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Atlas Award: Steps to tackling the world’s solid waste management crisis

As the world population, economy and consumption grow, a complex and multi-dimensional approach is needed

Atlas trophyThe Atlas Award 

Elsevier's new virtual journal Atlas features scientific research that has an impact on people around the world. 

Each month, Atlas's advisory board selects a research article for the Atlas Award, based on suggestions from the publishers of Elsevier's 1,800+ journals. The key criterion is the social impact of the research. Atlas's science writers summarize the winning article in an easy-to-understand story for Atlas, and the article is also made freely available on ScienceDirect.  

April's winning article is in the journal Waste Management: “Solid waste management challenges for cities in developing countries, by Dr. Lilliana Abarca Guerreroa of the Costa Rica Institute of Technology and Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, Dr. Ger Maasa of the Built Environment Department of Eindhoven University, and Dr. William Hogland of the School of Natural Sciences, Linnaeus University, in Kalmar, Sweden.

Read a summary of their article below.

Illegal landfill in a city park (© istockphoto.com/StrahilDimitrov)In the Kenyan city of Nakuru in 2009, each individual produced half a kilogram (about one pound) of waste every day. In Thailand’s Bangkok about five years ago and in San Jose, Costa Rica, in 2011, each individual produced an estimated 1.10 kilograms (almost 2.5 pounds) of waste every day on average.

Similar things are happening in cities all over the developing world, day after day. As the world population, economy, and consumption grows, the situation is only getting worse. The question is: Where is this sea of waste going to go? And how is it going to get there?

While these may seem like simple questions to ask, they don’t come with simple answers, say researchers writing in the journal Waste Management. A complex and multi-dimensional approach is needed, taking into account the environment, socio-cultural practices and associated barriers, legal issues, economics, and more.

“I always say when I go to cities, if somebody comes with a magical solution for the waste management situation of the city, be scared about it,” said Dr. Lilliana Abarca-Guerrero of the Costa Rica Institute of Technology and Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. “There are no magical solutions or quick fixes in waste management. There are paths to follow for the prevention, reduction, reuse, recycle and safe disposal of waste.”

The solution is not simply to import modernized trucks and technologies or to improve roads. Abarca-Guerrero has come to this conclusion after poring through the scientific literature, existing databases, and traveling to 22 countries all over the world on four continents.

Based on an analysis of the data, the Waste Management report outlines the stakeholders to be considered and the basic elements and aspects that must be taken into consideration for a successful waste management system. Some of the key conclusions are as follows:

  • Waste management involves many players and communication among them is key.
  • A successful waste management system must consider technological solutions along with “environmental, socio-cultural, legal, institutional and economic linkages.”
  • Financial resources are required to obtain the skilled personnel, infrastructure, and equipment needed to implement waste management plans.
  • Decision makers must be well informed with access to reliable data.
  • Universities and research centers have an important role to play in preparing professionals and technicians with expertise in waste management.

Integrated sustainable waste management model (WASTE, 2004; adapted from ISSOWAMA Consortium, 2009)

Ultimately, the challenge is to move waste from one place to another and to address the many factors along the way that influence and potentially interrupt that flow. The awareness and involvement of citizens is an especially critical part of the equation.

“When the community participates together with municipalities, you’ve already solved a big part of the problem,” Abarca-Guerrero said.

The challenges are daunting — the World Bank’s Urban Development department estimates that the amount of municipal solid waste will reach 2.2 billion tons per year over the next decade — but Abarca-Guerrero remains optimistic that progress can be made.

“I’ve always said that if the developed world could manage the situation, we can in the developing world because they are not smarter than we are.” This means that the developing countries can, using their own resources face the challenges, and the developing world countries must not be tempted by the idea notion their problems can be solved by buying modernized equipment as seen in other parts of the world.

“We don’t need to apply technologies such as the ones used in the developed world, but we can see how the system works and develop our own best practices,” she says. “Maybe in the U.S. or Netherlands, you can use mechanized trucks with totally automated arms picking up everything. We may need a horse and cart collecting the waste if that is what we have internally available.”

The paper, which includes a questionnaire for characterizing waste management in any city, is freely available for download in English. Abarca-Guerrero says she plans to make it available in Spanish as well.


Read the full story on Atlas

The full story includes:

  • A Q&A with the lead author
  • The Atlas Award-winning article: "Solid Waste Management Challenges for Cities in Developing Countries"
  • Further reading from the WASTE portal
  • A World Bank review on solid waste management
  • A waste map to aid visualization of municipal solid waste management


Elsevier Connect Contributor 

Kendall Morgan, PhDDr. Kendall Morgan is a scientist turned science writer via the Science Communication Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her work has been featured in publications including Big Science Media's Genome, Cancer Today, The Scientist, Science News and Science Now, and by organizations including Addgene and the Life Sciences Foundation. She lives in Durham, North Carolina.

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