Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Dealing With Unsustainable Waste Management Practices in Developing Countries

By Julia MalitsPublished October 21, 2014

With today's society generating the largest amount of waste in human history, sustainable waste management practices are indispensable to a healthy economy, human population and environment. As the photo from Indonesia's Bantar Geband landfill site illustrates, waste levels are rising beyond capacity. Waste management needs to be more heavily prioritized and urgently dealt with by policymakers, innovators, and communities.
By Julia Malits, 10/21/14

As developing countries experience more urbanization and consumption, waste management has become increasingly difficult. Handling municipal waste requires immediate attention because of its public health, environmental, and economic consequences. According to a recent report, nearly 40% of the world's waste is dumped in open landfills. Most of these landfill sites surround urban areas in poor and developing countries. 

Landfills have accumulated in poor countries and host toxins, microbes, and pollutants because of an egregious lack of proper waste management. Waste generated at many dumping sites is dispersed across hundreds of acres and is neither compacted nor covered appropriately, exposing the waste to all weather conditions. Many dumping sites lack strategic engineering techniques, such as using leachate and landfill gas collection. Such poor landfill architecture results in frequent gas leakage and causes underground fires. These unsustainable management practices are common among the world's fifty largest dumping sites. Unsurprisingly, the majority of these underequipped sites are located in developing countries in Africa and Asia.

Poor waste management practices are responbile for atmospheric degradation, environmental destruction, and health maladies. In many overwhelmed dumping sites, local authorities burn waste in order to conserve space. However, burning plastics produces toxic fumes responsible for respiratory problems and greenhouse gases that deplete the ozone layer. Additionally, widely dispersed, uncovered waste contaminates nearby aquifers, diminishing the reliability of groundwater for many communities.

Communities surrounding the landfills bear the brunt of health consequences associated with unregulated dumping. Exposure to landfill waste has been responsible for gastrointestinal, respiratory, dermatological and infectious diseases. Affected populations often also experience headaches, diarrhea, chest pains, eyes, nose and skin irritation, as well as typhoid and stomach ulcers. Beyond public health concerns, the seemingly ever-growing waste levels pose economic threats. Landfills that raise the risks of illnesses may increase unemployment levels. Likewise, a recent report from Malaysia contends that landfills threaten the quality of tourism, and thus harm a country's economy.

Given the numerous environmental, public health and economic concerns, solid waste management requires the urgent implementation of sustainable, coordinated and efficient strategies. However, officials in developing countries responsible for handling urban and industrial solid waste are largely ill-equipped to deal with this problem because they face financial, technical and human capital constraints. They lack the human capital indispensible to coordinating large-scale waste management because of its associated social stigma. Likewise, local governments do not have enough resources to implement comprehensive waste-management strategies because they are lesser priorities compared to other policy concerns. Finally, the majority of developing countries do not have access to necessary technologies and requisite knowledge for efficiently and responsibly handling massive collections of municipal waste.

Policies on the local, national and international level need to be established in order to minimize increases in improperly treated municipal waste. Strategic policies need to: (1) Implement programs to responsibly handle pre-existing dumping grounds, and (2) establish alternative, sustainable methods to handling the increasingly high volumes of municipal waste. Rather than relying on current waste management approaches, policymakers should focus more on using waste to generate harvestable energy. According to a recent study by Columbia University, scientists found that millions of tons of recyclable materials, compost for fertilization and oil energy equivalents from composting operations are being discarded into landfills. Policymakers should make greater efforts to extract and capitalize on these valuable sources of materials and energy. An inspiring example of sustainable waste management can be found in Israel, where the government recently renovated the former Hariya landfill into Sharon Park. According to a recent article
, the global waste management market will double by 2020. Hopefully, innovative engineers, thoughtful local authorities and resourceful global leaders will collectively develop sustainable, efficient solutions to the mounting global waste inadequacies.