Solid waste workers have been indispensable to protecting cities around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their heroic examples, from India to Vietnam to Latin America, have helped cities keep moving. But a critical alignment of factors is making their survival harder.
The working conditions of frontline solid waste management workers are uniquely challenging at the best of times. The world generates more than 2 billion tons of solid waste every year, and as many as 85% of solid waste workers are informal, with only about 4 million under formal labor conditions. The pandemic has exacerbated things even beyond the direct health risk to workers. The closure of country borders and the lower prices of plastics due to low oil prices have hit the livelihoods of waste workers especially hard. Many rely on revenue from recycling, which is now less lucrative.
As the World Bank estimates that between 88-115 million people will be pushed back into poverty by the pandemic, the IMF is calling on governments to scale up quality public investments as a part of recovery programs, including in environmental protection and climate adaptation. While governments and cities in medium- and low-income economies are highly constrained by limited fiscal resources, integrating solid waste management improvements into resilient recovery programs can help create jobs, close equity gaps, increase environmental protections and forge more efficient, sustainable cities.
To achieve this impact, cities should view solid waste management not only as a municipal function of collection and disposal of waste, but as a whole-of-society set of activities – from environmental protection to climate adaptation, inclusive jobs to a circular economy.
The solid waste management ecosystem has enormous potential to generate green jobs. The examples of Brazil or the city of Pune, India, integrating informal waste pickers through cooperatives into formal waste management systems give important lessons. Even simpler steps that alleviate small, less expensive bottlenecks in the system can unleash waste pickers’ productivity. Collection stations in low-income communities allows for consolidation of materials, facilitation of recyclables collection can optimize frequency and volumes, and registering waste pickers can allow them to take advantage of social protection systems.
Ideally, municipalities go a step further and encourage the establishment of small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with business models that can grow after the pandemic recovery phase. Some of these businesses can thrive in specialized waste streams such as e-waste. This will require breaking traditional silos between SME support programs, skills and training platforms and the solid waste sector, which is often forgotten as a strong option for green jobs and SMEs. In Jamaica, for example, Environmental Wardens are employed to educate neighbors to keep communities clean and encourage depositing of waste into bins, rather than burning and dumping.
Resilience and Environmental Protection
More than 90% of waste in low-income countries is openly dumped or burned. Uncollected waste making its way into riverbanks, creeks, ditches and canals increases the risk of flooding in cities. Deadly landslides in waste dumps are a common occurrence. Litter can also become a breeding habitat for mosquitoes and other disease vectors. In Latin America and the Caribbean, litter accounts for 7-15% of breeding habitats for mosquitoes carrying dengue, chikungunya and zika viruses.
Climate disasters such as hurricanes, cyclones and floods are increasing, further stressing urban waste systems. As the pandemic and climate disasters’ compounded shocks stretch budgets, recovery programs with strong climate adaptation and resilience components will help reduce the impacts and economic damages of these kinds of crises. Effective solid waste management systems will be a critical piece of this effort, particularly for low-income communities with the least access to safe waste management.
Waste collection programs that maintain a city’s drainage capacity can be low-cost solutions, as shown by World Bank programs in Tanzania, Indonesia, Pakistan and many other countries. When these programs are designed to focus on jobs and SMEs, they can not only create new market opportunities but build resilience and adaptation.
Operational Efficiency, Savings and Competitiveness
The economic cost of dumped waste can be as high as five times the cost of proper management. In post-pandemic recovery, robust solid waste management systems will be crucial to helping governments find new sources of savings, while enabling faster economic growth through enhanced competitiveness for cities and businesses.
Open waste dumps lower land values. Some municipalities spend very large portions of their budgets on solid waste, with a huge range of spending as a portion of the total budget, between 4% for high-income countries and up to 50% in lower-income countries. Poor operations and untargeted subsidies that do not reach the poor are one way systems can become so expensive. Municipalities have not fully leveraged the power of digital solutions to increase efficiency, reduce costs and engage customers.
Untreated waste causes significant public health impacts and costs through diarrhea, cholera and chronic respiratory diseases, and economic costs through lost days of work and reduced economic activity. Finally, cities that depend on clean environments for their core industries – from tourism to education – stand to see livelihoods quickly erode with poorly managed solid waste.
Successful results-based financing waste programs, like those tried in Nepalese cities, can give lessons to national governments looking for efficiency in the use of municipal budgets. Many cities are also considering circular economy programs, which have the potential to give significant boosts to economic recovery when implemented in partnership with the private sector. The Resilient Cities Network has documented practical city examples from South Africa, Uruguay, and India moving in this direction. The opportunity to create and grow circular economy SMEs – focused on packaging, replacement of single-use plastics, reuse innovations and more – needs to be considered in conjunction with integrated solid waste management systems.
The pandemic has amplified existing inequities in cities around the world. Improving solid waste management systems can help to reverse growing gaps. For example, recovery programs can not only be designed to generate sustainable jobs and SMEs in the waste sector, but they can go a step further and target the creation or expansion of SMEs led by women, residents of low-income communities, excluded youth, persons with disabilities and other marginalized groups.
The global community should also consider solid waste in post-pandemic recovery support programs for communities affected by conflict. Positive examples from the West Bank and Yemen show that waste is a sector with enormous potential for transformational change in conflict-affected environments.
Inequality and lack of voice or representation go hand in hand. Municipal governments and their waste departments or companies can transform themselves by setting up two-way engagement mechanisms with customers and local NGOs to co-create practical solutions for jobs, service extension and improved efficiency. Successful recovery from COVID-19 will require strong trust between municipalities and residents. Solid waste can be a bridge to build that trust.
As cities and national governments evaluate options to invest limited resources, the solid waste management sector can be part of the solution. Indeed, the pandemic crisis may even allow national and local governments to move forward with policy reforms for solid waste systems that have otherwise stalled. The Morocco policy reform program implemented in stages over four years provides useful lessons.
Action on solid waste can provide sustainable solutions to multiple challenges faced by cities. Targeted support for informal waste pickers can help a large group of essential service providers that is struggling right now, while better solid waste management can not only generate jobs and new businesses but savings and efficiency gains that will help strained budgets for years to come.