Wasted opportunity

Written by: David Burrows | Published:

The International Solid Waste Association’s recent report on the world’s biggest open dumpsites makes for grim reading, documenting both their environmental and human impacts. But, like similar studies, the report’s glimmer of hope lies in potential solutions – if the will can be found to action them. David Burrows reports

There are not many reports in this sector which warn that the contents are “not for the faint-hearted”, but the International Solid Waste Association’s recent study of the world’s rubbish tips is one of them. The title, Wasted Health: The Tragic Case Of Dumpsites, suggests this isn’t light reading.

“We know where the 50 largest open dumpsites in the world are and we know how toxic they are, but we were goddamn shocked [when we joined the dots together],” says ISWA president David Newman. And this report doesn’t even tell the full story. “That involves the kidnapping of children, rape, incest and forced marriages. The life expectancy on these sites is 30 years,” he adds.

Health was the focus of ISWA’s research and the findings will not only raise eyebrows. Newman admits the team were moved to tears when they discovered the impact these huge dumpsites were having on people’s lives.

Half of the world’s population (around four billion people) are served by the sites, while 64 million people are “affected” by the 50 largest sites. On these, the report describes how: “Children often are seen playing in and around dumpsites, introducing direct exposure with hazardous waste through dermal contact, inhalation of dust or accidental ingestion. Informal neighbourhoods are often built on top of previous dumpsites where the soil, groundwater and nearby surface waters are contaminated, indirectly exposing the local population to leached pollutants.”

At local and global levels

Indeed, with 40% of the world’s waste ending up in open dumpsites, there are huge environmental implications – at both local and global levels. Within 10 years, between 8% and 10% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gases will come from dumped or landfilled food waste alone. Given the expected rise in population and the growth of urbanisation, it’s a fair bet that even more waste will be driven to dumpsites and “hundreds of millions” more people will use them.

The World Bank’s 2012 report – What a Waste: A Global Review of Solid Waste Management – put numbers on the escalating crisis: “Ten years ago there were 2.9 billion urban residents who generated about 0.64kg of municipal solid waste [MSW] per person per day (0.68 billion tonnes per year). […] today these amounts have increased to about three billion residents generating 1.2kg per person per day (1.3 billion tonnes per year). By 2025 this will likely increase to 4.3 billion urban residents generating about 1.42kg/capita/day of municipal solid waste (2.2 billion tonnes per year).”

In other words, things will only get worse. So, what has created this global health and environmental emergency, what can be done about it and where does the UK and EU waste sector fit in?

The UK, much like its European neighbours, can boast that waste collection and treatment pose little or no health risk to their populations. Despite the current navel-gazing in relation to targets, the achievements to date are something to be proud of. ISWA paints a very different – and “disastrous” – picture of what’s happening in developing countries.

“We come from the mindset of the open dumpsites in the UK during the 60s and 70s, but there was no hospital or electrical waste in there. In these sites [in the developing world] today there is everything in there,” says Newman. “These are the most toxic waste sites on earth.”

ISWA cited evidence from the Waste Atlas 2014, which listed the world’s 50 biggest dumpsites and their health and environmental impacts. Published almost exactly a year ago, the map includes Mbeubeuss, near Dakar in Senegal, a waste site spanning 432 acres and home to 2,500 ‘residents’ who sort, burn and recycle what they can.

Site pollutants

Previous research has shown that exposure to pollutants at the sites – including lead, asbestos and hexavalent chromium – has a greater detrimental impact on a population’s life expectancy than malaria. ISWA’s report covers hazardous waste, open burning and electrical waste. The report states: “Dumpsites are receiving different waste streams including municipal waste, sewage sludge, hazardous waste, e-waste [and] healthcare waste.

Many of them are the final destination of illegal hazardous waste shipping (waste-trafficking) which is estimated at a value of between $10 and $12 billion [£6.5-7.9 billion] annually and generates very high revenues for the criminals involved in the trade.”

The report cites a 2011 study by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), which suggested that around 75% of e-waste generated in the EU is unaccounted for. Ruediger Kuehr is part of the UN University (UNU) think-tank and executive secretary of StEP (Solving the E-waste Problem).

