“Cesspools overflowing, rotting rubbish clogged its alleys, and its citizens lived in overcrowded, decrepit buildings, breathing air that was heavily polluted with soot and sulphurous fumes.”
This is a description of London in the 19th century but could be of one of many sprawling megacities around the world.
With more than half the world’s people now living in such places and fast-growing consumer societies producing ever more waste streams, we are facing what has been aptly described by the president of the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) as a “waste emergency”.
Three and a half billion people live without any formal waste management. Just think what that means: you have to deal with your own waste and this often means burning in open fires. According to researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, US, a staggering 40% of the world’s waste is dealt with in this way, creating uncontrolled emissions of highly toxic pollutants.
A further 40% of the world’s waste is simply left in open dump sites with the associated problems of explosions from landfill gas, polluted watercourses, flooding from blocked drainage, vermin and disease.
The Waste Atlas Partnership recently profiled the world’s 50 biggest active dump sites in its second Waste Atlas Report. The results were presented at the ISWA 2014 World Congress held last September in Brazil. These uncontrolled sites affect the lives of 64 million people, and are daily receptors of waste almost 300 times the volume of the Great Pyramid of Giza.
But while poorly managed waste blights communities, the economic opportunities from recycling, repair and composting are huge. The formal recycling sector is a £330bn global industry, but there also exists a thriving informal recycling sector, already diverting up to a quarter of the waste in cities such as Lagos in Nigeria and Cairo in Egypt. This operates at no cost to the public purse, helping the environment, employing millions and representing a net positive to the economy.
So how can we have more of the good and less of the bad and the ugly?
It is time to for our industry to stand up and be counted. We have the skills and resources to lessen the appalling harm that bad waste management causes, and to help communities enjoy the economic benefits of proper resource management. And to achieve this, WasteAid UK has been created with the tagline ‘Putting Waste Right’. And we need your help to do this.
Many challenges lie ahead. Out of $230bn development finance in 2012, only $510m (2%) was spent on solid waste management and, of this, only 9¢ per person per year in the poorest countries. This is peanuts. Solid waste is just not on the agenda of many donor governments and charities, and this needs to change.
We also need to think about new ways of getting better waste management services to more people. In some places, local government can provide services, but often it is only to parts of cities and slum areas typically miss out. How can we help people deal with their own waste better, and make a living doing it? What recycling and recovery technologies can be introduced?
In many cases there are already some fantastic local organisations trying to deal with their own waste problems, but we can help them to do more and do better.
Generous seed funding from the RWM Ambassadors’ Fund has allowed us to incorporate as a charity and support some incredible organisations already working to improve waste in their areas. We are already working in India with Waste Warriors to help clean up the Ganges river, setting up localised reuse in the slums of Lagos and supporting plastic recycling in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital.
But it is early days and we need to tell the world that waste is a problem. We have the solutions but people need to get talking about it. If you want the world to be a cleaner place, get in touch: @wasteaid or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mike Webster is chair of WasteAid UK. The cartoon in MRW’s magazine every issue promotes WasteAid and the space has been offered free of charge