The 50 biggest dumpsites affect the daily lives of 64 million people, a population the size of France. Since dumpsites by definition are rarely designed or managed, liquid leachate easily leaks into the environment and pollutes groundwater, while open burning causes serious damage to local air quality and public health. 37 of the 50 largest informal dumpsites are on or near the coast, spilling waste into the sea and contributing to marine pollution (ISWA, 2016).
As urbanisation and population growth continue, several hundreds of millions more people will be served by dumpsites, mainly in lower-income countries.
Dumpsite: a land disposal site where the indiscriminate deposit of solid waste takes place with either no, or at the best very limited, measures to control placement, operation and environmental protection.
Dumpsites are often situated within or at the edge of major population centres, and cannot be closed without a suitable, working alternative in place. This requires planning, institutional and administrative capacity, financial resources, social support and political consensus – which can be difficult conditions to meet in countries where dumpsites are the dominant method of waste disposal and where governance on this subject is lacking.
Climate and health impacts of dumpsites
By 2025, the business-as-usual scenario suggests that dumpsites will be generating 8-10% manmade greenhouse gas emissions. Despite this, climate finance has so far largely ignored dumpsites as significant sources of emissions.
Less likely to release methane than fully-managed sanitary landfills (since there is no compaction), dumpsites are instead focal points for open burning, whether through spontaneous combustion, deliberate recycling activities e.g. burning rubber from metal cables, or routinely to preserve void space.
Uncontrolled burning of mixed household waste generates black carbon (soot), dioxins, furans, mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls and a wide range of other pollutants known to cause heart disease, cancer, asthma, emphysema, skin and eye diseases, nausea and headaches, and damage the nervous and reproductive systems.
Children living close to dumpsites suffer the most, with nutritional malabsorption (caused by environmental enteropathy), physical and educational impairments, doubled levels of diarrhoea and six times the level of respiratory illness (UNEP/ ISWA 2015). Without international community intervention, many countries will not be able to close their dumpsites and upgrade their waste management systems, and the vast health and environmental impacts of dumpsites will only worsen.
Since closing dumpsites can take a long time and significant investment, intermediate actions can be taken to improve the management of existing dumpsites and reduce the threat to public health.
Significant health gains can be made by fencing off the entire site to minimise unauthorised people and animals; inspecting and recording income waste; stopping open burning; designating a safe area for waste workers to recover recyclable materials; and applying daily cover and temporary leachate management measures such as pump stations or a lined pond.
Improvements to open dumpsites should be designed to minimise future potential contamination and clean-up costs, and always be based on a proper site investigation and risk assessment.
Importantly, new waste management systems should be locally appropriate, designed for the composition of the local waste, and considerate of the local socioeconomic context.
In lower-income countries, household waste has a higher proportion of food waste, and consequently a high moisture content than in wealthier economies. Technical capabilities can be low, while transport costs and unemployment are typically very high. This situation favours a decentralised resource recovery system that maximises incomegenerating opportunities for people in poverty while minimising leakage of waste and pollutants into the environment.
Inclusive and sustainable waste management
WasteAid is an international non-governmental organisation that works with governments, municipalities, businesses and communities in lower and middle income countries to implement inclusive and sustainable waste management and recycling programmes.
The overarching objective of WasteAid’s programmes is to set up waste collection and value recovery systems that benefit vulnerable and marginalised groups. WasteAid is currently partnered with Kanifing Municipal Council (KMC) in The Gambia to deliver an EU-funded project that will relieve pressure on the notorious urban dumpsite, Bakoteh. A historical quarry, Bakoteh has been the dumping ground for the capital city for decades, and neighbourhoods have grown up around it. The dumpsite was posing an unacceptable risk to public health, with open access and regular fires.
Over recent years, KMC has introduced a household waste collection system with ticket-based cost recovery, fenced the perimeter of the dumpsite, introduced a tipping fee, and implemented by-laws to prevent open burning.
WasteAid is now working with KMC to establish a separate food waste collection and valorisation system. Over 60 per cent of municipal waste in The Gambia is food waste such as maize husks and groundnut shell. The partnership project will see KMC collect food waste from local markets and transfer it to women’s gardens where most of the nation’s crops are grown. A women’s empowerment organisation will then train the gardeners to make compost (good for soil water retention), biochar (improving soil health and structure) and charcoal briquettes (a low-smoke sustainable cooking fuel).
Delivering locally-appropriate, sustainable waste management can act as a catalyst for the development of new markets and recycling services, with improved livelihood opportunities for groups that have often been disenfranchised. Through partnerships with the private and public sector and civil society groups, WasteAid is demonstrating the power of waste management to help deliver many of the Sustainable Development Goals.
WasteAid receives crucial support from institutions and businesses with shared values. Partnerships enable social and environmental objectives to be met, help communities linked through supply chains, and make a positive impact on global poverty, pollution and climate change. The author is Zoë Lenkiewicz, Senior Technical Advisor and Head of Communications at WasteAid.