We Have A (Waste) Problem | WASH waste blog series 1

This blog is the first of a series of 5 discussing waste management and the intersection of fecal and solid waste – both the challenges and opportunities. Based on learning experiences worldwide, solid waste management (SWM) and fecal sludge management (FSM) are closely linked. This blog series aims to demonstrate the opportunities for integrating FSM and SWM to improve how our world operates and creating financial value from these value chains. The blogs are a collaboration by Kim Worsham (FLUSH), Cuthbert A. Onikute (DalO Systems formerly Dechets a l’Or), Priska Prasetya, Sophie van den Berg and Verele de Vreede (ed) (WASTE) and Eline Bakker (Consultant).

The blog series can be seen as a follow up on the blog by Kim & Eline (ed. Priska): “What the shit is WASH doing about waste?” which has been published on the IRC website.

Introducing the authors:

We, the collaborating authors, are a mix of consultants, experts, and operators. We came together for this blog series because we believe that there needs to be more consideration in the world about what we do with what society calls “our waste.” We find the term “waste” to be a misconception – solid and fecal waste both can be valuable resources. If harnessed correctly, these “wastes” can become useful and even vital for helping us address our ever-growing resource need and concerns with climate resilience… if only we could get the rest of the world to agree with us and act on it.

We discussed as a team where the problems – and opportunities – are for figuring out the world’s “waste” challenges; this blog series is a result of our discussions. Our blog series will start with admitting that we have a problem and will quickly shuffle into where the solutions lie, and how we can transform our waste into resources – together – and create viable business models and essential environmental and social impacts. By the end of our series, we hope that you’ll join us in advocating for integrating fecal sludge management (FSM) and solid waste management (SWM), creating a prosperous future full of sustainable solutions.

Urban SWM and FSM worldwide

In rapidly urbanizing cities, the quality of the living environment is under great strain. Cities in low and middle-income countries (LMICs) struggle to establish well-functioning FSM and SWM systems. In many countries, only 50% of the household solid waste is collected, resulting in the other 50% ending up in the environment or is openly burned as a strategy that residents resort to that makes the problem disappear. Also, fecal sludge, when it is collected, is often disposed of directly in the environment and water bodies, jeopardizing public health. Plastic waste makes these problems even more severe: thrown in pit latrines, it cloggs drainage systems, and complicates collection and treatment. When burned, plastic releases furans and dioxins that are proven carcinogens. Even when solid waste is collected and transported to a designated dumpsite, these dumpsites are often unlined and insufficiently managed. When poorly-managed dumpsites spark uncontrolled fires, they can contribute significantly to local air pollution while landfill leachate that can damage important groundwater resources – especially problematic in water-strained areas. (UNEP, Africa Waste Management Outlook, 2018)

The WASH sector is all too familiar with the consequences of having raw fecal waste out in the open and the uncontrolled disposal of solid waste, resulting in the spread of diseases, clogging and damage of waterways, and the overall unpleasantness of solid waste on river beds and in the water. Unfortunately, uncontrolled solid waste dumping is the most common type of waste disposal in many parts of the world; the decomposition in the city itself, besides being unsanitary, releases greenhouse gases. Uncollected waste doubles the incidence of diarrhea. (UNHABITAT Solid Waste Management in the World’s Cities 2010).  Uncollected waste may end up in storm drains – the same drains to which toilets are illegally connected, dumping raw sewage. During storms, obstructed flows can push fecal-contaminated flood water into homes. Or solid waste may be disposed of into pit latrines – clogging the fecal waste management system and complicating service delivery. For effective fecal waste service delivery, there needs to be effective solid waste management. Kampala is a great example of this – the World Bank’s city-wide inclusive sanitation approach recognized that to have success in FSM, it needed to reform SWM in the city first. As part of the fecal sludge management program, the Kampala Capital City Authority worked to increase solid waste collection in informal (underserved) areas, made provisions for dealing with fecal contaminated solid waste, and ran an awareness campaign directed at tenants to upgrade basic toilet slabs (with a big drain hole) to a system with a minimally sized drain hole that makes disposal of solid waste impossible. (Kampala Capital City Authority, 2020)

