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World Resources 1996-97
(A joint publication by The World Resource Institute, The United
 Nations Environment Programme, The United Nations Development
 Programme, and the World Bank)
(Data edited by Dr. Róbinson Rojas)

5. Urban Priorities for Action


The growing volume of waste spawned by the consumption inherent in city life is a formidable challenge to cities in developing and developed countries alike. For low-income cities, the main solid waste problem is how to extend collection services to the poor-- often 50 percent of the population is without service. Improving efficiency in these cities is key, because waste management often accounts for 30 to 50 percent of operational budgets, yet collects only 50 to 80 percent of the refuse generated (62) (63). In middle- income and high-income cities, collection often reaches 95 to 100 percent of the population, but disposing of ever greater quantities of waste emerges as the key challenge (64) (65).

The traditional approach to solid waste management--that municipal governments handle all aspects of collection, transport, and disposal--has been at best a mixed success in both developed and developing countries. The search for more efficient and economical solid waste collection programs has taken cities in several directions, most notably toward new partnerships with communities or the private sector and toward new types of economic policy instruments, such as recycling credits (payment to a recycler), landfill disposal levies (taxes at the landfill site designed to reduce the amount of waste being landfilled), and product charges (a packaging tax to discourage overpackaging).

Informal Waste Collection

In the developing world, the municipal system handles only a minor fraction of the wastes generated in a city. In many cities, especially in Asia, more wastes are dealt with by a vast network of urban wastepickers (66). These wastepickers provide clear environmental and economic benefits to the city: saving resources through recycling raw materials, reducing the costs of waste disposal, allowing for the production of cheaper goods from recycled materials, and creating much-needed jobs (67).

Wastepickers are often highly organized and can account for a large share of waste collection. In Indonesian cities, estimates suggest that wastepickers reduce total urban refuse by one third (68). In Bangalore, India, street and dump pickers gather an estimated 500 metric tons of post-consumer wastes daily, compared with only 37 metric tons gathered by municipal workers (69).

In addition, many businesses depend on regular supplies of waste materials from the wastepickers. In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, one study found that small-scale industries received 50 to 65 percent of their raw materials from wastepickers working landfill sites (70). The finished products ranged from buckets to kerosene cookers. More generally, steel, paper, and glass producers in developing countries are heavily dependent on recycled material inputs.

Yet in most cases, wastepicking is driven by abject poverty. For many, the only access to many of the resources they need for housing, clothing, fuel, and work comes from the waste materials of the more affluent (71). Socially ostracized, wastepickers--many of whom are women and children--usually work in squalid, unhealthful conditions for long hours and low returns (72).

With the increasing recognition of the value of informal waste collection to urban functioning, efforts are now under way in a number of cities to integrate these activities into the formal urban economy and to minimize the health and safety risks of waste collection for those whose livelihood depends on it. Many of these efforts are driven by NGOs or community-based organizations and face the organizational and financial difficulties common to voluntary efforts. As a result, few projects have led to citywide programs, and many have not survived even on a small scale (73) (74).

However, some efforts have shown a measure of success. In Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and Bandung, Indonesia, for example, wastepickers are being organized into "unions" or "cooperatives" (75) (76) (77). Cooperatives can improve the efficiency of collection by pooling financial resources (e.g., by using community loans to upgrade collection equipment) and by giving wastepickers a greater political voice. Unions can appeal to the municipality to allow them access to recyclables within the city and the city's dump sites. In a few cities, these groups take on social roles as well, lobbying for improved sanitation facilities and schools.

In Madras, India, one organization worked with scavengers to integrate them into the city's door-to-door waste collection service (78) (79). Wastepickers collect wastes from households and either deliver them to municipal vehicles or deposit them at transfer points, with households paying a fee for this service. In other cities, the collectors can trade the recyclables for extra income, and the organics can be taken for small-scale composting. In still others, wastepickers have been given picks, gloves, and boots to provide protection from cuts and exposure to pathogens (80). However, wastepicking remains a hazardous occupation.

New Partnerships and the Private Sector

Opportunities exist to improve the efficiency of municipal solid waste collection services. Given the limited financial and administrative resources of local governments in developing countries, there is a great deal of speculation about whether privatization, which has generally worked well in North America and Europe, can be adapted to poorer cities (81). Solid waste collection services by the private sector are from 20 to 48 percent less costly than public services and can be a great improvement in terms of efficiency and quality (82).

However, privatization should not be considered a panacea. Private companies may only be interested in servicing high-income areas of the city, where service charges can be higher and where the value of reclaimed or recycled materials is higher. In addition, without a proper regulatory structure and competition, private companies may not have incentives to provide the best services or to dispose of wastes according to environmental regulations.

The ideal arrangement may be a mix of public and private services-- that is, contracting out the collection of solid waste in some zones of the city while retaining public service to the remaining zones (83). This system can make city operations more cost- effective while still allowing the city the ability to take over solid waste collection if a private contractor fails. In the United States, the city of Phoenix is divided into zones for solid waste collection. The city's department of public works retains jurisdiction over two zones and competes with private companies for 7-year contracts to service the other zones. The contract is awarded to the lowest bidder; so far the city has won about half of the contracts. After a decade of competitive bidding, the city estimated that cost savings amounted to $11 million, and cost avoidance (from lower costs of contracts won back by the city) amounted to $9 million (84).

Similar arrangements have also been successful in developing country cities. Seoul, Republic of Korea; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and Bangkok, Thailand, for example, all maintain some form of public solid waste collection service while privatizing some parts of the city (85). In Kuala Lumpur, the city provides detailed guidance to bidders, including estimates of the daily amount of garbage to be picked up and the likely number of workers needed. The city also makes certain that each contractor's offer is sufficient to ensure satisfactory service and a profit for the contractor, but it reserves the right to terminate contracts at any time should service be unsatisfactory (86).

Reducing Waste Generation

In developed countries, the volume of municipal waste generated far exceeds that in developing countries, and the costs of disposal are becoming increasingly burdensome for strapped city budgets. Many cities are trying to find new ways to provide incentives for residents to reduce waste generation and increase recycling. Variable garbage can rates or pay-per-bag systems have been very effective in reducing solid waste generation at minimal cost to the city. In Perkasie, Pennsylvania, for example, the introduction of per-bag fees led to reductions in the volume of solid waste by more than 50 percent; the cost of solid waste disposal fell by 30 to 40 percent (87).

Other cities are fostering businesses with innovative recycling projects. In Berkeley, California, a company called Urban Ore combs the city's trash for products and materials it can clean up or repair and then sell. In Chicago, another company repairs car tires or reprocesses them into products ranging from snowblower blades to conveyor rollers (88).

Paying more for garbage disposal or intensifying recycling efforts is only a small portion of what needs to be done, however. Reducing the amount of waste generated will require fundamental changes in how countries value and use resources (89).

References and Notes

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