The urban waste problem - and tech solutions

Garbage along an alley in a Nairobi Street. Photo Courtesy of: James Ekwam Nation Media Group 

As the global population progresses towards 8.5 billion by 2030, the amount of urban solid waste is budding even faster than the rate of urbanization (World Bank, 2012). Ten years ago there were 2.9 billion global urban residents who generated about 0.64 kg of municipal solid waste per person per day (0.68 billion tonnes per year). With an exponential global urban population explosion, these amounts have increased to about 3 billion urban residents globally, generating 1.2 kg per person per day (1.3 billion tonnes per year). An increasing population, changing consumption patterns, economic development, improving household incomes, growing urbanization and industrialization have resulted in increased urban waste-generation. In Kenya, solid waste is a precursor to several environmental and health challenges, ranging from clogged drainage and sewers, waterborne diseases like typhoid, cholera and diarrhea, increased upper respiratory diseases from open burning of the garbage, to malaria. Waste management has over time been the first-instance responsibility of local authorities but the scenario is changing with the realization that they, on their own, are not capable of effectively and efficiently managing waste. Kenya, like other countries in the world, has solid waste management as an unsustainably expensive venture, gobbling up to 30 to 50% of low income countries’ revenues (expected to shoot up to $7.7 Billion by 2025). We are riddled with a number of waste management challenges. Collection and disposal systems are inefficient and are not environmentally-friendly, respectively. 

Only about 25 % of the estimated 3,000 tonnes of solid waste generated daily in Nairobi gets collected, and only about 900 tons reach the Dandora dumpsite, with the rest remaining unaccounted for. As a result of these disposal inadequacies, most of the households and enterprises resort to uncontrolled and unhygienic landfills as the predominant mode of disposal. Again to avoid waste incineration costs, waste is dumped in illegal places and at times burnt, which pollutes the ecosystem, since an effective monitoring system is lacking. Private companies cover 45-73 % of the total urban households, 32 % of the corporate institutions, 50 % of the industries and 17 % of the commercial enterprises. About 81 % of the households served by private companies live in the high and middle-income areas of the city. Even the Nairobi City Council, which has the social responsibility of providing waste management services to all Nairobi citizens, concentrates its efforts on residential areas and institutions that can afford private services at the expense of areas inhabited by the poor. The actual waste collection is low; with 30 to 40 % of all solid waste generated in urban areas is not acutally collected, with 50 per cent of the population (majorly in urban slums, and who cannot afford waste collection fees) remaining unserved, prompting them to dispose of their waste on open ground within residential areas. An ideal waste management solution should be centered on informal waste picker-empowerment, waste segregation at source, discovery and traceability, recycling and waste diversion from landfills. Part of this is logistical and structural, whereas part of it is achieved through mobile technology and geo-spatial mapping.

Informal waste pickers rummaging through a landfill at the infamous Dandora dumpsite, Nairobi, Kenya. Photo Courtesy of: Jason Patinkin | Informal City Dialogues.

Informal waste-pickers: A neglected community 

The informal urban waste pickers community is a crucial actor in the urban waste management supply and value-chains, yet their invaluable contribution to waste management is not commensurate with their livelihood. Theirs is an employment setting bereft of proper operational, regulatory systems which would enhance efficiency and accountability in their day-to-day work. Sorting out waste by the informal urban waste pickers is a hazardous task because it entails rummaging through garbage heaps in trying to glean any recyclable material available. Some of them even feed on food waste due to their deprivations of life. 

The waste pickers, who are players in the informal urban economies, should have access to social protection in form of a decent income, medical insurance and life assurance schemes and social welfare programs. More than half the world’s poor population live in urban areas. This therefore provides an interesting opportunity where waste management efforts and urban poverty intersect. This intersection is what drives our innovation, and which has a dual-effect of youth employment-creation and total urban waste management. 

Kenya has a bigger solid waste-disposal market compared to its waste value-addition market. The Kenyan urban waste problem is systemic, (infra) structural and predominantly cultural. The waste collection and disposal operational paradigm by the county government of Nairobi, and by extension all the other counties in Kenya for instance, has not been made to align with the waste management efforts by the informal urban waste community. Furthermore, our households have not been educated on waste segregation during domestic disposal. This has led to a crudely-structured national supply and value-chain web of waste acquisition, disposal and recycling. Which has created a lack of accountability on who is responsible for urban waste management in residential areas. When dealing with the urban household waste-problem, it is advisable to do that at the community level, where awareness and campaigns can cascade down to all households.

Cleantech solutions?

Traceability is a key operational component when it comes to waste management. A lot of waste that ends up in landfills in Kenya is irregularly disposed of, and no one accounts for it.  Where does our household waste end up? To recycling plants? To landfills as putrefying garbage heaps? We don't know how much of that ends up in rivers and other fresh-water sources. As a result of the low urban waste collection ratio, many households and enterprises resort to uncontrolled and unhygienic waste disposal. Some manufacturing plants even release raw effluent into the rivers. The lack of waste segregation at the household level also leads to the rise of landfills, because of the need to sort out and aggregate waste at such disposal points, before they are transferred to the recycling plants. A new paradigm in waste traceability through household codification, mapping and mobile-sensitization, is needed in rationalizing the inefficiencies in waste collection and disposal.

Effective waste mitigation strategies require reliable information on the composition of all parts of household waste stream, and waste segregation at the primary source -the household level. It is therefore necessary to examine the nature and quality of waste generated, in order to contribute to improvement actions at source. 

A waste-management innovation which is an end-to-end social enterprise which adopts a mobile technology-enhanced waste-management system that addresses structural inefficiencies in the urban waste management supply/value-chains by introducing the following elements could be the ideal solution:

  1. Campaigning for waste segregation: at source and the provision for ‘four-fold waste disposal kits’ at the domestic, commercial and institutional levels (Four trash bags) by the county governments - for waste disposal differentiation (Organic, Glass-based, paper-based and plastic waste types). This enhances an automatic waste-segregation which makes it easier for waste collectors to transfer waste to recycling points. Waste segregation also means putting less waste into landfills.
  2. Digital geo-spatial mapping: digitized zoning of waste aggregation centers, transit points and landfills for ease of resource optimization and redistribution by municipal authorities. This aids in output projection, tracking and traceability of disposed-of waste because the players in that area  register waste collected in particular areas and at particular times, and with their accompanying metric quantities, and therefore authorities can track one’s input and trace that waste along the entire supply/value chain.      
  3. Forging municipal synergies with informal waste collectors and private operators: Aligning informal waste pickers’ operations with that of the municipal authorities and private firms which wield higher logistical strength. The innovation adopts a dual-front approach by empowering informal waste pickers as a way of increasing their efficiencies in mitigating waste.
  4. Mapping of transit routes for waste: and redistribution to places of need such as recycling plants. A wider spatial reach of irregularly-disposed-off waste is also enhanced as a result of the quantity-specific, real-time data that municipal authorities and other environmental management actors could act on.