3 Alternative Ideas for Waste Management in Developing Countries

Written by Moritz Bühner   // November 9, 2012    7 Comments

Unlike the global north, most developing countries have difficulties affording sophisticated industrial machinery. Predictable economic conditions for their funding are just not easy to find. That’s why the waste management options I presented in last week’s article are not really much of an option outside the OECD. Even for some OECD members, they’re far from posing a realistic alternative to the status quo. But that doesn’t mean the hazard of small, disorganized garbage patches openly set on fire here and there has to prevail.

Different Waste Management Traditions

The “waste management” reality in most places of the world equals no separation, no controlled collection. Dump your stuff next to the street outside the village, like your ancestors always did, and you’re fine. When all the efforts to burn fail (which they usually do), cover the remaining pile with a thin layer of earth and ignore the horrible smell. The method has been around for centuries and it worked very well until recently: Self-sufficient agricultural societies traditionally took all their goods from nature. Because those goods were 100% biodegradable, nothing happened when they were dumped – they simply returned to nature. This is the tried and tested waste management system of the developing world. The problems began when 20th century inventions were injected into this system, inhibiting the cycle from continuing to function the way it used to. Plastic packaging, oil containers, tires, batteries, electronics – they all interfere with nature’s absorption capacity. In the same way these products originate from an artificial production cycle, they require an artificial treatment at the end of their lifespans. However, even as fast as these “new” products conquer new markets, the awareness of the need for a change in waste management is inversely slow.

Cooperative Development Issues

The problem is omnipresent and it was as early as 1996 that Hisashi Ogawa, then working for the WHO in Malaysia, formulated the lack of effective waste management in developing countries as follows:

A typical solid waste management system in a developing country displays an array of problems, including low collection coverage and irregular collection services, crude open dumping and burning without air and water pollution control, the breeding of flies and vermin, and the handling and control of informal waste picking or scavenging activities. These public health, environmental, and management problems are caused by various factors which constrain the development of effective solid waste management systems.

Many outside and local organizations have ever since (and also before) tried to improve the situation. Of course, they face the same difficulties any cooperative development initiative is confronted with. Ogawa:

The external support agencies have limitations in the amount of resources they can provide and the mandates and modes under which they can operate projects. Sometimes, projects are initiated with specific aims and expected outputs, but their scopes are not comprehensive enough to consider external factors influencing them. The external support agencies often do not fully understand socio-economic, cultural, and political factors influencing the selection of appropriate solid waste management systems. In other cases, very limited follow-up support, including human resource development activities necessary to sustain the project implementation, is provided by the external support agencies.

I already pointed toward this in the introductory paragraph: structural conditions in different development spheres are very different. Because of this, Anthony Mensah and Eugene Larbi, who in 2005 published a fact sheet on waste management in Ghana, call for “manual systems”:

The Ghanaian experience shows that within the existing socio-economic context, manual systems are appropriate. The challenge therefore is to develop and promote disposal systems that require a minimum level of mechanical equipment.

NGOs from the global north often lack a sufficient understanding of the local reality in the south. Ogawa formulates the issue as follows:

The lack of knowledge and experience in solid waste management situations in developing countries leads to a tendency to support and provide the technologies available in the donor country regardless of their applicability to the developing country situation. In some cases, the solid waste management equipment and facilities, which are obsolete and outdated in the donor country, are provided as foreign aid to the recipient country.

Most definitely, the technocratic cooperative development approach was bound to change in the 16 years since Ogawa delivered the presentation. What’s still up to date, however, are the six keys to successful cooperation he proposes. Most notable are follow-up implementation (dissemination is a serious NGO topic today), self-financing schemes (financial sustainability is a main focus in 2012) and raising awareness of the public and decision makers (a never ending story).

Naming the problems is always easier than coming up with good alternatives. Nevertheless, there are always some people who make good proposals. Voilà, some ideas to improve waste management in developing countries that I personally found noteworthy.

Waste Pickers Help Recycle

There are more waste pickers than there are garbage dumps – the more pronounced this phenomenon is, the stricter the social structure in the society. Even in rather developed countries like Turkey, waste pickers are a subject of discussion (see “The Long Road to Sustainability in Turkey” interview). Why not integrate them into waste management processes to facilitate recycling? Ogawa:

The existence of waste pickers/scavengers creates often an obstacle to the operation of solid waste collection and disposal services. However, if organized properly, their activities can be effectively incorporated into a waste recycling system.

