Informal Waste Management Knowledge Hub!

I was really positively surprised when I visited the Informal Waste Sector Knowledge Hub. I think that it deserves a thorough reading of the many materials that are posted and I am asking my readers to visit it and have a look at:


It is really a very good initiative aimed to highlight the informal sector contribution to waste management worldwide and to deliver knowledge and tools to those who are interested about informal sector.

Although some of the ideas presented there need further discussion and more detailed assessment, we have to remember that we are living a tsunami of urbanization and this tsunami has the form of new urban informal settlements.

So even if someone does not like at all the idea of informal sector as a stakeholder in waste management, the issue is not ideological at all. More than 70% of the urban growth is happening informally so the waste management industry and the governing authorities must not ignore or underestimate the role of informal sector in waste management. Instead of the more or less arrogant confrontation that is the current dominant view, governments, municipalities and companies have to look closer and find ways to integrate informal waste management to more formal and effective approaches.

This is absolutely necessary for two reasons.

First, because informal sector contributes a lot to recycling and recovery authorities but also it contributes a lot to black market conditions and unhealthy activities which create health risks for urban dwellers.

Second, because informal sector activities are not something temporary or something that will be a short – term condition. With more than 280.000 people coming everyday to megacities, worldwide, informal settlements will be a permanent form of urbanization for many years. And this has to be addressed with the right political, social and financial initiatives.

Last but not least, although I am sure that many of my friends and colleagues will not like this statement, I guess that there is something more about it. The first wave of urbanization, 300 years ago, resulted to the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, which really affect our lives up to now.

The current second wave of urbanization seems like a tsunami comparing to the first one and I am sure that it will bring its own revolutions, through the power of social co-evolution in megacities, through the new instant and long-term connections of the poor incomers with permanent residents and urban markets. If someone shares this opinion, as I do, then the logical consequence is that in waste management a lot of innovation will come from those who need it more in order to survive and improve their life. From those that have to manage waste with limited resources and find resources from limited access to waste. Welcome to the Informal Silicon Valley…


Urban waste management and Climate Change adaptation

Speaking for waste management, the adaptation challenge is currently underestimated compared to the great importance that has been given to climate change mitigation issues. Taking into account that waste management is still out of the mainstream agenda of the climate change policy – makers and decision - makers, although there is evidence that sound waste management practices can deliver substantial carbon emission savings, the result is that very few measures and policies have been arrived dedicated to adaptation and waste management.

Worldwide, global cities recognize the importance of adaptation because as Barbel Dieckmann, the mayor of Bonn in 2007 put it “…cities are already experiencing flooding, water shortages, heat waves, coastal erosion and ozone-related deaths”. The lesson we learnt from the Katrina hurricane was that multiple failures of an aging and inadequate infrastructure, plus indifferent planning, sharply increased the death toll of a catastrophe that had long been predicted. And while cities are moving relatively fast to create adaptation strategies, as a kind of “reaction” to the aftermaths of Katrina hurricane, waste management is usually out of the adaptation agenda.

The importance of adapting the current waste management is high and it deserves more attention by urban planners and decision makers as well as international organizations, for many reasons.

First of all, current urban waste management systems are proven vulnerable day by day. Search a little bit at the Web and you will find lots of landfill floods and collapses due to hurricanes or extensive rainfall, collection systems collapsed or blocked for a certain period due to extreme weather events. Although for the time -being we do not have reliable data to consider, it seems that extreme weather events will become a rule (and not an exception, as it is now) for designing waste management systems in certain areas of the world.

Second, it seems that the most vulnerable waste management systems are the ones that happened to be in growing and transition megacities, where informal sector plays a certain role in waste management and infrastructure either is not in place or it is not adequate. In those urban areas, the environmental and health risks from a potential disaster related to waste management are really high and under certain conditions they might be proven more than local ones. Take into account that dumpsites, which are the dominant practice in those cases, are usually located at low levels and excavated with no plan and hydraulic protection and you will understand that this is a serious problem.

Third, even in developed and mature megacities, where infrastructure is in place, the collection systems remain vulnerable, facilities must be examined for their resilience under the new weather patterns and we still have the problem of new and old landfills. Old landfills, even if they are closed possess a serious risk, especially if they are located into floodplains. New and active landfills are by far the most vulnerable part of the waste management chain and their potential for environmental damage is really high, especially in the case of erosion or oversaturation.

Already, there are events even in developed countries that outline the serious impacts of the current underestimation of the importance of waste management adaptation strategies. As an example, 30% of 1064 Austrian landfills are in areas where flooding is a major risk. A 25.000 m3 old landfill was completely eroded during a 2005 flood of Alfenz River in Austria, resulted in water pollution events. And the famous Elbe River flood on 2002 created landfill and dumpsites erosion which contributed in heavy metal and arsenic contamination.

So it is time to change our attitude regarding the adaptation of waste management. There is one more reason about it. Mitigation efforts must be global and their global results will be long-term ones. But adaptation is something urgent that must be delivered locally and the results will be more or less immediate. In that view adapting waste management systems is within the spatial and temporal scale of human brain and of our societies’ understanding, which means is more achievable. And for awareness purposes, focusing resources and attention to adaptation strategies is the crucial link to demonstrate the importance of mitigation measures.

How to cope with this problem? It is neither easy nor simple, but there are some starting points.

First, we need to face urban waste management as a system and assess the region – city - site-specific vulnerability of it. Of course landfills, dumpsites and collection systems have to be studied in details since they are obviously the most vulnerable parts. But even before those physical elements of the waste management chain, we have to study the institutional framework in each area and the social – demographic factors related to waste management. Because actually the vulnerability map of any system will be the combination of geographical vulnerability with social – demographic factors.

