One Person’s Trash is Another Person’s Source of Income

As landfills reach capacity in developing cities, organizations and governments are innovating new and sustainable methods of managing their waste. (Photo: Mr Thinktank / Flickr)

With massive population growth in store for cities across the Global South, the fact that many cities struggle to provide effective waste collection to serve the current population levels is worrying. Poor waste collection practices — such as the indiscriminate dumping of refuse due to inadequate equipment and insufficient (or even non-existent) separation of different types of trash — can have severe negative effects on the environment and urban residents’ health. In Lagos, Lilongwe, Mexico City, and Dhaka, a combination of government, non-profit, and business interests are working to revolutionize their cities’ trash collection, with a focus on engaging ordinary citizens in recycling and composting.

The Lagos State Waste Management Authority (LAWMA) is responsible for waste management across Lagos. Through public-private partnerships, the agency has modernized and formalized waste cart pushing, bringing informal waste collectors into the formal economy. Inner-city areas with narrow roads are now reached via mini skip trucks and automotive tricycles instead of wheelbarrows and push carts. This allows operators to collect more waste on fewer trips. It also adds ease and dignity to the process, and ensures proper disposal to official landfills since each operator is accountable to a regulating body that enforces good practices and monitors service delivery. Finally, LAWMA encourages women to get involved in the sector now that most collection has transitioned from intense cart pushing to automated activities.

Estimates show that the number of people living in Lilongwe will have more than doubled by 2030, yet even with the current population, the local authority can barely collect all of the waste that is generated: a 2008 study showed that the city could only collect and safely dispose of 30 percent of the city’s waste. In this context, women and young people, supported by the nonprofit sector, are seizing opportunities. Our World International is a local NGO working in Kawale, a traditional housing area in Lilongwe to mobilize women and youth to form waste entrepreneurship groups. Equipped with basic compost training, the entrepreneurs make compost manure and sell it to landscaping companies or individuals for use in gardens. While the motivation of the waste entrepreneurship groups is to earn a living, they are also cleaning up the city, especially in low-income areas with limited government collection services.

Disposing of solid waste is one of the biggest challenges in Mexico City. The government is pushing for a cultural change, urging residents to separate their waste, approximately 50 percent of which can be reused. Since 2012, the government of the Federal District has been implementing the Plan Verde (Green Plan) to encourage recycling. Under this plan, garbage trucks collect organic waste on certain days and inorganic waste on other days. Plan Verde also disseminates information about consumer habits, encouraging residents to buy products with the recycling emblem or made from natural materials like paper or glass. The plan recommends avoiding the purchase of overly-packaged products and limiting the amount of plastics used. Temporary market places have been installed in various locations around the city where residents can trade their recyclables using a points system they can then use to buy fresh produce.

With landfills in Dhaka reaching their full capacities, the municipality and community actors are working to improve the treatment of biodegradable waste, which represents 74 percent of the city’s waste. Waste Concern, a social business, has started a food composting program in Dhaka’s largest slums and residential areas to teach communities how to process food waste they can sell as compost. Large Indonesian composting drums were brought in to conceal the waste and minimize odor. Several families use one drum, and earn USD$12 per month from each compost drum. Waste Concern has also expanded to more affluent residential areas, with a similar door-to-door training and waste collection program. This program is done at a price that allows the organization to cross-subsidize its operations. Waste Concern is now in the process of formulating a larger integrated waste management program between 19 cities, including Dhaka, in cooperation with the city government.

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