Waste Recycling & Recovery in Megacities

Cities Are Here to Stay

Every year, 1.9 billion tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) is generated globally, of which 30 percent is not collected. According to research conducted by D-Waste, a global waste management services company, at least 3.5 billion people lack access to the most basic waste management facilities and this number could grow to about 5.6 billion people by 2050 (approximately 62 percent of the world’s population).

For more insight on this challenge, IN talked to Antonis Mavropoulos, Chair of the International Solid Waste Association Scientific and Technical Committee (ISWA) and founder of D-Waste. He explained the phenomenon of megacities in terms of urbanization waves, driven by people’s desire for a better life, wealth generation and economic development. He also noted that while urbanization will transform our world in “inconceivable ways” the change is not necessarily negative.

How will population expansion drive the growth of megacities globally? Where will we see most of this growth?
We currently see more than 280,000 people moving from rural to urban areas daily and this is going to continue for the next 30 to 40 years. Most of this will take place across the developing world in Central and Sub-Saharan Africa, India and Southeast Asia.

How would you sum up the key issues facing waste management in these global megacities?
The problems are different in emerging megacities in developing countries and mature ones in developed countries. Some of the key issues in developing countries have to do with planning efforts for delivering the required infrastructure and implementing sound waste management. These issues normally come about because of the lack of financial resources and the required governance structures. On the other hand, in developed countries, infrastructure is often becoming outdated and is hard to replace. Fortunately more and more recycling and waste management initiatives are coming through, but the maintenance of the performance levels of these programs is often the biggest challenge, as waste management gradually becomes more expensive due to aging infrastructure.

What factors come into play in terms of disparities between waste collection globally?
There is a lot of evidence that waste generation rates, waste collection coverage, sound disposal and recovery rates are linked with the levels of gross national income (GNI) per capita. The recent work demonstrated in Waste Atlas1 outlines those linkages on a global scale. However, in the last few years, many researchers have suggested that waste generation rates are probably better related with Human Development Index levels. I suppose it makes sense since waste generation and management is mostly related with the overall culture rather than simply the economy of a country. Our world will generate 4 billion tons of waste in 2050 – double the current level.

In your report, you mention the critical relationship between informal recycling/collection and official collection. Can you expand further on how they work together and the impact on populations?
We need to change our attitude and thinking about informal sector collectors or recyclers. Without ignoring the poor working conditions and the health and environmental problems involved in their activities, we need to put them in another conceptual framework and understand the informal sector as a major opportunity for win-win solutions – building recycling rates, protecting and developing people’s livelihoods, addressing the negative aspects of current informal recycling on health and the environment, and reducing costs to the city of managing its waste – if the informal sector can be included more successfully within an integrated and sustainable waste management system. For that purpose, we need both new tools and new ideas.

We need to campaign for the idea of sound waste management as a human right. I believe that this is the way forward for delivering change in waste management and recycling, especially in the developing world.

How critical is the issue of waste management in megacities on a global, wider scale?
One thing that has not been studied in detail is the role of megacities as global risk areas. Due to their high interconnectivity with the rest of the world, megacities can be an epicenter of global risk for both natural and man-made hazards, including the health problems that might be created by inappropriate waste management systems. The importance of health problems that are related with waste management is becoming of global interest.

Looking at your new research, global recycling rates appear surprisingly low – what can we do to improve this recycling rates on a global scale?
I am sure that in reality they are higher since we have not included informal sector contributions and we know that in many cases the contribution of the informal sector is remarkably high.

However, speaking on a global scale, the only reason for a long-term increase of material recycling and recovery is the development of circular economy initiatives driven by appropriate policies and market initiatives. We can’t close the loop of materials completely, but we can eliminate leakages and improve resource efficiency worldwide. This means we need effective collaboration between governments, markets and consumers. It’s a game for three players and I am sure it will not be easy or quick, but we are heading in the right direction.

1Waste Atlas, D-Waste http://www.atlas.d-waste.com/