Professor David C Wilson will be presenting a talk on Integrated Sustainable Waste Management in Developing Countries on Monday 16 March 2015. This is part of the Thomas Telford Prestige Lecture Series at the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) – these are public lectures on selected Monday evenings from January through to April from 1800-1935 at the ICE in Great George Street. Improving solid waste management is a major challenge in developing countries. There are many serious problems but no universal answer. Solutions need to be developed locally and tailored specifically to local needs and conditions. The lecture is also available to watch live online with the opportunity to pose questions. Follow the links to register to either attend in person or watch online.

The five lectures in the series are all based on award winning papers from the ICE publication awards – the related paper by David C Wilson, Costas Velis and Ljiljana Rodic won the ICE Telford Premium Medal 2014, acknowledging it as one of the top papers across all the ICE journals. It was published in the Institution of Civil Engineers’ Waste and Resource Management journal and is free to download.

Municipal solid waste management is one of the major responsibilities of a city government, and an essential utility service that we all tend to take for granted. Uncollected solid wastes present a public health risk – either directly to children living with waste piles, or breathing the smoke from uncontrolled burning – or indirectly through blocked drains and water courses providing stagnant water and breeding grounds for infectious diseases, or causing widespread flooding. When collected, it is necessary for wastes to be subject to environmentally sound management – large scale uncontrolled disposal can result in serious air, water, land and ocean pollution. The challenges facing developing country cities are growing fast: populations are rising, people are migrating from rural areas to the cities, waste generation per capita is increasing as economies grow and the nature of the waste is changing – many cities in Africa and Asia expect their waste quantities to double within 20 years.

This paper presents the results of six years’ work to benchmark the performance of cities around the world in tackling their solid waste management. Our data show that performance has improved significantly since 2000; from a relatively low baseline, it is already commonplace to achieve 95% rates of collection coverage and controlled disposal in middle-income cities, and 50% in low-income cities. However many challenges remain in the lower income countries – so much so that the continuing lack of basic services to billions worldwide has been described as ‘the solid waste emergency’.

How can we rise to this challenge? Solutions need to address both the physical components – collection, disposal, recycling – and the governance aspects – inclusivity of users and service providers; financial sustainability; and coherent, sound institutions underpinned by proactive policies. Our results show that recycling rates of 20-30% are achieved by the informal sector in many lower income countries, at no direct cost to the city authorities – presenting a major opportunity for all key stakeholders to develop win-win solutions to the benefit of all.

The evidence suggests that efficient, effective and affordable systems are those tailored to local needs and conditions, developed with direct involvement of service beneficiaries. Despite the remaining challenges, evidence of recent improvements suggests that sustainable solid waste and resources management is feasible for developing countries.

Parallel publications include the UN-Habitat book on Solid Waste Management in the World’s Cities; the paper of SWM in 20 cities; and anaccount of the ‘Wasteaware’ ISWM indicator set for benchmarking the performance of a city’s solid waste management system.