He welcomes ISWA’s report, but suggests that the impact of illegal e-waste exports has been overplayed. “A recent study in the EU indicates that 10 to 15% of the e-waste generated in Europe is exported to developing countries,” he says. This is no longer about “making the developing world a dumping ground for our luxury goods”. Since the EIA’s report, countries have also started waking up to the value inherent in electrical waste – WEEE recycling could be worth €3.7 billion (£2.7 billion) to the European economy by the end of the decade, according to a study from Sheffield University.

Waste electricals do contain a number of toxic substances that require proper disposal; it’s no secret that this is a costly process. A UNU study last year described how toxic materials in the world’s annual 41.8 million tonnes of discarded electronics include lead in glass (an estimated 2.2 million tonnes), batteries (300,000 tonnes), mercury, cadmium, chromium and ozone-depleting substances (CFCs, 4,400 tonnes). Health problems associated with such toxins include impaired mental development, cancer and damage to the liver and kidneys.

ISWA’s report highlights the plethora of health risks associated with open dumpsites, and not just in relation to e-waste; there is analysis of the microbiological dangers of rummaging through healthcare waste, the pollutants pumped out through open burning and the occupational hazards of working on these unregulated sites, day in, day out.

With tens of thousands of people at risk on each site – those working there and those living nearby – there is a huge burden on local healthcare.Globally, this could be “in the order of magnitude of tens of hundreds of billion dollars”, according to ISWA. A more accurate figure is “impossible”, note the authors, who used a study in Campania, Italy – an area blighted by illegal waste dumps – as the basis for their estimate. The Italian researchers calculated that the benefit of reducing the number of waste-associated deaths would be €11.6 billion (£8.5bn).

The outlay required to close the world’s riskiest dumpsites will therefore represent a “small fraction” of the cost of their health impacts, according to ISWA.

Newman says the cost of cleaning up the mess now will also be “five to 10 times less” than it will be in a decade or two’s time. More detailed cost-benefit analyses are required to convince the world to take action.

The paradox here, with plenty of money sloshing about in the waste industry, is that the lion’s share stays within developed countries. ISWA’s December Waste Business Monitor showed that between December 2013 and November 2014 there were over $122 billion (£80.3 billion) worth of planned waste projects across the globe.

This is way beyond the $30 billion (£19.7 billion) per year the World Bank estimates is required to achieve global coverage of basic collection systems and treatment plants – for example, good landfills.

“Of the total spending reported [by ISWA], the UK alone accounted for one third, and China another 17%,” Newman explained in a blog after the figures were released.

“Once again, Africa was not even on the chart but, more shockingly, nor was Russia, where over 95% of waste is landfilled or dumped. India appears on the chart for the number of projects announced, but experience tells us that few of these will ever be delivered.”

Derek Greedy, a past president of CIWM and chair of ISWA’s landfill working group, has been involved in projects in countries including Sierra Leone and Lagos.

“I sometimes despair that we [in the EU] are worried about how to push recycling up from 50% to 55% and how much it will cost to do it,” he says. “Imagine if that money was invested in [waste management] in developing nations – the impact on climate change alone would be remarkable.”

But the money needs to be spent efficiently. Greedy describes situations where the initial investment arrives, but is not followed up and contractors are left unpaid by the local government.

“A lot of money is also wasted on projects that would never work out,” he explains, highlighting an incinerator that was built for food waste. “It was dismantled for scrap when they realised the waste wouldn’t burn.”

Tip of the iceberg

The UK government, through the Department for International Development, has been targeting waste management projects of late, with a £3.2 million project in Bo in Sierra Leone.

ISWA is also providing some funding next year to take 20 children out of the city’s dumpsites and into education. Waste was also mentioned in eight of the 17 recently agreed Sustainable Development Goals 2015.

That waste is on the development map is a start, but it’s the tip of the iceberg. There is little or no coordinated action taking place, so what’s needed is a global alliance, says the ISWA report’s author, Antonis Mavropoulos.

“We need to start with a plan of how we finance the closure and relocation of themost dangerous sites urgently and provide support through resources of capital and expertise. While the cost will be substantial, it represents an opportunity to invest in the infrastructure and economy of these emerging and poor nations.”

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