Solid waste management needs to improve

Solid waste disposal represents a huge problem for most human societies around the world. There are estimates of up to 11 billion tonnes of solid waste collected annually. These collectively constitute significant contributions to the pollution and waste crisis, which the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) categorizes as one of the tripartite problems, alongside the biodiversity and climate change crises currently confronting humans on earth.  

Nilanjan Chatterjee

There are several types of solid waste, such as synthetic plastics, metal cans, glass bottles, paper litter, electronic waste, medical waste, construction and demolition debris, and vehicle scraps. Most of them rapidly transit from ordinary packaging materials into life-threatening non-biodegradable substances that interfere with life on land and under water. For instance, some plastic waste can persist in the environment for up to five hundred years before degradation. When they are ingested by marine life, especially in the form of microplastics or nanoplastics, they can lead to fatalities or complications that disrupt the organism’s natural metabolic functions, and furthermore end up as toxic seafood. In general, solid waste in the environment leads to polluted sites that harbor disease vectors responsible for several human health and social challenges.  

Across the world, particularly in most developing nations in Africa and Asia, only a handful of individuals and organizations have risen to the challenge of providing nature-based solutions to the solid waste crisis. This neglect may present disproportionate setbacks towards achieving the UN’s sustainable development goals for all by 2030, including the 2050 biodiversity agenda, and emerging propositions from the World Economic Forum for a global circular economy 

The global demand for solid packaged materials containing various household items, beverages and cosmetics continues to soar, maintaining an upward trend since the last decade. This implies that another decade of unchecked production and mismanagement would be catastrophic for all life on earth.  

Solid waste management needs to improve globally, especially in developing countries where heaps of discarded solid waste substances still openly litter several roadsides and public places. This can be achieved by adopting best practices in solid waste collection along with the subsequent incineration, recycling or upcycling. Economically marginalized groups can be made to benefit from environmental justice, and increased access to funds for solid waste innovations. I propose the initiation of active solid waste management networks among communities and interest groups that will take charge of their local environmental reporting and hygiene. Against a statistical backdrop of waste generation and management analyses, such communities or groups can ascertain their success at achieving sustainable liveable towns or cities.  

Importantly, ecologists and green thinkers are generally better equipped to inform the public about solid waste disposition and the consequences of inactions. For this reason, environmental experts and relevant stakeholders in waste management should be given publicly accessible platforms to contribute to the discussions on solid waste management. It is important for governments to start harnessing solutions from novel research findings that demonstrate effective mitigations or alternatives to solid waste substances.  

A necessary mental shift from linearity to circularity is expedient for solid waste management to improve around the globe. Circular solutions imply higher waste recovery and reuse efficiency. This should be incorporated into school curricula and taught in the classroom. Waste substances are not generated in limbo, but by humans. Better citizen science and engagement is required to hold people accountable for their disposed solid waste. This can be channelled through more resourceful and evolving community networks with a sole focus on effective solid waste management. These should really start springing up everywhere. 


This opinion first appeared in The Niche, Winter 2021The Niche is the British Ecological Society’s quarterly membership magazine. If you’re not a member but would like to subscribe to The Nichejoin us today. 

For further information about the concept of a ‘circular economy’, why not try the following:  

Circular economy: the concept and its limitations 

Linking industrial ecology and ecological economics: a theoretical and empirical foundation for the circular economy 

The post-growth challenge: secular stagnation, inequality and the limits to growth