Zero-waste cities: #4 Equity

Waste has always had a disproportionate impact on low-income communities, but social and environmental goals don’t always align neatly. How can we clean up past mistakes, and create a fairer future?

June 2023

Words by Tony Whitehead

Injuries, illness and premature death are commonplace events at Bantar Gebang near Jakarta. But families also rely on the waste garbage as their main source of income. Photo 22Kartika, Wikimedia Commons

“If the whole garbage management system is to be fully mechanized using modern technology, how and what the government should do about these families must be addressed”

Save the Children

Because the poor have always found value in what the rich throw away, waste has always been an intrinsically social issue.

At the Bantar Gebang landfill near Jakarta, an estimated 1,500 children scavenge a mountain of trash the height of a 15-storey building. The waste provides them with an income, either from selling discarded items, or by working to collect and separate recyclables like aluminium or plastic. The daily deliveries from the city are also a source of salvaged food and clothing, and many actually live within the piles of rubbish, in makeshift dens furnished with cast-off homewares. Needless to say, injuries, illness and premature death are commonplace events — not just at Bantar Gebang, but at hundreds of similar dumps situated mainly, though not exclusively, throughout the Global South.

“It is sadly not unusual for waste to be processed in this way, and this can present difficult issues for western companies,” says David McKinnon, circular economy consultant at WSP. He led a project for a large retail brand that wanted to make jewellery from recycled precious metals — for example, from waste electronic equipment. “The problem was that in emerging economies, e-waste is often crudely burnt or chemically dissolved to separate metals from other materials, with children employed in often appalling conditions. It is a highly toxic, dangerous activity and, understandably, our client wanted to ensure their recycled metals were not going to have that kind of history.”

Traceability is a really difficult problem across the board, he adds, and one that will only become harder in a circular economy. “Companies want to know where their input materials come from — supply chain stewardship — addressing both the social and environmental consequences of their activities. But this becomes a real challenge when the value chain includes materials recovered from wastes. This is and will be a huge headache for all manufacturers from now on.”

Zero-waste cities

A four-part series exploring the transition to a circular economy

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Neither do social and environmental outcomes always align neatly. This is acknowledged by a report into Bantar Gebang part-sponsored by the charity Save the Children: “These families and children rely on waste garbage as their main source of income. If the whole garbage management system is to be fully mechanized using modern technology, how and what the government should do about these families must be addressed.” It added: “It is important to recognize these working children help the people of Jakarta to reuse and recycle their garbage for ‘sustainable’ development.”

A similarly complex dynamic is at work in South Africa, where thousands of unlicensed miners work abandoned mines and tailings. “These ‘artisanal’ miners can be anything from an individual with a pick to small ‘companies’, or large-scale criminal gangs,” says Adam Sanderson, a director in WSP’s land restoration and ground engineering practice in Durban. “Health and safety is often non-existent, as is concern for the environment.”

It has been estimated that artisanal mining now accounts for 10% of South Africa’s gold output, involving 30,000 people, 10% of them children. Working as an artisan miner is thought to be 90 times more dangerous than within the regulated industry. “Waste and social issues are closely linked in other ways too,” says Sanderson. “For example, moving away from coal power would reduce ash waste, pollution and carbon emissions. But this country currently suffers from severe power shortages and many thousands are employed in the coal industry. Without the power and the jobs, the likely result would be social unrest.”

Agbogbloshie in the Ghanian capital Accra is one of the world’s largest e-waste processing sites. This heavily polluted environment is home to approximately 40,000 people. Photo Muntaka Chasant, Wikimedia Commons

Working conditions are far from the only way in which waste disposal impinges on social groups differently. For example, in New Zealand, the indigenous Māori population have tended to be disproportionately affected, particularly by the use of land considered marginal or undesirable for waste disposal. Many historic landfills were located in wetland or low-lying areas that were considered no good for either farming or development. “The problem is that these were often valuable areas for traditional food gathering and ecosystem management,” says Rowan Latham, senior waste consultant with WSP in Christchurch. “The environmental value of these areas — the biodiversity they contain — is now better appreciated, but it is important that local tribes, or iwi, are fully involved in any plans for removal or remediation of waste from these areas and restoration of site ecology.”

"In emerging economies, e-waste is often crudely burnt or chemically dissolved to separate metals from other materials, with children employed in often appalling conditions"

David McKinnon, WSP

Landfill location can be a difficult issue in any country. Even well-managed sites in the west attract rats and also gulls, with neighbourhoods some distance away affected by their noise and droppings. “As suburbs have expanded, they sometimes approach closer to existing landfill, so it’s not unusual to find problems like these becoming exacerbated over time,” says Carole Smith, technical director with WSP’s environment team in New Zealand. Methane is also a concern when landfill is situated near housing, she adds: “In 1986, a house in Derbyshire in the UK was completely destroyed by an explosion caused by landfill methane. The gas was able to track through disused mine workings beneath the site. These led to a nearby housing estate where methane built up in the cellar of the house and eventually caused the explosion.”

Of course, the less waste that goes to landfill, the fewer problems landfill will cause. “It’s actually better than this though,” says James Martin, principal consultant in WSP’s circular economy practice, based in Glasgow. “Diverting waste from landfill, and extracting value from it, can actually result in very positive social outcomes.”

He is talking about the UK’s network of charity shops, known as thrift stores or op-shops elsewhere. This sector has expanded rapidly over the past 20 years as a result of tax breaks and a ready supply of high-street premises emptied by the switch to online shopping. “They used to sell mainly clothes, but they now take electronics, furniture, even paint. Thanks to them, millions of items avoid landfill and enjoy a longer life at a higher value — classic circular economy thinking.”

The figures are impressive. The UK Charity Retail Association calculates that some 340,000 tonnes of textiles alone are diverted from landfill every year as a result of being resold in its members’ shops, and that local authorities save at least £31m in landfill charges as a result. In 2021/22, charity shops contributed £363m to their parent charities. It is a neat demonstration that, when you view waste less as a problem and more as a resource, the outcomes can benefit society as well as the environment.

This article is the third in a four-part series exploring the transition to a circular economy. To read the rest, click the links below, or download the whole series as a PDF.


The circular economy

By 2050, global cities could produce 3.88 billion tonnes of waste every single year — unless we do something about it. Can the circular economy save us from drowning in our own wastefulness?
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The modern world has left a legacy of polluted land and wasted materials, but the science of remediation is developing rapidly, and helping to unlock hidden value. Could yesterday’s trash be tomorrow’s treasure?
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Humankind’s most useful invention has become its biggest problem, and one that just won’t go away. What can we do about plastic?
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