised, and raise funds to monitor the impact of dumpsites and the progress made towards their closure.

A website is currently under construction to promote the initiative and provide support to stakeholders. Waste management professionals will be invited to participate in supporting spe­cific projects or challenges.

In the meantime, people are invited to lend their support to the roadmap by signing and sharing the declaration at They can also raise awareness through social media, volunteer to translate the executive summary from English into languages spoken in coun­tries with a large number of dumps (email or sponsor the ISWA’s scholarship programme.

ISWA scholarship programme: Trading trash for education

The scheme is open to sponsorship from individuals, businesses and associations. Timothy Bouldry and Engelbert Blanco work every day with the children on the programme, transforming their life chances so that the next generation of children will not be scavenging from the dump for survival.

Health risks from a dumpsite

King Tom Tommah in freetown, Sierra Leone 

King tom bommah

King tom bommah

Immediately surrounded by 1.4 million people, this site is typical of how solid waste is managed in much of the world.

A family scavenges for metals to sell and food to eat, while the pigs consume human faeces. People here often treat their illnesses with improperly stored or out-of-date antibiotics. Any disease will pass to the pigs and build up antibiotic resistance. Families in turn will eat the pig meat and contract the resistant strain of the disease, which will then spread rapidly through the dense population of 1.4 million people surrounding the dumpsite.

Some of those people could board a plane to Paris or London from where the disease will spread rapidly before it is even spotted.

This is the land that the ebola crisis emerged from in December 2013 and killed at least 11,310 people. Three years on and nothing has changed.

Zoë Lenkiewicz is a sustainable waste man­agement communications consultant

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