Solid waste management has always suffered from a lack of consistent and reliable data to compare progress between countries. So the publication today of a seminal research paper, Comparative analysis of solid waste management in 20 cities, written by Professor David C Wilson and 4 co-authors in the peer-reviewed journal Waste Management & Research, represents a major step forward. The World Bank website is still reporting low collection coverage and a prevalence of open dumping in all developing countries: the new data analysed here shows that significant progress has been made over the last decade, with levels of both collection coverage and controlled disposal above 90% in most middle-income developing countries.

This comparative analysis uses the comprehensive and consistent dataset collected for 20 reference cities, developed and developing, in all 6 inhabited continents, for the 2010 UN-Habitat book . The paper was written by DCW; with his two co-authors from the original book, Dr Ljiljana Rodic of the University of Wageningen who led the city data collection and Dr Anne Scheinberg of WASTE; Dr Costas Velis of Imperial College, who carried out the statistical analysis; and Dr Graham Alabaster, who initiated the original work for UN-Habitat.  

The paper presents comparative data for waste arisings per capita and waste composition; for the three physical elements of a waste management system – collection, disposal and recycling; and for the main governance factors – both user and provider inclusivity, financial sustainability and sound institutions/ proactive policy. The conclusions stress that there is no ‘one size fits all’: rather, each city needs to develop its own locally sustainable solution, identifying what already works well and building on that, and addressing both the technical and the governance issues. 

Full data tables are available in the book, and in a previous paper to the WASTE 2010 conference. A more descriptive account of the 20 cities was published in the proceedings of the ISWA 2010 conference in Hamburg.

Update July 2012: The conclusions in the paper regarding the recent progress that has been achieved, particularly in middle-income countries, are reinforced by a new World Bank report, which gives average collection coverage of 86% in upper-middle, 68% in lower-middle, and 41% in low-income countries – these figures are considerably lower than our 2009 data; they come from a much larger sample size, but are somewhat older, with a median date of 2001.