Working towards zero waste in our cities

The Sustainable Waste Systems Network supports cities to improve waste management planning and operations and implement solutions that are locally compatible, sustainable, affordable, and resilient. The aim is to maximise greenhouse gas emission reductions and establish a basic level of waste collection and safe disposal for all, paving the way for a more sustainable approach to waste management in cities in the Global South.

Focusing on strategy and infrastructure development, capacity building, and creating/upskilling jobs and economic opportunities, the network accelerates city action. This includes implementing the required infrastructure and operational good practices to progress towards zero waste strategies.

Cities across Africa, Asia, and Latin America are forecasted to double the amount of waste produced in the next ten years, heightening challenges in waste collection and safe disposal. This network acknowledges the financial, technological, operational, and policy challenges of building new waste infrastructure and transitioning to a proactive, planning-based waste system. It supports cities in moving towards a path that will eventually lead to a future without waste.

Focus areas

  • Universal collection
    Improving the development of waste infrastructure, evaluating technology, reviewing national and regional policies, and implementing cost-effective and efficient waste collection and transportation services.
  • Safe disposal and treatment
    Implementing city strategies and policies to effectively manage disposal and recovery facilities such as landfills, composting, landfill gas utilisation, and materials recovery facilities (MRFs). This includes eliminating open dumping, open burning, and waste leakage, enhancing disposal quality, establishing organic waste recovery infrastructure, and improving recycling and segregation.
  • Informal sector integration
    Boosting collection, recycling, and composting efforts while generating employment opportunities for vulnerable groups. This aims to create a cost-effective waste management system.
  • Finance
    Ensuring the financial sustainability of new waste infrastructure.

The network is well-placed to assist members in adopting and duplicating successful experiences, particularly in initiatives aimed at enhancing waste collection, intermediate treatment, and safe disposal.

This should be done in a manner that is both financially sustainable and environmentally friendly, with an emphasis on inclusivity.

Some noteworthy examples include:

Accra, Ghana

In 2018, the city dramatically revised its relationship with informal waste collectors by recognising them as part of municipal waste operations. By formalizing the roles of 850 workers, the city successfully boosted waste collection and recycling by 10%, particularly in low-income areas, with lower capital requirements compared to using large waste trucks and centralised infrastructure. Registered waste collectors now use small motorised tricycles to collect waste within designated areas. Then, they transport the waste to the transfer station, where recyclables are sorted before residual waste is taken for disposal.

São Paulo, Brazil

São Paulo set up decentralised composting sites citywide to manage 64,000 tonnes of yearly organic waste from fruit and vegetable markets, alongside an additional 69,000 tonnes from tree and plant pruning. In 2022, 7,100 tonnes of organic waste were collected, producing 1,400 tonnes of compost. This compost was utilised as fertiliser in municipal parks, small organic farms, and household pots. This initiative saved over 7 million litres of burnt petrol, equivalent to taking 4,000 cars off the streets.

eThekwini (Durban), South Africa

eThekwini’s overall approach includes using landfill as a city asset rather than a hindrance. After the landfill’s use, reforestation initiatives are led by local marginalised communities, creating employment opportunities and transforming depleted landfills into conservation areas for local wildlife. The costly leachate treatment – treating liquid from decomposing waste – is a significant aspect of landfill management, which eThekwini accomplishes by cultivating reeds and other plants grown on-site. By implementing additional environmentally friendly practices, the city has successfully converted landfills into carbon sinks, contributing to the goal of achieving a carbon-neutral future.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Rio de Janeiro’s Biomethanisation Unit is a pioneering technology in Brazil and Latin America for processing the organic portion of municipal solid waste through a solid-state batch anaerobic digestion with a leachate recirculation process. The Biomethanisation Unit can handle 3,000 tonnes of organic waste annually, producing over 300 tonnes of organic compost each year. The generated biogas is converted into electrical energy to ensure the self-sufficiency of the treatment process. By redirecting this amount of organic waste from landfills, the unit effectively mitigates approximately 3.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent each year. The organic compost produced also plays a crucial role in the city’s soil recovery initiatives, including the Hortas Cariocas programme, promoting urban agriculture in low-income communities; reforestation projects in the Tijuca Urban Rainforest; and the maintenance of the city’s gardens and parks.