Managing waste for conservation and livelihoods
Waste. It is all around us, piling up under our sinks, being buried in landfills, polluting soils, and suffocating marine life. But no matter how we try to cover it up or ship it away, this is one environmental problem too big to be ignored.
In most of the countries where I have worked, waste management infrastructure is poor or lacking, leaving a grungy impression of haphazard ignorance and neglect. A shabby, dirty manifestation of an ‘I don’t care’ attitude. In truth, it is more likely to be an indication of not being able to afford proper waste management, of not knowing how or not knowing why waste is a problem.
Even in sophisticated cities like Cambridge, discarded plastic wrappers and aluminium cans scar the urban landscape, and choke the River Cam and Hobson’s Brook. We seem not to care, despite all the legal frameworks and education at our disposal, so to speak.
Tackling the waste problem takes more than changing the products we purchase, implementing better recycling programmes or cleaning up shorelines (though these are all critical steps). The scale of the problem requires broader thinking – the kind of thinking that recognises the relationships between waste, conservation and society, and develops local and regional solutions together.
Waste comes in many forms, all of which affect people and nature. Non-degradable waste enters the food chain, potentially causing illness, disease or death. Organic waste, meanwhile, is implicated in disease, pest outbreaks and contamination of water and soils. Toxic waste is as harmful as its name suggests.
Poor waste management can harm biodiversity both directly (e.g. the consumption of plastic microbeads by marine wildlife) and indirectly (e.g. landfill sites, which provide ideal conditions for bacteria that produce methane – a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change).
Unmanaged waste in our environment can also affect human health, particularly in developing countries where people rely directly on healthy, functioning environments for survival (and where waste is not well managed, due to resource and technology limitations).
Why manage waste?
Good waste management does more than just clean up the environment – it can also provide diverse benefits for communities that engage in waste management activities.
These include harnessing new sources of energy, improving well-being and tourism potential by creating a more pleasing landscape, enhancing the services local ecosystems provide (such as food and clean water), and creating income sources through, for example, compost-making, recycling, energy generation and sanitation.
Waste management strategies for conservation and livelihoods
So how do we go about managing waste holistically? The answer is to start small but think big, by developing local initiatives that sit within regional waste management strategies.
Picture a village or small town in a developing country that has a problem with managing its waste and contributes to global waste-related issues, such as marine plastic pollution. Such a site can be used to develop a systematic process that can be replicated in other areas. This process should involve three main components: collection and sorting, processing, and embedding.
In our example, collection and sorting involves removing plastics from the environment – particularly from freshwater, marine and coastal habitats – and preventing them from entering the environment in the first place, by collecting them at source. Developing waste collection and sorting schemes (such as waste compacting and sorting facilities) can help improve local livelihoods through productive work.
Processing is the act of reusing, recycling and generating energy and other useful products from waste. For example, this can involve developing and installing composters and small-scale waste-to-energy plants to provide a market and end use for biodegradable waste. It might also involve developing and installing recycling facilities.
In rural areas, ‘precycling’ (choosing not to acquire items that would need recycling or generate waste) and recycling for practical use enables entrepreneurship. Companies can also develop take-back schemes for products such as batteries and other electrical goods, or pay local people to return pre-sorted waste to them.
The broader challenge is to develop regional waste management strategies and to embed local processes within these to ensure sustainability.
This involves educating, training and raising awareness among local communities, small-scale businesses and entrepreneurs to develop and run local waste management initiatives that create livelihoods. It requires us to ensure that policy makers are equipped with the know-how to devise effective, long-term regional waste strategies Lastly, it requires us to create markets and infrastructure for products such as compost, energy and recycled material.
Understanding the connections between waste, livelihoods and the environment, and integrating local and regional needs can make a big difference in tackling this pressing challenge.
Viewed from this holistic perspective, waste management begins to look less like an insurmountable problem and more like an opportunity for people and nature to benefit in equal measure.
What a waste it would be to miss that opportunity!