Best Case not Good Enough

In an extensive catalog of waste management strategies in Nepal (Best Practices on Solid Waste Management in Nepalese Cities, PDF), the NGO Practical Action Nepal lists places and waste management activities. However, even the best examples in this collection are united by the same issues: rapidly growing urban communities, citizens who don’t cooperate when it comes to minimizing waste or paying the collection-related fees, staff shortages, weak public institutions and a lack of cooperation between public and private sectors. The publication highlighted the disposal of waste on river banks, which from an environmental perspective is, to say the least, unsustainable. It also told me that 65-75% of the solid waste from Nepal’s urban areas is organic. If this share was disposed of separately, a large portion of waste dumping could be prevented and the problem drastically reduced!

But limiting hope and expectations, Mensa and Larbi, the Ghana fact sheet authors, wrote that all public composting efforts in that country have failed. Low demand due to a lack of awareness of compost’s soil enriching properties and no public support are the main two reasons.

Generally conditions in Ghana are very conducive for composting in terms of the waste composition and weather conditions. However composting has never flourished as an option for refuse treatment and disposal. Most local authorities feel, based on local experience, that the running costs of composting plants are excessive and unjustifiable.

Worms Improve Compost Image

If you wonder whether your geographical knowledge differs from mine, let me emphasize that it is not an exclusively Ghanaian story. It is a given that Nepal and Ghana are far away from each other. However, all the problems mentioned are replicated throughout the other countries of the global south and compost lacks popularity around the globe. However, as I read in a World Bank featured USAID publication on solid waste management in Central and South America (PDF), there is light at the end of the rotting tunnel. Shifting the burden from municipal composting to the individual household sounds complicated. It may, however, be the solution: vermiculture is the keyword.

Small earthworm composting farms, operated by 5-6 people, have proven more successful than traditional composting facilities, though they are not yet in widespread use. Vermiculture benefits from better quality control and the perception that the worm excrement is derived from “clean” vegetable waste, whereas compost is derived from garbage.

Compensation with Infrastructure Improvement Mitigates NIMBY Phenomenon

The Nepalese document mentions one more reason that inhibits progress in waste management: the NIMBY phenomenon. NIMBY stands for “not in my backyard” and refers to the situation that almost no community is happy to have a waste management (or any other similar) infrastructure erected on their territory, be it in the context of an industrial or developing country. However, both economic scale effects and certain chemical processes point in the direction of processing waste centrally, meaning that it makes sense to have one plant serving several municipalities. For once, when it comes to resolving the NIMBY-issue, developing countries have a true advantage: their populations long for infrastructure improvements, not only of waste management facilities, but also of other infrastructure. The Direct Action document presents a case where a community benefited from a newly built landfill “in their backyard” by demanding and getting other infrastructure on top:

Residents living near the landfill site area were demanding basic infrastructure services as compensation for the proximity of the landfill site. However, local people did not have any complaint regarding the location of the landfill site, but rather, because of the lack of elected representatives; they were using the landfill site as an opportunity for requesting infrastructure services. In order to maintain an attractive environment around the landfill site, 3,000 trees (fruit trees and other varieties) have been planted and 150 beehives installed (Tribhuvannagar municipality, 2008 data).

These three examples are just tiny bits of a solution that has to be found for every community individually. The waste is composed differently, just like the societies themselves are different. This makes a single universal waste treatment plan difficult. It is not mobile small-scale incinerators, not concrete landfill basements, not occasional bio-gas plant donations that will resolve the global waste management problem – only a holistic, individually tailored strategy can help. Uniting local actors and possibly outside organizations, finding ways to make private and public stakeholders collaborate, motivate citizens, educate experts, establish a recycling industry or at least further promote upcycling activities – these are just a few elements of a waste management path for which the main key to success is that it’s thoroughly developed, regularly evaluated and 100% adapted to the local circumstances.

Further Reading

  • Best Practices on Solid Waste Management in Nepalese Cities (2008), Practical Action Nepal (PDF)
  • DES (2011): Open Burning of Residential Trash. Environmental Fact Sheet. Concord: New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services. (Link)
  • Environmental Guidelines for the USAID Latin America and Caribbean Bureau , Chapter 5: Environmental Issues and Best Practices for Solid Waste Management, USAID, 2000 (PDF)
  • Ogawa, Hisashi (1996): Sustainable Solid Waste Management in Developing Countries, 7th ISWA International Congress and Exhibition, Parallel Session 7, “International Perspective”; Link
  • PATH (Editor) (2010): The Incinerator Guidebook. A Practical Guide for Selecting, Purchasing, Installing, Operating and Maintaining Small-Scale Incinerators in Low-Resource Settings. Seattle (PDF)
  • UNEP – Developing Integrated Solid Waste Management Plan Training Manual, 2009 (PDF)

Article image CC by Moritz Bühner. It shows an open dump near Luang Prabang, Laos


About Moritz Bühner :

Blogger at knowtheflow from 2011-2013, now Sustainability Manager in the wood-based products industry. Bachelor in Environmental and Bioresource Management at the University of Applied Life Sciences Vienna. Born in Hamburg, Germany, lived in Quebec (CAN), Vienna (AUT) and Pamplona (ESP). Why he blogged? "The possibility of going into detail with every link, satisfying the desire to learn. The direct feedback. The free global distribution. I just love the medium!"

