World Bank report profiles progress and challenges in the global waste sector

A waste picker in Johannesburg pulls a full sack of recyclables down a city street.

The World Bank’s latest report on the global waste sector offers what looks to be a detailed portrait of waste collection, disposal, and management in different regions of the world – accompanied by the fruits of a seemingly unprecedented data-gathering effort. Freighted with statistics and up-to-date information about best practices, its 296 pages are clearly intended to offer a comprehensive, state-of-the-nation breakdown of what waste is being generated across the world, how it is being collected, its composition, who is responsible for it, and who pays for it. Envirotec editor Paul Marsh offers a brief overview.

Titled What a Waste 2.0: A global snapshot of solid waste management to 2050, the report appears to update and extend the analysis of an earlier 2012 edition – its authors claim it offers “the most extensive combined national and urban solid waste management data collection effort to date”.

Since 2012, a few clear trends emerge, say the authors. Waste collection has clearly moved on since then in low-income countries, which are also now seeing a greater proportion of non-organic waste appearing. Globally, there is an overall trend towards greater levels of recycling and composting. And the use of waste-to-energy incineration in upper-middle-income countries – places like Brazil, Russia and the less affluent countries in Europe – has risen sharply from 0.1 to 10 percent, seemingly driven by China’s shift to incineration.

A snapshot of global waste
The world generates 2.01 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste per year, with at least 33 percent of that – a seemingly conservative estimate – not being managed in an environmentally sound way. And this garbage cascade will intensify to the tune of a further 3.4 billion tonnes by 2050, much of that growth coming from low and middle-income countries where the infrastructure for collecting and handling it seems relatively undeveloped. The waste generated by sub-Saharan Africa, for example, is expected to nearly triple by 2050 – a region where more than half of generated waste currently ends up in open dumps.

The report’s foreword reflects on the urgency of the problem. Those who will pay the highest price for waste mismanagement are the most vulnerable, whether from losing their homes to landslides, or suffering the health ill effects of working in unsafe waste-picking conditions or living close to hazardous or untreated waste.

The stakes are high for the environment too, as more societies around the world pick up their pace of development without adequate systems currently in place to manage the growing, and increasingly complex, waste mountain. We’re starting to wake up to the fact that our oceans are clogged with plastic, yet the consumption of plastic grows unabated, as the foreword points out. And emissions are an issue in the sector too – solid waste management accounts for around 5% of global CO2 emissions, and without improvements these emissions will only increase.

Waste management is a cash-strapped undertaking – often administered by local authorities, as the foreword points out, “with limited resources and limited capacity for planning, contract management, and operational monitoring.” So data is critical to those creating policy, which has to be tailored to the local context – and this is an area where the report is presumably intended to help.

Having developed a global picture of waste generation, collection, composition, methods of dealing with it, finance and so on, the report goes on to offer snapshots of each region of the world, in greater detail. Further sections cover waste administration and operations, finance, waste and society (including things like citizen engagement and technology), and a series of case studies.

Technology trends
A small section is devoted to technology trends, looking at the impact of things like data management, and manufacturing techniques that are enabling the reuse of materials. And for waste collection and transportation – “often the costliest step in waste management” – technology is now available that can increase efficiency, from geographical information systems that can help municipalities optimise waste transportation, to the use of solar-powered compactor bins.

One interesting example highlighted in the report is an online, smartphone-accessed platform being used in India – I Got Garbage – which matches waste pickers with households and businesses in need of waste disposal. More than 10,000 waste pickers are currently supported by the platform.

Roosevelt Island in New York City, where the use of an underground, airflow-based system allows waste to be transported from high-rise apartments to a central collection point, eliminating the need for truck-based garbage collection.

The report also profiles some of the automated collection initiatives that have gotten started. Pneumatic waste collection – where waste is transported via underground pipe networks using airflow – has been deployed in Roosevelt Island, New York City, as the report says (it’s also begun to appear in Australia), and while its offers a means to dispense with truck-based collection, with all its problems, there are many hurdles to its wider deployment, notably cost and the limitations that might be imposed by a city’s shape and substructure. A more detailed case study later in the report examines Israel’s first automated vacuum collection (AVAC) system, installed in the city of Yavne in 2012.

A section towards the end of the report provides a large selection of case studies, from localities with very differing cultures, levels of affluence, types of waste, and existing waste infrastructure. One study looks at how San Francisco has become one of the greenest cities in the US, since it declared a zero-waste-to-landfill (by 2020) commitment in 2002. Another case study looks at how Argentina and Colombia have learned to overcome financial shortfalls and recover costs in their solid waste management strategies.

In Japan, only 1% of waste is landfilled, and another case study outlines how this has been achieved, seemingly through a combination of advanced technology and sophisticated cooperation and governance.

There are also seemingly thorough case studies on managing disaster waste, partnerships between waste management and the informal waste sector (in Pune, India), extended producer responsibility in Europe, marine litter, and many other issues that no doubt have a place in the ‘urgent’ file of policymakers and decision makers in the waste management sphere.