Second, climate change and extreme weather events create a new diversification of regions and territories, according their vulnerability. This means that a. site selection criteria have to be updated and reflect this diversification and b. they have to be applied much stricter than they are applied now.

Third, we need to find a way to include the Low Probability – High Impacts events in the designing principles and procedures, according the expected climate change impacts in each area. This is also a challenge for studying the vulnerability of the current infrastructure in place. Appropriate risk assessment procedures should be developed for that purpose.

We need a road map to assess the adaptive capacity of urban waste management systems and to frame them within the overall city adaptation strategy. Emergency planning and medium term adaptation measures are definitely parts of the adaptation strategies and usually there have not been even discussed for urban waste management. Informal sector integration in waste management procedures might be required too.

Last but not least, it is obvious that diverting waste from landfills, using several parallel collection systems, improving recycling - recovery performance and introducing waste prevention initiatives will definitely relief the impacts from any extreme weather phenomena, especially the health and environmental impacts related to landfills and dumpsites. In that term, those measures are proven as the link between adaptation and mitigation strategies and they have to be even more upgraded than they already are for waste management policies and strategies.


The future of waste management is URBAN!

This is a short lecture I recently gave to an AIDIS event in Sao Paulo. The event was dedicated to the presentation of the excellent report of AIDIS "Waste Management in Latin America" and I really have to congratulate the organizers for the excellent report they presented. For more about AIDIS see at


For more about the event see at


I have to thank the organizers for giving me the opportunity to contribute to a so important event and I want to ensure them that I will be on their side, available to contribute, whenever they ask for. Here are the thoughts I presented.

"...Latin America and the Caribbean is the most urbanized region in the world, with its urban population expanding from 61 percent in 1975 to more than 78 percent in 2001. With increas¬ing urbanization—along with economic growth and rising consumption—comes greater waste generation. And the waste will continue to grow: several recent World Bank studies project that the region’s municipal solid waste will increase from 131 million tons in 2005 to roughly 179 million in 2030.

Urbanization brings high growth in population, in income and unpredicted spatial growth. Urban areas in Latin America are becoming a symbiosis of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, while allowing the rise of a new middle class.

Thus, urbanization goes together with a rapid increase of the urban GDP /capita income, with decrease of average household size, increased demand for dwellings and increased informal sector markets in all the urban life, including waste management as well. One thing is for sure: more waste is coming and it will be urban.

But urbanization has also another, usually hidden, side that we have just began to understand it. Big cities have lower environmental and energy footprints than smaller ones and much lower than rural areas. Urban conglomerations deliver more results (in GDP/ capita, in productivity, in energy use per capita) with less resource. Recently it has been found that there is a so- called “super-scale effect”: double the size of a city and you will have double plus 15% efficiency in energy used, GDP/capita or any resource use. Half the size of a city and you will have a half minus 15% efficiency. This means that big cities deliver more using less and this is something that is directly linked with the social context of urban life and not with the engineering and logistics of it.

Now it is the time to utilize this particular property of urbanism for the benefit of waste management. For many years we faced the problem of waste management trying to resolve it with engineering and logistic tools. And we were right because the first objective of waste management was and it still is to protect human health, taking the garbage away of the daily city life.

As long as we face SWM as a matter of appropriate storage, collection, transfer, treatment and disposal and the main effort was to minimise environmental and health impacts, engineering and logistic tools were sufficient to plan and implement waste management systems. But today, resource management and social behaviour are becoming an organic part of any waste management system and they are essential to address increasing recycling rates and better quality of recyclables, participation of industrial stakeholders, eco-design initiatives and closed loops of products and materials.

As a result of those trends, it is obvious that the governance issues of waste management (institutional development, social support and participation and financial sustainability) are becoming more and more important especially for the success of recycling, reuse and waste prevention initiatives. They are highly sensitive to the continuous change of the neighbourhoods and cities within the megacity, especially to the poorest ones where inadequate waste management practices create serious health and environmental risks.

Clearly, the governance issues elements control the social behaviour of citizens and thus they are the most important for the success of recycling, reuse and waste prevention programs.

From those remarks, it is obvious that the overall performance of a city waste management system results from continuous interactions between global and local markets, emerging social behaviour, city governance, global and local stakeholders, city growth etc. And those interactions are hardly described by the traditional waste management approaches which are based on engineering and logistics.

So now it is the time to include social behavior and participation as an organic part of waste management, knowing that without it all infrastructure design might be proven as useless. And now there are smart tools to do it.

One of the major barriers in appropriate waste management is the lack of appropriate information for organizing waste collection, street cleaning and recycling. New emerging solutions do emerge and I think the most interesting one is to use citizens as sensors. Using smart phones applications and relevant software tools we can now have real time monitoring of all municipal activities, involving citizens not only to monitor but also to participate in decision making. This is the new era of urban waste management, a management that will be based in active and real time participation of citizens and in that way we can also open the crucial issues of waste prevention and recycling.

Of course infrastructure will always be needed – we can avoid it no matter how successful recycling we will have. But it is also time to focus at the overall cycle of waste, including the substantial cost of logistics, which represent 60-80% of our expenses for waste management. So why not to have e.g. waste treatment plans nearby the city centers? Why not to have underground transfer stations and treatment facilities?

The future of waste management is urban because cities were always and still are the major source of innovation for our societies. And through events like the one we have today, we have the opportunity to be the catalyst of this innovation."