A Solid Approach to Waste: How 5 Cities are Beating Pollution

Newswire—When ministers, business chiefs and civil society leaders gather at the UN Environment Assembly in December, trash talk will be on the agenda. Getting a grip on the mountains of solid waste produced by humanity is central to the Assembly's goal of moving Earth “towards a pollution-free planet”. After all, poorly contaminated rubbish contaminates our air, water and soil, and represents a colossal waste of the planet's finite resources.

UN Environment—Five of the 50 anti-pollution actions listed in a new UN Environment report relate directly to solid waste. One emphasizes that carefully crafted policies and regulation at the national level are vital to moving our economies onto a more sustainable track. But it is usually up to cities and towns to implement them on the ground. While many have yet to rise to the challenge, here are five cities with a solid approach to waste.

Osaka, Japan

Tourists who take a wrong turn en route to Osaka's Universal Studios might think they have stumbled into a remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But the funky-looking building with the wavy lines and gold-domed tower is actually a massive waste incinerator.

Styled by Austrian architect and eco-activist Friedensreich Hundertwasser, the incineration plant is a symbol of how Japan's second-biggest city has transformed itself from a pollution hotspot to a frontrunner in environmental care.

By the 1970s, the city was suffering from serious air and water contamination because of the heavy industries sprawled around Osaka Bay, and more pollution from the region's booming population. The landmark Osaka Castle regularly disappeared behind a thick curtain of smog.

Officials in Osaka reacted with tighter regulation of industrial emissions, more focus on health protection, strict environmental planning and a drive to create green urban spaces. Industrial air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide have declined steadily; a subway system has helped cut nitrogen oxides; closing the gaps in sewage coverage has cleaned up the rivers.

More recycling helped reduce the volume of waste sent for disposal by more than half between 1991 and 2014. Rather than dumping it in landfill, much waste is burned in high-tech plants that use the heat to produce electricity for an estimated 125,000 households as well as municipal hot water. 

The resulting ash – 5 per cent of the original volume – is sent to one of several artificial islands built in Osaka Bay with waste and surplus soil from urban infrastructure development. The islands host several waste and sewage plants, including the eye-catching incinerator.

An ash landfill on one island is being turned into a solar park. On the mainland, an older former landfill site has been transformed into a large city park and botanical garden, complete with a Dutch-style windmill and tulip beds.

Alappuzha, India

Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose World Environnment Day 2017 to launch a drive to address the mountains of trash piling up in streets and landfills across India. To implement it, cities across the world's second most-populous nation could do worse than follow the example of progressive municipalities like Alappuzha.

A few years ago, roadsides and canals filled with stinking garbage were threatening coastal Alappuzha's status as a tourist destination as well as exposing residents and visitors alike to clouds of flies and disease-spreading mosquitoes. Protests by local residents had led to the closure of the city's main landfill site in 2014.

Since then, the city in the eastern state of Kerala – dubbed “the Venice of the East” for its network of backwaters and coastal lagoons where tourists can rent houseboats – has addressed the problem by introducing a decentralized waste management system. This separates out biodegradable waste at ward level, treats it in small composting plants, and provides many of its 174,000 residents with biogas for cooking.

Alappuzha in among a handful of municipalities that received the Clean City Award from India's Centre for Science and Environment in 2016. Others include Panaji, Mysuru and Bobbili.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

As the first European capital to aim for zero waste, Llubljana is reaping multiple benefits from its commitment to cutting-edge waste management. While some countries have opted for incineration to control landfill, the Slovenian city has chosen to maximize recycling and reduction.

After more than a decade of improvement and education, Ljubljana has one of the highest rates for the separate collection and recycling of waste in Europe – over 60 per cent. That performance helped it secure the European Commission's Green Capital award in 2016. It has also banned cars from its centre, revived its parks, and helped Slovenia become a sustainable tourism destination.

A key step has been to collect separated waste directly from people's homes. Biodegradable and recyclable waste is collected more frequently, encouraging people to separate diligently to prevent it from piling up (and beginning to smell).

Snaga, the company managing the city's waste, has run information campaigns to promote reduction, re-use and responsible consumption to curb the amount of stuff people throw away. Reducing food waste is a particular target. It also operates collection centres for things like hazardous or bulky waste, including electrical appliances.

The results are impressive: the quantity of recovered materials rose from 16 kg per person in 2004 to 145 kg in 2014; the amount sent to landfills fell 59 per cent; total waste decreased by 15 per cent. The average monthly waste management cost was less than 8 euros per household in 2014 – the lowest in the country.

Ljubljana and dozens of other municipalities are part of the Zero Waste Europe network, which encourages the idea of a circular economy in which products and services are designed to maximize resource efficiency and minimize waste and energy consumption. Zero Waste Europe is a partner of UN Environment's Sustainable Consumption and Production 10-Year Framework of Programmes.

Penang, Malaysia

When customers at the food stalls in Penang's bustling Chowrasta Market fail to clean their plates, the leftovers of cheh hu and cup rice end up not in the trash but in a machine that turns them into fertilizer for use on farmers' fields.

The Bio Regen food processing machines are part of a drive to compost as much as possible of the Malaysian city's waste and slash the amount of trash going to landfill. The machines, which are compact, odourless, and attract no vermin, grind organic waste with water and microbial solution to create a bio-liquid soil enhancer.

Last year, authorities required all Penang residents to separate their waste at source. Given that 40-50 per cent of Penang's waste is organic material, large-scale composting could significantly reduce the pressure on the city's already limited landfill space. It would also address the problem of methane – a potent greenhouse gas – generated when organic matter is dumped together with other trash. For the local authority, composting also lowers the cost of transporting and disposing of waste and helps prevent pollution of the city's waterways.

UN Environment's International Environmental Technology Centre has supported efforts to green Penang since 2005, helping local officials develop waste management policies, access financing and connect with private sector partners. Worldwide, the centre is helping nearly 50 cities to better manage their organic waste.

Cajicá, Colombia

As a country getaway from the Colombian capital, Cajicá may not want to be too closely associated with worms, but the creatures have helped make the city a trans-national model in responsible waste management.

Begun nearly a decade ago, the municipality's drive to improve its handling of waste means it now has a recycling rate of 30 per cent and has reduced its landfill tonnage by a quarter. That's modest by some standards, but well above the national average of 17 per cent. Cajicá has been selected as a case study for a new postgraduate programme on integrated waste management in Latin America and the Caribbean. UN Environment is promoting the programme along with eight universities from the countries of the region.

Cajicá is also blazing a trail within the country. Alarmed that landfills in hundreds of municipalities are fast filling up, the national government last year launched an integrated solid waste management policy with the long-term aim of turning Colombia into a circular economy.

As in other locations around the world, a key to success has been the willingness of households to separate their waste before it is collected. That is a result of five years of awareness-raising including public meetings and door-to-door visits across the city, which lies 30 kilometres north of the capital Bogotá.

Crucially, about 350 tons of organic waste – over 20 per cent of the annual total – is taken for composting in specially supplied green buckets. That's where the worms come in. Vermiculture involves using worms to make compost from decomposing vegetable of food waste. The result is a rich compost with lower levels of contaminants that local residents are using as an organic fertilizer for their vegetable beds.

Pollution is the theme of the 2017 UN Environment Assembly, which is gathering in Nairobi from 4-6 December. Sign the #BeatPollution pledge and find out how you can reduce your pollution footprint.