Published on: 24/02/2020
This blog has been co-written with Kim Worsham, Founder of FLUSH
“Plastic waste is tainting not only the fish we eat but also the water we drink and the air we breathe,” tweeted UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres on January 26, 2020.
He is right. There is so much plastic pollution all around us that is polluting our environment. It creates significant environmental sanitation problems that we also see when shit is poorly managed. So why aren’t we (WASH sector actors) joining forces to solve the plastic and solid waste pollution?
When we’ve talked to interested investors trying to get them to start supporting sanitation projects, the word drums up completely different concepts of sanitation than what the WASH world thinks, such as hygienic farms and solid waste circular economies. Having worked in both solid waste and the WASH sector, it surprises us to see how little the WASH sector knows about solid waste, and vice versa. We think it’s time for WASH-sector sanitation programmes to include solid waste management components, and here are 7 reasons why. Let’s (dumpster) dive right in:
1. Waste that isn’t managed is dumped. When not managed well, human and solid waste are dumped wherever is convenient. Unlined pit latrines leak into groundwater or directly pour out of open drains. Municipal wastewater systems often flow into waterways. With solid waste, it is much the same: even when households pay for a trash collection service, collected trash may be dumped illegally. The “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” mentality is no longer an option, it has become our collective problem. Much of the dumped faecal and solid waste ends up in storm drains, causing blockages and restricting stormwater discharges. Cleaning storm drains can cost a lot (like US$7 million post Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Louisiana), though not doing it can have graver consequences like outbreaks of disease.
This is a diagram showing what happens when waste flows are poorly managed. The diagram shows avenues for contamination between household waste streams (greywater, shit or solid waste). (Credit: Erick Baetings, IRC)
2. Waste complicates sewage: Pit latrines often double as trash receptacles. Trash clogging the faecal sludge system complicates emptying services, challenges sanitation workers, and brings all sorts of technical difficulties, giving rise to technologies such as the Flexcavator. For pit emptiers with (aged) suction trucks, separating sludge waste from solid waste is a dirty and time-consuming manual job that is also dangerous-never knowing what is in the pits: diabetic syringes, broken glass, menstrual products, etc. The solid waste contaminants in the sludge affect its quality and its potential to be treated and reused as beneficial products (e.g. co-compost). Consequently, it also increases the operational cost of processing sludge with high solid waste contaminants.
3. When poorly managed, all waste is a public health concern: We know that untreated sewage in the environment leads to health problems such as child stunting and malnutrition. When solid waste is mismanaged, it also creates perfect environments to increase populations of disease-carrying flies, mosquitoes, and other vermin. We also know that children are more likely to get sick if they live in households where garbage is dumped or burned in the yard. If that isn’t enough, plastic waste breaks down into soil and water, and we ingest it either directly or through the food chain (almost the size of a credit card a week). There are public health campaigns that advocate for better sanitation habits, like “Don’t Litter” and “Clean Community” campaigns. In India and Bangladesh, communities gain “Open Defecation Free Plus” status if the environment is free from poop AND trash.
4. Waste can pollute our water: In the WASH-sector, when we think about water quality and its pollution, we see the effects of diarrhoea acutely. Did you know that mismanaged waste doubles the incidence of diarrhoeal disease for those living amongst it? Not just diarrhoea, there is enough evidence that links environmental pollution from dumpsites to public health, think respiratory ailments, heavy metal poisoning, etc. because all landfills leak into ground and water supply.
5. Waste collection work isn’t sexy, but someone must do it: Often social outcasts, sanitation workers, manual scavengers, and street sweepers perform dirty work in hazardous conditions. Unprotected sanitation workers in the faecal sludge business are at great risks of contracting horrible diseases or being casualties in brutal sewer maintenance work accidents, waste picking is also high risk work, and sometimes with catastrophic consequences, like dumpsite landslides. These professionals deserve dignified, safe and healthy workplace practices.
6. A waste management service has a lot in common with that of faecal waste: Especially where sewer systems are absent, there are obvious similarities in service provision and logistics in management of shit and solid waste (see image and description below). There is also an opportunity to tackle the two together: bacteria don’t discriminate, and organics/food wastes (read: not trash) add energy and healthy nutrients to faecal waste (generally of low caloric value) in systems like biogas and black soldier fly digestion. Although there is major complexity in trying to deal with these waste streams the situation is such that we need to try and get the right departments to the table and join forces to tackle the problem.
The top diagram begins with door-to-door collection by waste providers, moved to larger vehicles for ultimate transportation. From a smaller to larger trucks for treatment, reuse and disposal. The first steps of household generation and capture could be added and then would match the sanitation value chain. (Source: Swachh Bharat: Industry Engagement) The figure below that shows a similar value chain for sanitation: from toilet to containment to emptying and transporting to a treatment facility for safe reuse or disposal. (Source: IRC WASH Systems Academy)
7. Integrating both wastes can create financial returns: Though often supported through taxes, financing for faecal sludge or solid waste management can be tricky. Both waste management services have high operating costs, and when poorly managed can run a municipality or firm into the red. Additionally, some places don’t charge enough taxes for these public services, making it harder to maintain quality services. Management of faecal waste is hugely underfunded - just look at how few governments have financing mechanisms in place for shit (UN GLAAS Report 2019). Solid waste management providers, however, have been able to generate more public financing to cover costs, and many companies have been able to make enough profit to interest private and public investors. Pilots levying tariffs on solid waste in developing countries by organisations like WASTE, have been able to cross-subsidise faecal sludge management in a way that allows the potential to break-even financially, and even generating returns, which can be appealing to investors and entrepreneurs alike. In a sector scrambling for ways to figure out financial viability, integrating waste services could be a very enticing model.
We have listed our 7 reasons why the WASH sector should integrate solid waste management into programming, and now we are looking for solutions. We want to get informed on management and financing models, within or outside of the sector and especially where one service offsets costs for the other. Once we can gather this information, we can share with everyone in another post. Ping us if you have ideas to share: @elinebakr and @flush_wash.
A big thanks to Priska Prasetya (WASTE) for her review and Tettje van Daalen (IRC) for editing.
At IRC we have strong opinions and we value honest and frank discussion, so you won't be surprised to hear that not all the opinions on this site represent our official policy.