Safe and Sustainable Waste Management: A Public Health Imperative

Safe and Sustainable Waste Management: A Public Health Imperative

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Every second 67kg of waste is generated globally. By the time you finish reading this article, another 14,070kg of waste will be generated– comparable to the weight of two elephants. 

This equates to 241 tons an hour and close to 5,789 tons a day– the weight of approximately 29 blue whales. Exacerbated by urbanization, industrialization and exponential population growth, this number is projected to increase by 70% by 2050, meaning that globally, we will be generating 163,000 tons of waste a day (or approximately the weight of 815 blue whales). Should the planet’s already fragile waste management systems not adapt in time, the global community should anticipate accelerated environmental destruction in tandem with an unrelenting public health crisis. Given the fact that more than 2 billion people lack access to waste collection services, and another 3 billion people lack access to waste disposal facilities, the hazards associated with unmanaged waste are likely to affect the poor disproportionately.

Poor waste collection and disposal — including overuse of incineration — represents a major public health hazard, responsible for the spread of diseases and other ecosystem disruptions. When municipal waste management systems lack strong protocols and procedures for proper waste sorting and disposal, hazardous waste materials find their way into dumping sites and in turn, pollute the surrounding air and waterways, resulting in negative impacts on human, animal and plant life.

In countries like Cambodia, significant challenges exist for municipal authorities who are staging an ongoing battle against an overwhelming increase in unmanaged solid waste streams. Urban waste management services cover only 50% of the population and rural areas unfortunately reside almost entirely outside of waste collection routes. As a result of these ineffective waste collection and disposal systems, this buildup of solid waste is now a critical hazard to public health. Even more, this unmanaged waste has led to frequent blockages in waterways and drainage systems, aggravating seasonal flooding across the country.

Solving such challenges sustainably and efficiently requires that all stakeholders take action to stimulate sustainable waste management practices and increase responsiveness, transparency, and accountability of overall waste management systems.

One positive development in the effort to combat the global waste management crisis is an increased focus on the circular economy ethos, which is embodied by the innovation of products and processes that allow for the reuse of finite resources. Thus, rather than operating in the current linear fashion of use which ultimately ends with dispose, the circular economy model promises to ignite a paradigm shift in how we view and value “waste”.

This begins with producers conceptualizing and creating a product with its end of life in mind, ensuring that all component parts can be recycled or repurposed in some fashion at a later date. When that product reaches the end of its first purpose, the onus then falls on entrepreneurs and consumers to use those component parts to create value anew. In this way, the circular economy addresses both the waste management crisis, as well as offers opportunities for further profit-making activities, strengthening the argument that what is good for the environment can be good for the economy as well.

For this model to become fully actualized, businesses and governments alike must continue their work to mainstream “stakeholder capitalism”, in which economic decisions are made with all stakeholders in mind (consumers, employees, producers, etc.), rather than just the shareholders. Inevitably, this will lead to further recognition of the stake we all have in the continued health of our planet, a collective realization that cannot come soon enough.

In Cambodia, I4DI is directly stimulating both sustainable waste management practice and the growing circular economy movement by developing and deploying a package of civic tech tools (e.g. web platform, smartphone app and online dashboards) through its USAID Tech for Green Cities (T4GC) project. Initially focusing on both urban and rural communities in the northwestern provinces of Banteay Meanchey and Battambang, the project is supporting municipal authorities and waste management service providers in their ongoing fight against unmanaged solid waste by enabling citizens to report waste management issues to local service providers and track subsequent progress on their service requests. This engenders entrepreneurship among service providers to look for alternative uses of waste and puts added pressure on local governments to achieve zero to landfill.

 

I4DI’s assistance, which is harnessing the latest innovation in civic tech, is timely given the recent and partial decentralization of waste management functions in Cambodia which in turn has left local governments either unaware of their waste responsibilities or under equipped to manage growing waste issues. As such, I4DI’s civic tech solutions are putting authorities on notice to fix waste management service delivery bottlenecks and simultaneously stimulating the expansion of a circular economy based on waste reduction, reuse, and recycling, all consistent with Cambodia’s 3R strategy.

Unsurprisingly, the global spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) is unleashing additional strains on already weak municipal waste management systems in Cambodia and imposing secondary health impacts upon waste management workers and households alike. This includes the increased production of medical, household and other waste as a direct result of COVID-19. Fortunately, I4DI’s civic tech solutions are proving to be even more timely given the vital role that enhanced waste management plays (as a precautionary measure) to the potential further spread of COVID-19. USAID Tech for Green Cities is also educating both waste management providers and households on the safe handling and disposal of medical and household waste as a means to help combat the pandemic.

The COVID-19 emergency is just another reminder that traditional waste management practices and business as usual are no longer acceptable in Cambodia, or elsewhere, and detract from the building of truly healthy communities. Waste management systems and providers around the world must evolve, not only to prevent the further transmission of diseases that plague vulnerable societies, but to ultimately stimulate the expansion of a circular economy. In this way, countries can do right by their businesses, right by their citizens, and right by the environment.

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