In recent years there have been great advancements in solid waste management and people are becoming more and more aware of its importance. However especially in developing countries there is still a need for more sustainable solutions. We spoke to Jiao Tang and Luis Marinheiro about the current situation in waste management and what still needs to be done to make it more sustainable and innovative.
Could you outline in few words the International Solid Waste Association’s mission?
Jiao Tang: Our mission is to first and foremost promote sustainable professional waste management. And we are there to support any actors to achieve that goal.
What are the most urgent issues in solid waste management that need to be tackled at the moment?
Luis Marinheiro: Today, we have two perspectives. We have the developed countries and the developing countries. On the one hand, in developed countries, the circular economy is a huge target. On the other hand, in developing countries, the implementation of sound technical environmental solutions is the main goal nowadays.
Jiao Tang: I would add that currently, we are really emphasising the urgent need to close down dump sites and to stop uncontrolled dumping and open burning because they pose severe health risks for people and have a negative environmental impact on air, water bodies as well as on soil. This way, it also enters the food chain. That is a really urgent issue, and we are there to support the process of building alternative sustainable systems in cities.
Can you name any very innovative or unusual approaches to waste management?
Luis Marinheiro: I think that in the context of the smart city there are increasingly innovative solutions. Applying technology for waste collection and for separate collection at source are things that are out there right now, I think. Milan (Italy) is currently one of the pioneers of the separate collection of food waste. Food waste diversion from landfills is becoming a necessity and there are several good and excellent examples in Europe on this topic.
Can you name one of these examples?
Luis Marinheiro: Milan would be one; another example is Porto in Portugal. The municipality there is experimenting with a network and new technologies that they are implementing on waste collection trucks to transfer message information. In that way, they do not only rely on conventional systems to transfer data, but they have corresponding tools on waste management and waste collection vehicles.
Jiao Tang: I can also give a few examples that – to me – are very innovative. I am not only thinking about European cities, but also about cities in low income countries like India where the cost of collection is being optimised. They have started to test and propose the use of sensor-based technologies so that trucks only come to collect a bin when the sensor detects that it is full. This is being applied in other cities and it reduces collection costs. Another example I have seen myself is in São Paulo, Brazil. There is an NGO which has developed home composting boxes, making home composting really easy.
They constructed a box consisting of three stacked smaller boxes, half a metre long and half a metre high and one third a meter wide, with the bottom box for leachate collection, middle box for mature compost and the top layer box for fresh input, that works with vermicomposting. So you have earth worms in the box, you have the base material, the substrate. In a next step the NGO started doing workshops with households and taught the people how to compost, even in apartment buildings. Of course, as it is a biological process, problems can occur, it is trial and error, so the support and training from NGO is crucial. The NGO’s initiative, Composta Sao Paulo, was supported by the city of São Paulo, which deployed 2000 boxes to households in 2014. I know the city is also trying to develop this initiatives further.
Luis Marinheiro: I can give you two more examples: In some areas in the US, robots are used to sort materials. Another example is the use of drones for surveillance on operational landfills, which is for example the case in Argentina.
And what can citizens actually do in cities to change their consumption patterns and produce less waste?
Luis Marinheiro: In Europe, there are some examples of the implementation of circular economy. One of the hot topics right now is the prevention and reuse of materials. And in this cycle, waste is not seen as trash but as a resource. If you, for example, include social groups and NGOs that help to reuse materials, you are preventing the generation of waste.
Jiao Tang: I think consumers and citizens actually have a very strong leverage to change consumption or production patterns, if the awareness is there that we need to reduce consumption and that we need to choose products that are sustainable. Let us look at reducing packaging, for example: if there is sufficient demand from the consumers, then the business mottos will change. Companies will start to use more sustainable packaging, for example bioplastics or composites of biodegradable packaging instead of fossil-based plastics.
So I think people, on the one hand, need to know that they have the power to make a difference, and on the other hand, need to be aware of what is sustainable and what is not. In Austria for example, where I am based, there is a trend towards packaging-free products. There are supermarkets that are selling products like milk or cereals without packaging. People go there with their own jars and bottles to buy those products. And I think young people nowadays are very conscious about this.
Can cities actually do more to instil a healthy attitude into their citizens towards waste management, to raise more awareness for this issue?
Jiao Tang: I think cities have already started introducing a lot of programmes to engage citizens. But there is still a lot more that cities can do to increase citizen participation. In the end, it is not only about waste, it is about people. For example in the UK, some municipalities have already started promoting community farming. This has an effect on people not only in the way that they learn more about biological processes, but it is also an opportunity for them to get together, to strengthen the community. There are a lot of ideas that can be combined. We are promoting sustainability in cities, but at the same time we are promoting communities and connectivity among people.
How can cities effectively partner up with their neighbouring communities or neighbouring cities in waste management?
Luis Marinheiro: I think that nowadays cities are more aware of the problems, they are more interested in technology and there are several programmes – not only for getting access to funds and grants, but for networking. In my view, environment, sustainability and resilience are topics that mayors like, and that make them more involved politically.
Jiao Tang: I think that this topic is especially relevant for smaller cities that perhaps do not have enough financial and technical resources, and that do not achieve a certain economy of scale to have certain kinds of facilities, for example for transforming waste to energy. In these cases, small neighbouring cities can team up and share a facility, which reduces costs for each of them.
What is your hope for the implementation of the New Urban Agenda?
Jiao Tang: That is a big question. I hope that the New Urban Agenda, together with the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement, incentivises strong commitment from national and city level governments to set the right priorities and really make waste management a priority. It is also important not to look at it as one sector alone: waste is such a broad topic, it is connected to water, soil, food and therefore should be given more attention and resources.
Luis Marinheiro: My hope is that with this Agenda, we can be more inclusive. In the end, I think that we will be successful, if we involve people and rely on them.
Jiao Tang: I also think that the New Urban Agenda and SDGs, compared to the Millennium Development Goals, put more emphasis on waste issues and mention waste management specifically in some of the goals. In the New Urban Agenda, there are two points and one Policy Paper that mention waste management. In terms of the SDGs, there is a lot that we can leverage from this political commitment. Waste is connected to all environmental and human development matters: water, air, soil, ocean litter, climate change, health, urbanisation, governance, just to name a few.