Discussion Highlights: Innovative solutions to the world’s waste problem

May 02 2014

Connect4Climate with The Guardian hosted a Live Q&A Session on May 1 to discuss waste management issues. Questions addressed included: Could a potential waste management crisis actually be an opportunity to innovate in disguise? How can different actors work in partnership to find low-cost, environmentally friendly solutions? And in what type of waste management technologies and program is funding most effectively placed?

The live chat is being fed into the Cittadinanza in Festa 2014 discussions on sustainability and waste, 2-4 May 2014. The event is supported by Connect4Climate and Earthday Italia and will also celebrate Rokia Traoré as a Connect4Climate Global Leader for her commitment and dedication to supporting climate change initiatives around the world.

A blue plastic bottle washed ashore on rocky white beaches in American Samoa. Photo: Nick Fu

A blue plastic bottle washed ashore on a beach in American Samoa. Photo: Nick Fu


Data collection

The discussion began with a question of data on the waste issue: How much do we know about the scale and nature of the waste issue? How comprehensive and up to date is the data on it? Panels agreed data on the waste is critical.

Delphine Arri said data are the first step to define proper waste management; projecting future need is the second step. John Morton mentioned that the 2012 World Bank Group report What a Waste gave a good sense of the scale of the problem. Ranjith Annepu also shared a discussion video moderated by Perinaz Bhada-Tata, the co-author of What a Waste.

Yet, still not enough accurate data exists, and there is no global database for baselines according to Sarahjane Widdowson. Ranjith Annepu and Simon Guash pointed out that waste is often a low priority in many cities, especially in less developed economies, so data collection is difficult.

Panelists also recognized the significance of local data. Simon Peter Penney said local data is more important, although strategic data is significant and helpful. Mike Webster agreed that considering different locations on a case-by-case basis can produce clear local drivers and need for better waste management.

Who “owns” waste management?

An interesting question from @LucyKingsbury spurred a number of issues: “Is part of the issue who ‘owns’ waste management?”

A junk market in Luanda, Angola, where items collected from waste are resold. Photo: Wilson Fernandes da Silva

A "junk market" in Luanda, Angola, where salvaged items are resold. Photo: Wilson Fernandes da Silva

Sarahjane Widdowson noted that more people and organizations are taking ownership as material flows increase and the value of materials is increasingly recognized. Though, Ranjith Annepu highlighted the global nature of the question of who owns waste. Ranjith Annepu and Simon Peter Penney emphasized waste management and environmental costs should be factored into the selling prices of products and services.

Delphine Arri added that the trend is to integrate the informal sector in the waste management system. In Haiti for example “many municipalities don’t have enough resources to handle waste, thus some starts to partner to find common solutions.”

John Morton recognized the importance of bringing value to recyclables, thereby motivating people to manage and improve their recycling activities. David Jones provided two great examples: “In Dahab in the Sinai, no tin is on the ground because the locals understand the value and so recycle them. In Germany, every PET bottle is worth 40 cents for recycling.”

Issues of misconceptions around definitions

Simon Peter Penney inferred that definitions of waste have been problematic. Delphine Arri added that lists, for example the EU Waste Index, are often too long and complex. Adewole Taiwo Adegboyega also indicated classifying waste is complex. For example, in Lagos States, waste is categorized into more than 6 categories.

There are also many misconceptions on the practice of recycling. Kevin Adair mentioned two, that recycling is not always the best way to manage waste and that not all that is separated ends up being recycled.

John Morton also commented that there was a gap is the need to manage waste and waste generation of the fraction that becomes litter and reduces compared to that which is normally managed within the waste management system.

Two recycling bins sit relatively unused next to an overflowing bin for non-recyclable landfill garbage. Photo: Oliver Tennant

Two recycling bins sit relatively unused next to an overflowing bin for non-recyclable landfill garbage. Photo: Oliver Tennant

Sustainability of landfills

The question of whether landfilling was a sustainable option brought several interesting points from our panel. The common agreement was that landfills should be considered a part of a wider solution. Because, as Delphine Arri said, landfills remain the only way to deal with waste in an environmentally-sound manner in many developing countries since other options are still too expensive.

For example, according to Adewole Taiwo Adegboyega, the Lagos State in Nigeria generated approximately 10,000 metric tons of waste daily and 70% of this ends up in landfills. Kevin Adair also gave an insightful example: burying glass maybe more effective than recycling it. There are many places in the world where sand is plentiful, and it is easier, cheaper, less energy and carbon intensive to just bury glass and make new glass than to sort and reprocess glass into new glass.

Many on the panel, including David Jones, and Mike Webster, agreed that waste issues can be solved with a strategic mix of solutions and landfills should be part of it. Simon Peter Penney added we should design landfills not as disposal options but as storage solutions.

John Morton added that traditional landfill technologies for disposal seem to be the popular solution that can address the basic public health and environment solutions at relatively low cost. However, in the long term, innovations may help provide other solutions that can be applicable in the particular context of a given city in the developing world.

Stakeholder engagement and addressing consumption

The panel highlighted the importance of stakeholders’ engagement. Mike Webster and Ranjith Annepu mentioned that bottom-up community approaches were critical for dealing with waste issues.

Simon Peter Penney also added that the most effective waste systems are designed and implemented by communities themselves. David Jones however pointed out that identifying the value for the stakeholders is a major problem with our attitudes to waste. He showed an example of Reading Festival when tens of thousands of tents were left behind the festival goers because they didn’t have enough value to them.

David Jones raised a very interesting point: Plastic production accounts for 88% of the world’s oil reserves, and about 150 million tones of plastic waste is thrown away annually after using it just once. To tackle waste effectively, our throw away lifestyle also has to be changed. John Morton highlighted effecting examples for reducing consumption, including a plastic bag ban in Latin America, or the Styrofoam ban in US. James Greyson added that innovation is most needed is in the whole pattern of consumption.

Opportunities to innovate

Colored plastic bottles are arranged in a large temporary

Plastic bottles arranged in a large temporary "carpet," the work of a collaboration in South Morocco. Photo: Adil Moumane

Integrating the informal sector is necessary to tackle the waste issue, according to John Morton. Several countries in Latin America are making the incorporation of the informal waste sector in the waste management system a legal requirement. There are several examples of informal sector running separation plants and providing other services in Brazil.

According to Mike Webster the rate for recycling in Delhi was 27% from the informal sector alone, and this was at no cost to the public purse. This raised the important discussion point was that waste should be realized as a resource. David Jones and Kevin Adair  indicated the German model, which included a high percentage of biomass production as a sustainable, renewable energy source that also reduced the country’s overall waste production footprint. 

Ranjith Annepu also noted that fostering innovation in green chemistry and materials research and greening the design of products could reinforce the effectiveness of reducing waste and reusing productions.

Sarahjane Widdowson and other panelists highlighted that innovation is restricted to local environment. Delphine Arri highlighted that innovations in waste management must be adjusted and specific to the context in which they are developed and implemented.

In addition, Simon Peter Penney commented that countries in the emerging world know more about zero-waste than anyone else, there is a real opportunity for the global North to learn from the global South. David Jones added that we should stop looking for one specific solution to the issue. Also, Simon Gusah emphasized that small, localized, community-based solutions are the best, but the key is getting ahead of the problem.

Finally, Ranjith Annepu emphasized that waste is a cross-cutting issue, to which David Jones added that cultural shift might be more of a solution than efficient waste management processes, legislation, and investment.


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