Addressing Sub-Saharan Africa's issues with waste management, as urbanization threatens to create large-scale issues with municipal sanitation.
Developing cities tend to have large population concentrations; a sizeable number of people living in what is most likely to be a smaller-than-needed space. This will inevitably put a strain on large-scale amenities. How can enough water be processed, treated, and supplied? Power generation; transportation links; housing and accommodation. Another major, although often under-discussed, problem that growing cities and metropolises will face is the problem of municipal solid waste.
The rise of urbanization often comes with increased consumption patterns, often due to a wealthier population. Many people living in a condensed area will produce waste at a high rate. These might be food waste, plastics, electronics, or clothing, amongst others. It can become an incubator for infections if left to accumulate and fester; a breeding ground for bacteria and animals such as rats and insects, all of which can cause harm when they come in contact with humans. Thus, waste must be properly collected and managed. However, this is not an issue in which sub-Saharan Africa and its cities have covered themselves in glory.
Only 54.5 per cent of all waste in sub-Saharan Africa is collected, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA). A lower portion still, 18.8 per cent is managed in controlled facilities. These figures are suboptimal. They are indicators of conditions which actively endanger the health of city dwellers.
The buck must start with the city and the infrastructure it has put in place to collect waste. Are there trash cans in public spaces? How often does the city collect garbage from its residents? Are there facilities like garbage trucks and incinerators? Are garbage collectors well-remunerated? If all infrastructure is in place? Are there laws to keep the citizenry in check, ensuring proper garbage disposal? These are questions that city councils must address because waste is a societal issue before it becomes an individual one.
Assuming a household collects its waste in bags or a trash can, it is safe to assume that those will get filled up. So where does the trash go after that? Is there a designated collection point where city officials can collect refuse? In most cities, there will be one. If there isn’t, individuals or households are liable to find personal solutions such as dumping trash by the roadside, in wooded areas, or in water bodies such as rivers or drainage channels.
As unsavoury as this sounds, it is not uncommon. After all, the statistics are clear, only 54.5 per cent of waste is collected. Trash accumulating by the roadside becomes an eyesore. It provides a harbour for vermin. Floods in cities can occur as a result of refuse blocking drainage systems. Bodies of water may become unsuitable for human use. It also just...smells really bad.
The question then becomes one of collection. If the city collects the trash, as some do, how is trash managed? The significant gap between solid waste collection and management in controlled facilities – only 18.8 per cent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s waste is managed in controlled facilities – suggests that a lot of collected waste ends up in open dumpsites and landfills. Sometimes, these dumpsites are away from large population concentrations and habitation. Even so, this will come to create problems.
Major dumpsites and landfills, essentially small hills of trash, discharge greenhouse gas emissions. This is especially prevalent when that agglomeration contains organic waste, food waste, sanitary items, and other forms. A paper by Universitas Indonesia academics in Jakarta found that a small port town in the city which uses the landfill system of a solid waste collection created 14,340.2 tonnes of CO2eq/year from 5,411.4 tonnes of solid waste/year. African cities like Lagos, Kinshasha, or Nairobi will emit far higher levels than this due to their large populations and high population densities.
Research by David O. Olukanmi and Ola O. Oresanya, both of Covenant University in Ota, found that Lagos State alone generates about 12,000 tonnes of waste daily. Only about 7,000 tonnes are collected by the Lagos State Waste Management Authority (LAWMA) and disposed of in four landfill sites across the state. Interestingly, this comes to a 58.3 per cent rate of collection, with Lagos serving as a suitable microcosm for the Sub-Saharan region.
Poor waste management is not inevitable; waste can be properly collected and managed. A proper waste management strategy has to be created and enforced by cities. This will start with classification: all municipal solid waste cannot be handled similarly. Taking a page from the Australian city of Sydney, all waste is broadly classified into:
- Putrescible waste, which can be sanitary items, food waste, animal waste, manure, and possible mixtures, and;
- Non-putrescible can range from paper to glass to plastic, metal or even concrete.
This type of categorization enables proper waste collection and disposal. Putrescible waste should be kept from landfills, as they are the main source of decomposition, disease, and emissions. Waste like food and garden waste can be composted; plastics, paper, wood, metal, and unneeded household waste such as furniture and mattresses can be broken down and recycled. Hazardous items like e-waste and clinical wastes may still end up in landfills but will have low toxicity due to their inorganic nature.
The major factor is that cities see waste management as a priority. Only then would sufficient investment be devoted to the development and maintenance of infrastructure, the creation of policy and strategy, and legal frameworks along with city-wide orientation for residents which will lead to controlled management of municipal solid waste.