Solid waste management and sustainable development

At the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, which took place in Johannesburg, South Africa, governments reaffirmed the importance of solid waste management. They called for priority attention to be given to waste prevention and minimisation, reuse and recycling. They also called for the development of environmentally sound disposal facilities, including technology to convert waste into energy.

“Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” includes Sustainable Development Goal 11: “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. In target 11.6, member states decided to “by 2030, reduce the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities, including by paying special attention to air quality and municipal and other waste management”.

Goal 12 sets out how to “Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns”. Here member states decided to, in target 12.3, “by 2030, halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses”.

Target 12.4 aims to “by 2020, achieve the environmentally sound management of chemicals and all wastes throughout their life cycle, in accordance with agreed international frameworks, and significantly reduce their release to air, water and soil in order to minimise their adverse impacts on human health and the environment”.

In target 12.5, member states decided to “by 2030, substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse”.

The challenge of sustainable waste management

Waste is a global issue; if it is not properly dealt with, it poses a threat to public health and the environment. It is a growing issue linked directly to the way society produces and consumes. It concerns everyone. Waste management is one of the essential utility services underpinning society in the 21st Century, particularly in urban areas.

Waste management is a basic human need and can also be regarded as a basic human right. Ensuring proper sanitation and solid waste management ranks alongside the provision of potable water, shelter, food, energy, transport and communications; all are essential to society and to the economy as a whole. Despite this, the public and political profile of waste management is often lower than other utility services. Unfortunately, the consequences of doing little or even nothing to address waste management can be very costly to society and to the economy overall.

In the absence of waste regulations and their rigorous implementation and enforcement, generators of waste tend to opt for the cheapest available course of action. For example, household solid waste may be dumped in the street, on vacant land, or into drains, streams or other watercourses, or it may be burned to reduce the irritation of accumulating piles of waste.

By definition, uncontrolled waste is not managed and thus not measured, making it difficult to estimate the size of the problem and the scale of the associated costs. However, the evidence suggests that in a middle- or low-income city, the costs to society and the economy are about five to 10 times what sound solid waste management (SWM) would cost per capita. It is dramatically cheaper to manage waste now in an environmentally sound manner than to clean up in future years the “sins of the past”.

Moving from waste management to resource management

Many developed countries have made great strides in addressing waste management, particularly since the environment came onto the international agenda in the 1960s, and there are many good practice examples available for the international community to learn from.

However, the initial focus was on waste after it had been discarded, whereas now attention has moved upstream, addressing the problem at its source through, for example, designing out waste, preventing its generation, reducing both the quantities and the uses of hazardous substances, minimising and reusing, and, where residuals do occur, keeping them concentrated and separate to preserve their intrinsic value for recycling and recovery and preventing them from contaminating other waste that still has economic value for recovery.

The goal is to move the fundamental thinking away from “waste disposal” to “waste management” and from “waste” to “resources” — hence the updated terminology “waste and resource management” and “resource management”, as part of the “circular economy”. In this regard, the Global Waste Management Outlook interfaces with the earlier Global Outlook on Sustainable Consumption and Production policies.

Low- and middle-income countries still face major challenges in ensuring universal access to waste collection services, eliminating uncontrolled disposal and burning and moving towards environmentally sound management for all waste. Addressing these challenges is made even more difficult by forecasts that major cities in the lowest income countries are likely to double in population over the next 20 or so years, which is also likely to increase the local political priority given to waste issues. Low- and middle-income countries need to devise and implement innovative and effective policies and practices to promote waste prevention and stem the relentless increase in waste per capita as economies develop.

Waste management as an entry point to sustainable development

Waste management is an issue that impacts many parts of society and the economy. It has strong linkages to a range of other global challenges such as health, climate change, poverty reduction, food and resource security and sustainable production and consumption. The political case for action is significantly strengthened when waste management is viewed as an entry point to address a range of such sustainable development issues, many of which are difficult to tackle.

Waste management is well embedded within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), being included either explicitly or implicitly in more than half of the 17 goals. Thus a strong argument can be made for the strategic importance of improving waste management, insofar as actions here will contribute to progress towards a range of SDG targets. Setting and monitoring global targets for waste management will thus contribute significantly to attaining the SDGs.

The impact of resource recovery on financing

Resource recovery (e.g. recycling, composting), if properly conceived and implemented can reduce the financial impact of waste collection and disposal services. For example, the separation of recyclable materials (such as paper, glass, metals, and plastics) at a source of generation leads to a reduction in the quantities of waste, which local governments otherwise have to transport and dispose of at a landfill.

In economically developing countries, the mixed municipal waste stream typically contains in the order of 20% to 30% (by weight) of potentially recyclable inorganic materials. As the economic status of a particular country improves, consumption patterns change, and an increase can be expected in the percentage of recyclable materials in the waste.

Thus, savings in disposal costs may be available in the future if additional quantities of recyclable materials are recovered and marketed. In addition, the segregation and processing of the organic matter in waste can make a sizeable contribution to the reduction of quantities requiring ultimate disposal, since organic matter typically constitutes 50% to 60% of the residential waste stream.

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