The National Sanitation Campaign in Ghana tackles both open defecation and littering. (c) Kim Worsham, FLUSH

As Kim and Eline mentioned in an earlier blog post, the presence of solid waste (including plastic) significantly affects the efficiency of collecting and treating fecal sludge from pit latrines or septic tanks. Case studies from Burkina Faso, Zambia and Uganda confirmed this and found that solid waste:

  1. More than doubles the time it takes to empty pit latrines;
  2. Increases the chance that innovative sludge emptying technologies fail, as high-tech solutions tend to clog easily;
  3. Increases the cost and time to treat received sludge. Solid waste must be sieved out and transported to a dumpsite, which again takes add operational time and costs;
  4. Affects the quality of final products, such as briquettes and biogas;
  5. Increases public health risks when fecal-contaminated solid wastes are placed at dumpsites.
Plastics fished out of the feacal sludge at the waste water plant in Dakar. (c)Verele de Vreede, WASTE

As said a high percentage of the solid waste found in fecal sludge is plastic. Plastic is the fastest growing fraction of solid waste. Traditionally, plastic has been a relatively small component of waste generated in LMICs, but this is no longer the case and includes the “Sachet Economy” (No Time to Waste 2019). These single-portion plastic sachets are used for a lot of household products, from coffee to washing powder, and are made from a non-recyclable multi-laminate material. Moreover, historically it was believed that solid waste is an issue limited to urban and peri-urban areas, and the rural regions have consequently received less funding to provide solid waste management services. However, given that open disposal of plastic waste can have far-reaching consequences for the receiving environment, solid waste services need to be extended to rural areas, particularly for the non-organic waste that cannot be reused or recycled at the source. Solid waste pollution remains worse and more complex in urban communities; however, rural areas cannot be overlooked and is aggravated by plastic. (For a reflection piece on both the miracle and the problem of plastic, this National Geographic article is an excellent read).

Dumpsite in Udaipur, India. Note the abundance of various types of plastic. (c) Sophie van den Berg, WASTE

Plastic waste is troubling both worlds of SWM and FSM. On top of it, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken the year 2020 by storm. This will likely (re-)shape society and the composition of solid waste with the surge in medical waste and single-use plastic packaging. Oil prices have plummeted, making it cheaper than ever to manufacture plastic (Vox article) and lowers the economic feasibility of recycling. Our waste management systems around the world simply cannot keep up, and there are examples of Western governments devising plans to dump plastic waste in LMICs (New York Times article). The absence/low capacity of solid waste management to manage the growing quantity of solid waste (and plastic) is/will substantially hamper the operational efficiency and financial sustainability of fecal sludge management.

At this rate, solid waste pollution will undo any of the WASH sector’s positive health impacts. What is the plan when plastic production almost doubles in the next decade (Guardian)? How do we ensure that plastic and other solid waste types are not increasingly present in pit latrines and septic tanks? How do we safeguard the quality of fecal sludge and organic solid waste from the presence of non-organics (incl. plastic) to optimize the quality and sales price of waste-based products (e.g., briquette, co-compost, biogas)? The next blog posts will cover more on the potential solutions that can establish a well-integrated FSM and SWM that improves FSM and SWM chains’ overall operational efficiency and financial sustainability.

Further reading

This the whole series of blogs on integration of SWM and sanitation can be found here:

Blog 1: We Have a (Waste) Problem

Blog 2: Separation is Waste’s Achilles’ Heel

Blog 3: The Circular Economy Business Model

Blog 4: The Business Model in Practice

Blog 5: Increasing Integrated WASH Waste Impact: Putting It To Practice


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Email the WASH waste team here.