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<Municipal Solid Waste Management>

Sound Practices
Waste reduction

1.2.2 Systems of waste reduction and materials recover

Industrialized countries

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.


Collection Corner in Fujisawa City, Japan
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 industries;
  • collection of organics (kitchen and garden wastes) for large-scale composting;
  • 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.

Developing countries

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 utilized.

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.


Tumbler to Make Pulp from Waste Paper
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 generation.

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 recovery.

When economic motivations for separation and sale decline, public education should foster environmental and charitable motives for waste reduction.

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