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."

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