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What did we learn about waste services at the World Urban Forum 2020?

By Lucy Stevens On 19.02.2020

The World Urban Forum is an important gathering of cities, local governments, planners, grassroots activists and NGOs thinking about how to making urban places liveable and sustainable. As the world becomes more urbanised the challenge grows – and it will be a tough job to achieve this vision. A lot of what we hear about is taking us in the opposite direction: with growing inequalities, worsening air quality, or cities running out of water. However, the opportunity is there for cities to lead the way in the necessary changes to tackle the challenges of the climate emergency and equitable development.

This time at the Forum, Practical Action was focusing on its work on basic services: sanitation and solid waste management. Following on from our successful event with Bangladesh Government on Monday, we ran a second networking event on Inclusive Waste Management Services.

Our objective was to make the case for thinking about waste services that people need – reliable collection and a clean neighbourhood – as much as the quantities and composition of the waste itself.

As our panellist Imanol Zabaleta from Eawag-Sandec so clearly pointed out, because rich households generate more waste per capita than poor households, collecting 70% of a city’s waste doesn’t mean that you are reaching 70% of all households. You could be reaching only the rich households, leaving almost all the uncollected waste accumulating around poor neighbourhoods.

We asked our audience to start engaging with these issues by answering an online poll, with the answers instantly displayed.

First we asked about the ‘Top 3 waste problems in your city’ from a choice of 6. Unsurprisingly, the top ranked was poorly managed dumping sites: often the most obvious ‘end of the pipe’ problem to concern city managers. However, 2nd and 3rd on the list were the lack of regular collection services and neighbourhoods polluted with litter.


Then, we asked what the features of a good waste management service would be. The most commonly mentioned issues were collection, affordability and a regular service.

It’s true that a lack of services has huge environmental consequences. WWF were keen to highlight the crisis of marine plastics. Much of the plastic that is uncollected eventually ends up in the oceans, while heavier materials such as paper, organics, glass or metal are less easily carried downstream.

However, if we are to ‘turn off the tap’ at its source, we have to start with a people-centred approach which thinks about the services that people want and the people that provide that service. We know that providing more equitable and inclusive services can be challenging. We asked our audience to share some of those challenges with us, generating a live word cloud.

Despite these challenges, organisations like WIEGO have been showing how the informal sector can help to solve these issues – as the people who are already providing much of the service. Nao Takeuchi from UN-Habitat shared findings from their study in Nairobi which showed that the informal sector does all the recycling that happens in the city, handling 22% of the waste generated every day. And this is achieved often despite, not because of, existing rules, regulations and actions of authorities.

We concluded by hearing from our panellists about the added value that thinking about waste as a service can bring. Hossain Adib from Practical Action Bangladesh reflected on how this has informed our work with informal waste workers – and how we have managed to bring integrated services to the difficult circumstances of the Rohingya Refugee camps, as well as in about 10 towns around the country.

This year, Practical Action will be publishing findings from new studies exploring more about waste as a service. We will be highlighting who is and isn’t served in cities, and who the current service providers are. We aim to use this to catalyse more people-focused solutions, starting from people’s existing work and capacities. We hope that at national and global levels, decision-makers can begin to think beyond quantities, composition and flows, and start thinking about roles, relationships, power, incentives and behaviours that will be crucial to transforming how we approach waste management.

If you want to read our latest policy paper on ‘Creating the working conditions for health, dignity and opportunity’, then click the link!