Keeping it simple: waste infrastructure for the developing world

Tanguy Tomes, Eunomia Research & Consulting

15 Jun 2018 -


Since starting my career as an environmental consultant, I’ve had the chance to work on a variety of projects dealing with waste management around the globe. In Europe, where recycling is already widespread, the challenges often involve finding new ways to increase capture rates and process difficult materials. To this end, I’ve seen exciting innovations in the systems and technologies used to manage our waste that look likely to transform the industry in coming years.


However, I’ve also been exposed to the problems faced by developing nations, where the challenge is often one of establishing basic waste infrastructure. From within the Western bubble, it can be easy to get carried away and imagine that new technologies are the key to a world without waste, but we must be careful not to overestimate the role that they have to play on a global scale.


According to World Bank data, less than two thirds of all waste in South Asia ever gets collected, while in Africa well below half is. Overall, it’s estimated that two billion people in the world do not have access to solid waste collections. Much of this waste will either be burnt in the open air or dumped in rivers. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising, therefore, that globally up to 70% of the plastic entering our oceans comes from mismanaged waste in developing countries. 


With waste arisings projected to double over the next two decades it is vital, both from public and environmental health perspectives, that when working in the developing world waste management professionals advocate solutions that are both effective and appropriate.


There are many cases of relatively high-tech facilities installed with the best of intentions but inappropriate to the regional context. Ultimately, such facilities are abandoned by local communities – white elephants, waste infrastructure itself now going to waste.


Back in 2007, the EU tried to invest in improving Guatemalan public health by installing a modern wastewater treatment plant. With neither community ownership nor relevance to existing waste management systems, it was never used. On the other side of the world, in Kathmandu, Nepal, no fewer than three countries have tried to help improve residual waste management. None of them were able to provide a long-term sustainable solution and the waste management option of choice remains, to this day, dumping in the local river.


As waste managers we need to think carefully and within context when reaching out beyond our own borders. But if technological innovation isn’t going to solve global waste crises, what is?


Researchers examining the failings of foreign aid in Kathmandu concluded that the area would benefit from a participatory style of waste management focussed on developing solutions tailored to the community, as well as on who within local networks would take which responsibilities and how solutions would be sustained. The emphasis was on the people involved, with little mention of new technologies.

There are great examples of waste managers putting this approach into practice. The charity WasteAid has been established to share practical and low-cost knowledge and skills with developing countries at a local level. In the Philippines, the Mother Earth Foundation has established a network of small, simple MRFs.

While nascent technologies can provide exciting opportunities and challenges in the west, it’s properly contextualised solutions that formalise, support and improve upon existing systems with relatively basic infrastructure that are critical to increasing recycling and limiting plastic pollution around the globe. In the search for a healthier, wealthier world without waste, it’s important to keep this global perspective.

About the author:

Having graduated from university, where I had been campaigning for fossil fuel divestment and researching the chemical synthesis of bioplastics, I joined Eunomia last summer as a Trainee Consultant. The work here is challenging but I enjoy applying myself to some of the most pressing environmental issues of our time.



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