Newsletter and Technical Publications
<Municipal Solid Waste Management>
1.2.2 Systems of waste reduction and materials recover
Perhaps in no field of MSWM are the differences between the industrialized
countries and the developing countries so apparent as in waste reduction and
materials recovery. Rising overall living standards and the advent of mass
production have reduced markets for many used materials and goods in the
affluent countries whereas, in most of the developing world, traditional
labor-intensive practices of repair, reuse, waste trading, and recycling have
endured. Thus there is a large potential for waste reduction in the former
countries, and the recovery of synthetic or processed materials is now being
emphasized. In developing countries, by contrast, the greatest potential for
waste reduction currently rests with diverting organic and construction wastes.
Subsidization of the full range of initiatives for waste reduction (from
changes in manufacturing and packaging to source-separated collection and the
promotion of recycling and composting) by governments and/or private industry is
becoming a norm in affluent countries.
Most cities in Western Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, Japan,
and some in Korea have adopted municipally sponsored source separation and
collection systems. In some cases, the separation of post-consumer materials by
waste generators has been made mandatory.
The main motivation, from the point of view of municipal authorities, is to
reduce materials that must be deposited in landfills. At the national level,
under the rubric of producer responsibility (see concepts box, above),
governments have crafted agreements and legal frameworks designed to reduce the
generation of waste. For instance, agreements assign industry responsibility for
achieving packaging reduction goals of 75% or more by 2002.
|This collection corner in Fujisawa City is a cheaper alternative than
house-to-house curbside collection. This arrangement requires careful use
by those depositing items here to avoid objections from nearby residents.
(credit; Chris Furedy)
Typical components of municipal systems for source separation and materials
recovery in industrialized countries are:
- source separation of different categories of waste from households,
offices, shops, and institutions; collection at the curbside or drop-off by
generators at bins or centers is subsidized by the government or private
- collection of organics (kitchen and garden wastes) for large-scale
- promotion of backyard composting through education and sometimes the
provision of a small compost bin; and
- public subsidization of extensive and varied educational campaigns to
sustain participation in all aspects of waste reduction.
In many industrialized countries, source separation and curbside collection
programs are heavily subsidized by municipal governments, private industries or
foundations. When municipal funding is withdrawn, the scope of materials
recovery may be greatly reduced. These countries usually have the institutional
competence and capacity in urban government to integrate local and regional
waste management plans. Citizens tend to be highly aware of the problems and to
cooperate in separation programs. Undeveloped or fluctuating markets for
recyclable materials, however, continue to limit cost recovery and the diversion
of materials from landfills.
The accompanying box suggests some of the differences between developing and
industrialized countries with regard to waste reduction and materials recovery.
Most urban places in the developing world have yet to experience the decline
of traditional recovery of recyclables and the corresponding increase in
post-consumer wastes, which, together with scarcity of dump space, have led many
affluent cities to sponsor materials recovery.
The engines of waste recovery and recycling in the poorer countries include:
scarcity or expense of virgin materials, the occurrence of absolute poverty, the
availability of workers who will accept minimal wages, the frugal values of even
relatively well-to-do households, and the large markets for used goods and
products made from recycled plastics and metals. Wastes which would be
uneconomical to recycle or of no use in affluent societies have a value (e.g.,
coconut shells and dung used as fuel). If one takes into account the use of
compost from dumps sites as well as materials recovery, in countries like India,
Vietnam, and China, the majority of municipal wastes of all kinds are ultimately
Waste reduction that could be achieved by legislation and protocols (such as
agreements to change packaging) is not, at present, a high priority in these
countries, although some are now moving in this direction. Because unskilled
labor costs are low and there is a high demand for manufacturing materials,
manufacturers can readily use leftovers as feedstock or engage in waste
exchange. Residuals and old machines are sold to less advanced, smaller,
industries. Public health is benefitting from plastic and boxboard packaging
that reduces contamination of foods, and much of the superior packaging is
recovered and recycled.
|This tumbler is used for making pulp from waste paper. This small
recycling facility is typical of many others throuthout India.
(credit: Warmer Bulletin)
In offices and institutions, cleaners and caretakers organize the sale of
paper, plastics, etc. At the household level, gifts of clothes and goods to
relatives, charities, and servants are still significant in waste reduction. All
cities and towns have markets for used goods. The greatest amount of materials
recovery is achieved through networks of itinerant buyers, small and medium
dealers, and wholesaling brokers. The extent to which the waste trading
enterprises are registered (ÒformalizedÓ) varies in developing regions: in
Latin America and Asia there is more formal registration than in Africa. The
system is adaptive to market fluctuations, as the lowest level workers form a
dispensable labor cushion: they must find other work, if they can, when there is
reduced demand for the materials they sell.
Because so many people are engaged in the activities of materials recovery,
processing, and recycling, and alternative work is scarce, governments and
social welfare organizations are often more sensitive to employment needs than
to environmental considerations in waste management. Thus, they are prepared to
trade off some environmental and public health risks against employment
The accompanying box shows the main paths traveled by wastes in Bangalore,
due, in large part, to the activities of informal traders and recyclers.
Advantages of scarcity and frugal values
From the point of view of waste reduction, the traditional practices of repair
and reuse, and the sale, barter, or gift of used goods and surplus materials,
are an advantage to the poorer countries. Quantities of non-organic
post-consumer wastes would be higher without them.
These societies should be alert to socio-economic changes that threaten
resource-conserving traditions. When standards of living rise, voluntary source
separation tends to decline, unless (a) it is encouraged through an incentive
program or (b) the opportunities for waste generators to sell recyclables remain
very convenient. Small waste trading enterprises which provide convenient
redemption centers for households, shops, and itinerant buyers are adversely
affected by rising land prices, more high-rise accommodation, traffic regulation
and NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) objections. Imported, high quality recyclables
can undercut the market for local materials resulting in a decline of waste
When economic motivations for separation and sale decline, public education
should foster environmental and charitable motives for waste reduction.