Tags:

compost

developing world

Ghana

municipal solid waste

Nepal

NIMBY

South America

waste management


7 COMMENTS

  1. By Lutz B., November 25, 2012

    Configure your Navi to avoid reporting from an Open dump!

    Reply
    • By Moritz Bühner, November 25, 2012

      Haha… I’m navigating with energy-saving *maps* ;)

      Reply
      • By Moritz Bühner, November 25, 2012

        By the way, the multi-sensory approach most people naturally follow when moving from one place to another makes you notice these dumps immediately…

        Reply
  2. By Sixto M. de Omana Jr, April 27, 2015

    Dear Sir, I’ve read and fully understand tbe problem.It is said that suggested alternative is not worthy enough. We at Vener Green Tech.Corp.have come up with a solution to garbage. We are not saying 100% solution but have some consideration for what it can do. All countries end up using incinerator.Even the the strongest protest not to use it, is not heard. So we developed the EAST apparatus,this technology can eliminate smoke and pollution, while burning incinerating or self oxidation. Imsgine what it can do, if we install it in smoke stack or chimney.It can help reducing carbon emission and others. We recommend to burn end cycle garbage,to reduce landfill. This technology is very new, cost very cheap to make and operate.It can help in reducing the very expensive use of incineration. And there are other function it can do. This can be constructed on sites needed to reduce travel of garbage.We are now planning to use this in our coutry for start. We are willing to answer querries regaerding this technology.
    Thank you very much.

    Reply
  3. By Durgesh, June 5, 2015

    Hey Moritz,
    This is a very good and more practical article among several articles I read regarding Waste Management.

    I am an Indian living in Banaglore, one of the metro cities of India. India being one of the developing nations since it’s freedom, but no signs of being a developed country. I am always wanting to contribute in having the better Solid waste management system. As I am frustrated with the scattered debris that I see everywhere.

    Please put across your views, opinions and advise on better ways to handle, recycle and to implement good waste management system in India.

    Many thanks for this article of yours!

    Regards
    Durgesh

    Reply
  4. By Zoe Lenkiewicz, August 18, 2015

    Thanks for the article Moritz.

    Readers might also find the following websites of interest: wastewise.be is a global network of professionals sharing knowledge for better waste management particularly in developing countries; and WasteAid.org is an international charity that supports sustainable waste management initiatives in developing countries.

    Both are valuable sources of information for this topic.

    Reply
  5. By Sharon Happy, March 10, 2017

    Hi, I am really interested in the subject of waste. I studied Health Studies and Social Policy at university level and have always had a passion for health and social care.

    This is just a quick reply to maybe help with the situation we have in our 3rd world countries.

    I just recently started working for a waste company and can see through my virgin eyes how other countries could benefit from our approach or take a few suggestions of which I know 3rd world countries probably could have taken.

    I suggest that at the end of every “road”, “town” or “village” that these huge waste trucks can be left at the end of the road or at a convenient spot to be picked up (as i understand that there is a problem in 3rd world countries with providing a reliable and regular service), these trucks could be donated by 1st world countries (they don’t have to be brand new) or international organisation i.e. WHO.

    Waste education is important to EVERYBODY in the world as this is part of our future. If we educate (costs money, sorry) people in 3rd world countries about the benefits and how fun it can be to recycle our waste this in turn will help the waste problem.

    Also monetary fines could be given to waste criminals and this money from the fines could be then invested in other services in that country.

    Do we still use criminals to perform menial or physically challenging work as a form of punishment, maybe this could be looked into (what else are they doing;-)) and these criminals can be used to clear up waste and other services (ie build roads etc).

    Finally, the equipment used by waste companies i.e. energy-from-waste equipment, could be donated or rented out to these third world countries.

    All of this with the end game of being on the same level of waste management that is seen or will be seen in 1st world countries (zero incineration, 100% recycling, zero land waste etc).

    Reply

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