Learning from the past to plan for the future

My magnum opus that I’ve been working for the last 5 years has now been published. This uses my own experiences and analytical tools to review the historical evolution of waste and resource management since the first environmental legislation back in the 1970s when I first started working as a consultant in the sector. I then draw on my more recent international policy work to reflect on priorities and challenges over the next decade. My basic thesis is that we need to understand how the sector has evolved in the recent past to plan confidently for the future. I hope it will be widely read, not least to avoid ‘reinventing the wheel’; which is why I have published open access, as part of the 40th anniversary celebrations of ISWA’s peer-reviewed journal Waste Management & Research, rather than as a shiny book sitting behind a paywall.

The full title is: ‘Learning from the Past to Plan for the Future: an Historical Review of the Evolution of Waste and Resources Management 1970-2020 and Reflections on Priorities 2020-2030 – the Perspective of an Involved Witness’. The scope includes both municipal solid wastes (MSW) and hazardous wastes; the journey from end-of-pipe waste management, through the 3Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle) to the circular economy; and the continuing struggles of many developing countries to take even the early steps to bring their wastes under control.  Despite impressive progress, around 2.7 billion people worldwide lack access to waste collection; while ~40% of collected MSW is open dumped or burned – a continuing global waste emergency.

So, much remains to be done. Three policy priorities are critical for all countries: access to sustainable financing; rethinking sustainable recycling; and worldwide EPR (extended producer responsibility) with teeth. Extending services to unserved communities (SDG11.6.1) requires a people centred approach, working with communities to provide both quality services and decent livelihoods for collection and recycling workers. Two current opportunities to make real progress are provided by negotiations on an international legally binding instrument to end plastic pollution – extending waste collection and controlled disposal to all would halve the weight of plastics entering the oceans; and on a science-policy panel on chemicals, waste and pollution prevention, modeled on the IPCC for climate change. We need to grasp this ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity.

Socio-economic development drives solid waste management performance in cities

Our new open access paper tests and confirms for the first time the long-standing hypothesis that both the rate of municipal solid waste (MSW) generation in a city, and the performance of its MSW management system, depends on its level of socio-economic development level. We prepared the first consistent and comprehensive dataset for 40 cities around the world and used state-of-the-art statistical and machine learning techniques to correlate Wasteaware Cities Benchmark Indicators (WABI) with a broad range of explanatory socio-economic indices (including Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Social Progress Index (SPI) and Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI).

The results indicate that progress in collection coverage, and controlled recovery and disposal, has already taken place in low- and middle-income cities, although improvements in service quality often lag improvements in service coverage. However, the elephant in the room is that if we continue with ‘business as usual’ development, waste generation per capita and the total quantities (and cost) of waste management services will substantially increase. We urgently need to find new approaches to decoupling waste generation from economic growth and social progress.

The paper is open access and can be downloaded free of charge. It has taken a long time in preparation: thanks to my co-authors Costas Velis, Yoni Gavish, Sue M Grimes and Andrew Whiteman.

Diving Deep: deploying finance to prevent plastic pollution of the oceans

A key constraint to improving waste and resource management in many countries is a lack of access to investment finance. Extending waste collection to all and phasing out uncontrolled dumping and open burning in low-income countries would significantly cut the mass of plastics reaching the ocean. So the UNEP Finance Initiative publication Diving Deep, aimed at banks, insurers and institutional investors, is very welcome. Guidance is provided in the form of a science-based, actionable toolkit, to ensure that their investments, both in product manufacture and in waste management, encourage waste prevention and sound waste management, thus keeping plastics out of the oceans.

The promotional video and the document itself are worth looking at just for the wonderful images by world-renowned photographer Cristina Mittermeier of Sea Legacy. The guidance was prepared by WWF (led by Paula Chin) and RWA (led by Andy Whiteman). DCW played a small role as one of the reviewers.

Nine Development Bands – a new theory of waste and development

Professor David C Wilson is pleased to co-author an important new publication The Nine Development Bands: A conceptual framework and global theory of waste and development. The open access paper in ISWA’s peer-reviewed journal Waste Management & Research can be downloaded freely. The ‘9 DBs’ builds on the integrated sustainable waste management (ISWM) analytical framework to help characterise waste and resources management (WaRM) systems in cities and countries. Based on over 100 years of combined experience of the authors (Andrew Whiteman, Mike Webster and DCW), the 9DBs is a powerful addition to the waste management practitioner’s toolkit, bringing depth and nuance to understanding of WaRM systems globally.

The early DBs reflect stepwise improvement towards the new baseline of meeting the SDG 11.6.1 indicators of universal collection and management in controlled facilities (DB5); while later DBs represent two prevailing routes to move towards environmentally sound management (ESM) and the 3Rs (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle). An aspirational DB Zero, a real circular economy, sits above all 9 DBs, accessible via multiple pathways, posing an ultimate challenge for development practice. The 9DBs contextualise the challenge of meeting the waste-related SDGs, in particular for developing countries striving towards SDG 11.6.1 but also for all countries aspiring to a circular economy. Whether you are a practitioner, decision-maker, service provider, or sector activist, the 9DBs will help you to identify the key pressure points for catalysing change, and focus your time and resources on achieving maximum impact.

SDGs as Drivers of Change for Waste and Resource Management

Professor David C. Wilson has contributed a chapter on the SDGs as drivers for change to The Routledge Handbook of Waste, Resources and the Circular Economy, edited by Terry Tudor and Cleber Dutra and published on 28 December 2020. This has been a subject on which DCW has worked extensively, as re-casting improved waste and resource management as an entry point for tackling multiple, high-profile sustainable development goals significantly strengthens the case for action.

Solid waste management is not one of the high-level SDGs; like the equally important topic of air pollution, it is rather cross-cutting, impacting on multiple SDGs. DCW links five global waste targets, as defined in UNEP and ISWA’s inaugural Global Waste Management Outlook, to the 17 SDGs. He shows strong and in principle measurable links to six SDGs, not only the ‘obvious’ SDG11 (sustainable cities) & indicator 11.6.1, and SDG12 (responsible consumption and production); but also SDG1 (end poverty), SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation); and SDG13 climate action and SDG14 life below water (preventing plastics reaching the oceans). Links to six other high priority SDGs are still direct but more difficult to measure (e.g. SDG8 decent work through sustainable job creation, and SDG2 zero hunger through reducing food waste). Indirect links can also be made to the remaining five SDGs, including difficult-to-tackle equality and governance issues.

The Handbook sits behind a paywall, with only the abstract of the chapter online. The accepted manuscript of the chapter can be downloaded here:

Resource and Waste Management and the SDGs

Prof David C Wilson took part in a panel discussion at the RWM with CIWM exhibition and conference at the NEC in Birmingham this week. He made the point that while we already know what needs to be done to extend municipal solid waste management services to the unserved half of the World’s population, the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) are critical to unlocking the political will to make it happen.

Extending waste collection to everyone and eliminating open dumping and burning would specifically address targets under SDGs 11 (sustainable cities), 12 (responsible consumption and production) and 6 (clean water and sanitation). But it would also halve the quantities of plastics reaching the oceans (SDG14 life below water) and contribute to climate mitigation (SDG13) and public health (SDG3). Local recycling would also contribute significantly to SDG8 (livelihoods) and SDG1 (end poverty).

DCW is currently drafting a chapter on SDGs as a driver for change, for an upcoming Routledge Handbook on the circular economy.