Developing Countries Need New Solutions: Waste Management Rethought

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Sometimes, we hear in the news about challenges in developing countries with the need for more infrastructure like hospitals, schools, roads, etc. And when we think about how to solve those problems, we imagine more money being invested in developing countries so that the infrastructure in developed countries can finally be brought over to other nations.

But this isn’t how the world actually works. What the general public fails to understand is the extent to which the challenges faced by the developing world are fundamentally different than those we see in developed countries. Carrying over the solutions from developed countries and attempting to crudely fit them into developing countries isn’t always effective… or even possible.

One place where this problem definitely applies is when it comes to waste management infrastructure. While improvements for waste management infrastructure in developing countries don’t receive as much attention as urgent healthcare infrastructure or uplifting education infrastructure, there are several reasons why improving waste management is a priority in developing countries.

A number of negative consequences exist due to current waste management practices in informal countries, from improper waste disposal leading to marine pollution (Source) to informal waste collectors facing health and financial risks while making a living outside the typical waste management system (Source).

But solving these problems by just applying solutions in developed countries won’t work. Due to the differences in cultures, economic markets, and resources between developed and developing countries, there are some unique challenges that need to be addressed when it comes to improving the waste management system in developing countries.

Open Dumps and Waste Management Planning

Top: An open dump in Manila in the Philippines. Bottom: A modern waste transfer station in Kirkuk, Iraq.

These dumps are often a leading source of plastic pollution in developing countries (Source). Not too many plastic bags or plastic straws, but inadequate environmental management of the waste at these open dumps is what often leads to plastic waste entering rivers. And just 20 rivers around the world led to 67% of the plastic waste that ends up in the oceans in 2017 (Source). This is especially true in countries in Asia, which is where 86% of plastic waste entered the ocean in 2015 (Source).

So what to do about these open dumps? Well, the first thing is to NOT just blame the developing countries in South Asia for this waste and leave them to deal with it themselves. Our marine ecosystems are all interconnected, so even if we pretend plastic pollution is another country’s problem — the waste will still end up in our shores and marine ecosystems.

Instead, what needs to happen is to reduce the likelihood of open dumps causing waste from leaking into the environment, either by transitioning away from their use or by improving enclosure around these open dumps to contain the waste. From the most recent data available, several developing countries rely on open dumps to dispose of the vast majority of their waste (ex. 77% in India, 75% across South Asia — Source).

While these open dumps need to be replaced by other waste management infrastructure (like recycling systems, incinerators, or sanitary landfills) in the long run, there are more immediate problems that need to be solved in addressing the impact of these open dumps on the environment. For instance, a McKinsey report suggests that basic infrastructural upgrades (including creating enclosures for these dumps from unused materials) can reduce leakage by about 26% at costs of under $500,000 per dump (Source).

Asides from this, there also needs to be work on the non-environmental challenges of open dumps. For instance, with the hazardous working conditions for informal waste collectors there (Source). Approaches to organise the informal waste sector are very promising (ex. companies like Plastic Bank have worked with almost 20,000 informal waste collectors to provide safer material collection hubs outside of dumps).

Implementing a combination of these new environmental standards and working with local informal waste collectors is a key part of addressing the unique challenges of waste management systems in developing countries.

Perceptions of Plastic Pollution / Recycling in Developing Countries

For instance, only 9% of garbage was sorted and reused in Indonesia in 2019 (Source). For other countries like China, recent data is not available, although there are claims of recycling rates of up to 22% in 2014 (Source). In any case, these rates are noticeably lower than those in developed countries, so how do consumers fit into this problem (among other factors like technology)?

Recycling rates for several developed countries around the world in 2015 (Source)

The first major factor that influences consumer recycling behaviour in developing countries is the accessibility of recycling services, often based on the convenience of recycling collection services (Source). Consumers who have easy access to recycling (like curbside recycling pickup found in many parts of North America) are 25% more likely to recycle (Source). These convenient collection programs are often not present in many parts of developing countries like China. As noted by a team of researchers in China:

“Lack of effective and convenient recycling facilities is one of the primary reasons for China’s plight in residential waste recycling.” (Source)

This factor is starting to be addressed as infrastructure develops in urban areas of developing countries especially. For instance, the recycling rate increased in Shanghai, China by 12.5% after the implementation of door-to-door recycling collection (Source). This development is not feasible in all parts of developing countries (ex. rural ones), however, so attention should also be directed to other major factors influencing consumer behaviour.

For instance, the public’s perception of the effectiveness of recycling systems also plays a role in its willingness to make an effort to recycle. Unfortunately, ineffective recycling infrastructure and sorting processes (especially due to a lack of standardisation in waste management processes) have created a persisting negative perception of recycling systems in developing countries, leading to residents taking less action to recycle. As described by the same researchers in China:

“it has not helped [efforts to improve recycling rates in China] that some cities have encouraged garbage sorting, only to have residents discover that the trash all ends up in the same place” (Source)

Then, due to the public’s poor perception of the recycling system, there is a decreased effort to sort recyclable waste from non-recyclable waste. And due to this, recycling facilities see little public will to recycle and thus, do not want to invest in infrastructural and procedural improvements that could make the recycling system more efficient. This creates a negative feedback loop creating a barrier in increasing recycling rates.

Speaking of public perception, another common perception in several developing countries has to do with the informal waste collectors from earlier that often work in hazardous conditions in areas including open dumps. These members of society are often looked down upon and the profession is thought undignified. This has created generations of stigma against these important stakeholders that need to be addressed if the informal waste sector is to contribute to better waste management.

