Climate Action

Waste management has a data problem. This approach can fix it.

Waste management data is critical to creating policy and planning for the local context — but all too often, it is inconsistent.

Waste management data is critical to creating policy and planning for the local context — but all too often, it is inconsistent. Image: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Swati Singh Sambyal
Waste Management Specialist, UN Habitat India
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Plastics and the Environment

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate

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  • Waste management is an essential part of tackling climate change, particularly plastic waste.
  • But too many cities and local authorities do not have full and actionable data on the waste their inhabitants are producing.
  • This UN method allows authorities to measure their waste and develop actionable policy insights based on those findings — it's already been applied in two Indian cities.

Waste management data is critical to creating policy and planning for the local context — but all too often, it is inconsistent. This presents a very real challenge for authorities looking to clamp down on plastic and other kinds of waste.

Understanding how much waste is generated — especially during times of rapid urbanisation and population growth — as well as the types of waste being generated, allows local governments to select appropriate management methods and plan ahead.

This knowledge allows governments to design effective systems with suitable technology, establish efficient routes for waste collection and transportation, set targets for the diversion of waste, track progress and adapt as waste generation patterns change. With accurate data, governments can realistically allocate budget and land, assess relevant technologies and consider strategic partners, such as the private sector or nongovernmental organizations, for service provision.

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Inconsistent data means inconsistent results

However, the data on solid and plastic waste generated from our cities is inconsistent. It relies entirely on estimates, many of which are more than a decade old. Further, there is no standardised approach to developing a solid and plastic waste inventory that gives a holistic snapshot. This data gap sharpens the challenge of developing appropriate strategies and systems for managing waste.

In India, waste is an acute problem. The Indian coastline extends for over 7,500 kilometres, covering nine maritime states, two union territories and two island territories. Nearly 250 million people live within 50 km of the coast, and the coastal area has about 130 cities and a very significant share of India's economic infrastructure.

The UN's approach to data in waste management

Under the auspices of the “Waste Wise Cities: Tackling Plastic Waste in the Environment” project, UN Habitat’s India office has used the proprietary Waste Wise Cities Tool (WaCT), which is based on SDG indicator 11.6.1’s parameters. The aim is to support two coastal cities in India — Mangaluru and Thiruvananthapuram — in undertaking a comprehensive diagnostic of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW).

Using the tool, authorities conduct surveys and assessments by the application of the WaCT followed by defining priority intervention areas on solid waste management, framing action plans and developing concept proposals with a focus on circular investments and livelihood generation. The tool is divided into seven steps, covering the generation, characterisation, recovery, disposal and leakage of waste.

The ground assessment in Mangaluru was conducted in April 2021 and in Thiruvananthapuram in November 2021 by UN-Habitat’s India team. A sample size of 90 households from high, middle- and low-income groups participated in the study from both cities for ten days. Following that, the disposal sites and the waste recovery value chain with formal and informal stakeholders were surveyed.

Following UN-Habitat India’s assessment of the cities, a number of key findings were made, and policy recommendations developed based on them.

The WaCT application is used to conduct surveys and assessments followed by defining priority intervention areas on solid waste management, framing action plans, etc.
The WaCT application is used to conduct surveys and assessments followed by defining priority intervention areas on solid waste management, framing action plans, etc. Image: UN Habitat

Mangaluru produces 391 tonnes of waste per day, of which 17% was plastic waste. Every year in the city, more than 2,700 tonnes of plastic — 4.5 kg per person — leaks into the water system. That’s the equivalent of 150 plastic bottles.

To improve Mangaluru’s waste efficiency, the city must make improvements across awareness and capacity building, decentralised resource recovery, disposal site operations and circular investments.

Thiruvananthapuram, with a population of nearly a million people, does not have a landfill to dispose of waste and claims to be a zero-landfill city. Instead, MSW is collected for recovery. Every year, the city generates 155,669 tonnes of waste — of which, 27,476 are plastics. In Thiruvananthapuram, 85% of plastic waste is collected by formal and informal facilities in the city, of which 22% is handled by the formal sector and 78% by the informal sector. Almost 5 tonnes of plastics enter the water system every day.

Based on those findings, the city should: improve capacity with a focus on waste minimisation and circular systems, strengthen resource recovery by enhancing up-cycling interventions, improve the management of uncollected and residual waste and introduce circular financing for solid waste management.

WaCT flow chart for Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India. Waste management is an essential part of tackling climate change, particularly plastic waste.
WaCT flow chart for Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India. Waste management is an essential part of tackling climate change, particularly plastic waste. Image: UN Habitat

Waste management and the SDGs

This project can set the tone for larger-scale and nationwide projects across India and internationally with a focus on evidence-based planning and circular financing, in which green entrepreneurship at the local level is promoted. Cities need to undertake data inventorisation and waste characterisation studies to estimate the existing quantities of waste and formal and informal resources that will help to prepare effective implementable strategies for circular systems.

To achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development the needs and voices of those disproportionately affected by plastic pollution must be prioritised, in tune with environmental regulations and policy. This is an essential element of the just and circular transition and towards ending plastic pollution. A just transition is key to protecting and enhancing livelihood security for people working in the informal sector.

On a national level, governments can encourage the integration of informal stakeholders through national Extended Producer Responsibility legislation and schemes. Clear targets for the integration of the informal sector within the EPR regulations are essential. It is also important to note that some informal stakeholders may wish to remain in the informal sector but still be part of the system. It is therefore beneficial that informal stakeholders are actively involved in the transition process.

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This can be done by recognition and inclusion of the informal sector in national and local policies aimed at improving waste management and reducing plastic pollution, provision of capacity building and skills development to enable the formation of microenterprises, environmentally and socially sound waste management practices and transitions to alternative livelihoods, depending on the individuals’ choices to remain in, or transition from, the waste and recovery sector. Furthermore, national governments can support local governments in implementing national policies and pursuing local approaches to integrate the informal sector.

Critically, financial resources to provide fair wages and promote human and labour rights must be set aside for such workers, to prevent them from being exploited at the lowest level of the recovery value chain.

In applying these policies, the waste sector can make positive contributions towards the sustainability of people and the planet.

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