Municipal solid waste (MSW) management is the most important service a city provides; in low-income countries as well as many middle-income countries, MSW is the largest single budget item for cities and one of the largest employers. Solid waste is usually the one service that falls completely within the local government’s purview. A city that cannot effectively manage its waste is rarely able to manage more complex services such as health, education, or transportation.

Not surprisingly, poorly managed waste has an enormous impact on residents’ health, the local and global environment, and the economy; improperly managed waste usually results in down-stream costs higher than what it would have cost to manage the waste properly in the first place. The long-term impact is also dire, as improperly managed waste contributes to climate change in the form of greenhouse-gas emissions (the methane from the organic fraction of the waste stream), and has serious short- and long-term health impacts.

This issue of Handshake delves into the messy area of MSW for all of these reasons and more. Authors share innovations at work in developing countries, public-private partnership (PPP) models that can be replicated, and technology that is increasing efficiency in the sector. Several articles also help demystify the many options available to municipal officials today, such as the choice of landfill model versus energy from waste (EFW) model.

It’s important to understand in what ways [waste] is a new problem that requires a fresh look.

More people, more trash

The articles in the following pages explain the scope and scale of the waste problem, but first it’s important to understand in what ways this is a new and growing problem that requires a fresh look. Solid waste is inextricably linked to urbanization and economic development, and globally the pace of urbanization is increasing. As countries urbanize, their economic wealth increases. As standards of living and disposable incomes increase, consumption of goods and services increases, which generates more waste. According to the World Bank Report “What a Waste,” almost 1.3 billion tonnes of MSW are generated globally every year. The actual per capita rates are highly variable, geographically, as there are considerable differences in waste generation rates across countries, among cities, and even within cities.

Solid waste is generally considered an “urban” issue. Waste generation rates tend to be much lower in rural areas since, on average, residents are usually poorer, purchase fewer store-bought items (which results in less packaging), and have higher levels of reuse and recycling. By 2050, as many people will live in cities as the population of the whole world in 2000. All these city dwellers will likely generate more than 8 million tonnes of waste a day—twice as much as today.

This will add challenges to an already tough problem. The public and private sector together will need to assume much more responsibility for waste generation and disposal, specifically product design and waste separation. Formalizing these responsibilities through well-structured PPPs can result in significant improvements in efficiency and quality to solid waste management.

The public and private sector together will need to assume more responsibility for waste generation and disposal.

To make PPPs for MSW successful, governments must consider the content and volume of the existing waste stream, the appropriate technologies, the imperative of stringent environmental standards and community engagement, who will pay for what, and the availability of experienced private partners.

These are big, complicated issues, but the results are straightforward. As the world hurtles toward its urban future, how we handle municipal solid waste today will be one of the best predictors of future generations’ welfare.

This article was adapted in part from “What a Waste: A Global Review of Solid Waste Management” by Daniel Hoornweg and Perinaz Bhada-Tata, Urban Development Series Knowledge Papers, World Bank, March 2012, No. 15.