To get around this, educational outreach to consumers and improvements in recycling systems for (formal/informal) waste management are needed concurrently. There quite literally need to be more ‘fresh starts’ with new recycling programs in municipalities in developing countries that ensure consumers are cognizant of the best practices and impact of recycling.

Many nonprofit organisations currently try to support this dual initiative in much of the developed world (Source). But there is a lot of work left in scaling these initiatives across the developing world, so that more waste is diverted from open dumps, landfills, etc. to avoid plastic pollution.

Attention Needed: Multilayered Plastics Usage

To provide context to the problem, over 45% of plastic waste generated in 2015 was from packaging materials (Source). And up to 56% of plastic packaging in developing countries consists of multi-layered materials (Source). In fact, it is estimated that every residence in the U.S. uses 27kg of multi-layered plastic films each year, representing a $25B in North America alone (Source).

From interviews with organisations that are working to increase recycling rates in the developing world, it is evident that these materials still present a substantial challenge in creating better recycling systems (Source). The most common way to manage these plastics is either sending them to landfills (or more often, open dumps in developing countries) or incineration (Source).

So if these materials pose known challenges, why are they used in the first place? Well, the reason is that they yield a substantially greater amount of benefits in comparison to their drawbacks. To list some of the many benefits of multi-layered materials (Source):

  • Especially in developing countries in South Asia, packaged (food products especially) require a shelf life of up to a year in challenging weather conditions (ex. high humidity or large temperature variability). Even after 50 years of industrial research, multi-layered packaging including metallized films is the only feasible option developed for this.
  • Additionally, most commercial packaging requires ink printing that may contain materials which are toxic when ingested. Alternatives to multi-layered packaging like cardboard or paper don’t offer products with adequate protection from these toxic materials used in printing.
  • Multi-layered packaging is often opaque due to metal films used. This prevents light from reaching products, which can decrease shelf life for edible products (especially ones that contain fat). Alternative thin-film packaging that only has one recyclable plastic polymer (ex. LDPE) is often transparent.
  • Multi-layer packaging is extremely light and does not require a lot of material input when compared to alternatives like rigid plastic packaging, metals, or glass. This creates substantial savings in production, transportation, and other costs that more than compensate for the environmental impacts due to a lack of recyclability.

Given increases in production, transportation, and end-of-life management costs, plastic alternatives often have higher environmental costs than current plastics (Source).

It should also be pointed out, however, that it isn’t ALWAYS necessary to use multilayered plastics for these applications. For instance, a larger-scale restaurant or another business that buys products in multilayered sachets could likely switch to reusable containers and buy products in bulk (while saving money). Furthermore, there is ongoing research on creating recyclable multilayer plastics, creating new processes to recycle existing multilayer plastics, and to create alternative materials to replace multilayer plastics (Source).

So what to do here? Well, it goes without saying that we need to find a better material than multi-layered plastics (when it comes to recyclability) eventually. In several individual cases, commercial stakeholders could feasibly transition away from single-use, multi-layered products — although there are other cases where consumers in developed countries might not be able to afford larger containers.

That being said, there would be more harm done than benefit in phasing out their use COMPLETELY to replace them with recyclable alternatives right now. This is where policies like India’s unfolding ban on single-use plastics (apart from multi-layered ones) are essential in considering the nuanced approach needed to increase recycling rates in developing countries (Source).

Creating Community Adoption

There are many promising technologies that could revolutionise the waste management system in developing countries. But forgetting how they will influence informal waste collectors in impoverished conditions, ordinary consumers that don’t trust current recycling systems, and producers that face tough choices when choosing materials is a recipe for an unscalable solution that makes people feel good, but doesn’t create a large change.

One critical factor is to build trust and scalability in local communities when implementing new technologies, businesses, or products in developed countries. This is best done through local partnerships for most organisations, which are often not fully equipped to deal with the large regional diversity of challenges in different developing countries (Source).

A good case study of successful local partnerships can be seen with Plastic Bank’s initiative to launch services to help informal waste collectors and build recycling hubs in Indonesia. Given the logistical challenges for waste collectors to transport waste to recycling hubs, Plastic Bank partnered with local courier/ride-hailing service, Gojek, to allow its logistics support to be streamlined with Plastic Bank’s work (Source). This allowed for a more scalable launch in Indonesia, with fewer challenges from local logistics issues.

Similarly, outreach initiatives in local communities can also help Plastic Bank and other organisations build trust in local networks to gain insight from community members. For instance, Plastic Bank partnered with the Henkel Schwarzkopf initiative, Shaping Futures, in the Philippines to help train the youth from collector families in hairdressing. This will allow them to go from an internship at a local salon to employment to the possibility of starting a local business in the future (Source).

This builds on the consistent opportunities Plastic Bank provides to the community members it works with to ‘recycle towards and for a better future’. This includes economic development/training opportunities, educational support, financial literacy training, and other programs (on top of which the vocational training from Shaping Futures occurs).

The initiative also showcases how plastic producers/sellers (like Henkel Schwarzkopf) can create community outreach, as staff from the company make it possible to train youth in this program.

Youth impacted by Plastic Bank’s partnership in the Philippines (Source: Plastic Bank, 2020)

This ability to create meaningful connections in local communities has led to compounding growth for Plastic Bank, so it serves as a useful case study of the underlying approaches that would be part of any scalable solutions to solve the other major issues that prevent improvements in waste management infrastructure in developing countries.

On the whole, it goes back to the fact that the majority of issues with waste management (like plastic pollution) occur in developing countries. Yet, many prior efforts to address these issues have not accounted for the core differences between developed and developing countries. This is something that needs to change if we are to finally create a breakthrough in waste management systems in developing countries.

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