Urban waste management, an essential public service, but little known

One of the least glamorous consequences of human activity is the generation of waste. In the last 100 years, we human beings, apart from the cycles of nature, have been on the one hand draining the natural resources that the planet offers us and, on the other, filling our land with waste landfills.

The developed societies, clinging to the habit of “use and throw away”, are characterized by their huge consumption of resources and consequently by their big generation of waste. In Europe, each person generates 500 kg of waste per year. For decades, independently of economic cycles, one of the outstanding issues of environmental policies in developed countries has been to decouple economic growth from growth in the generation of waste.

Urban waste management is a public service that local entities (municipalities or consortiums) provide to citizens and consists of the household collection of the waste that we generate and transport to centralized treatment plants.

A waste management system is a set of facilities, processes and guidelines that allow complying with the waste collection and treatment service, within a municipal or regional scope. In a waste management system, there are different stakeholders: public administrations and concessionaire companies (the visible part of the iceberg) and citizenship (the non-visible part). Within public administrations, some are dedicated to establishing regulations and policies, while others – local entities, closer to citizens – are those that by law are obliged to provide the service. For local entities, the waste collection and treatment service, either directly or through a service concessionaire, represents an important expense item in their budgets.

We citizens are the generators of waste and the recipients of this service. In a large majority we don’t know how it works and we consider it adequate as long as we get our garbage bags collected. We live on the margin of an essential public service, created by and for us, in whose design we have not normally taken part and whose operation we do not know. Nor are we aware of the operating costs, which we obviously pay, but in general in a non-transparent way. We are only concerned about the service in cases where there is a strike in the service and “nobody” collects our rubbish bags.

As regards waste management systems, there are notable differences between developed and emerging countries. The differences are in the hardware (waste treatment infrastructures) and in the software (transparency and citizen awareness).

When people involved in the waste management sector visit waste treatment facilities (hardware), they are often impressed by certain technical features and by sophisticated plants that draw out attention with their performance. What they are not so aware of is that, to obtain the high levels in terms of material and energy recovery of waste (and therefore, low levels of waste), the key is citizen awareness, governance and transparency in costs (the software).

For a waste management system to succeed, the hardware part (investment issue) and the software part (collective conscience issue) must work together. As in a symbiosis, if one fails, the whole system fails, and then the option is the easiest and cheapest: the landfill.

We citizens tend to look for the cheapest, both in consumption and in environmental management. And the cheapest option can be the most convenient (disposable products, abuse of landfilling), but obviously it is not the most sustainable.

We all generate waste and we should all be involved in proper waste management, in a modern and efficient management system, that protects our future and the future of our children.

Next October, from 7th to 9th, the ISWA World Congress will be held at the Euskalduna Palace in Bilbao. There we all, representatives of the institutional world, academic world and the waste management industry, will have the opportunity to exchange experiences on waste management systems in different countries of the world and improve our citizen awareness for a higher resource efficiency, more rational consumption patterns and a better preparation for recycling our waste.

Read it in Spanish on the ATEGRUS website HERE

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