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Challenges and solutions for waste and plastics management in emerging countries

While waste volumes in emerging countries and global plastics production are bound to explode by 2050, there is an urgent need to stop waste from clogging the oceans and invent a new circular model for plastics. Successful examples of putting together clean waste management infrastructure show that it is possible to treat waste for a limited cost, leveraging its important carbon reduction potential as well as the contribution from freeing valuable land in fast growing cities. Moreover, new digital solutions such as collaborative platforms are turning into powerful tools to create value through accelerating recycling, therefore reducing the volumes to be treated.

Waste: a bottomless pit in emerging countries

Today, more than 2 billion tons of waste per year is produced globally and due to economic growth, urbanization and population growth, global waste production will increase by 70% between 2016 and 2050, reaching 3.4 billion tons in 2050. In emerging countries, over the same period, the urban population will double and by 2030, while 3 billion middle class should be added. As economic development is coupled to resources use which itself is coupled to waste generation, waste production in emerging countries should double by 2050 (Figure 1). By 2050, close to 75% of the waste will be generated in emerging countries vs 50% in 2000.

Figure 1: Waste production projection per region

Yet, investments in waste treatment infrastructures lag behind. In emerging countries, 80% of generated waste is dumped in open dumpsites and the low pace of new sanitary landfills creation will inevitably push this figure higher in the business as usual scenario. This lack of infrastructure impacts the health and the environment. Without proper infrastructure to collect gas emissions, dumpsites and landfills are the source of emission of 1.6 billion tons of CO2 equivalent (CO2eq) representing 5% of global emissions. Without improvements, the emissions could reach 2.38 billion tons of CO2eq by 2050, about 10% of global emissions. Nearly half of these GHGs are emitted by food waste.

Plastics: a looming crisis by the lack of action

Waste is also one of the most important source of ocean pollution, especially plastics. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 98% of the plastics leakage in the oceans are coming from non-OECD countries and plastic production is set to increase from 350 million tons (MT) in 2017 to 700 MT in 2030 and 1400 MT in 2050. Plastics packaging is the most problematic issue and represents 40% of the global plastic production (50% for single use plastics).

Indeed, non-managed plastics often end-up in the ocean as 80% of plastics from the ocean are sourced through 10 major rivers, mostly in Asia. These plastics are responsible for the death of 100 000 marine mammals and millions of seabirds every year.

Plastics are not only a source of maritime pollution but also a major source of air pollution. From production to refinery, plastics are emitting large amounts of GHGs. By 2050, their cumulative GHG emissions could reach 56 Gt and by 2100, 260 Gt, representing above half of the left carbon budget. However, these emissions could be significantly reduced if plastics were better recycled and recovered.

Among solutions, a new circular model for plastics, and new infrastructures and recycling services

Plastics are not currently properly recovered and recycled due to the complexity of the composition of the material (ie. mix of different types of resine).

In order to increase recycling, plastics should be redesigned at conception and innovation should be put at use. This means innovating in the materials and increasing the share of compostable plastic, developing the reuse and rethinking the packaging and delivery model, developing new technologies and increasing recycling.

As an example, moving from only 7% of all plastics made from recycled plastics today to 20% would allow 9.6 million tons of plastics to be recycled, and avoid the emission of 15.4 million tons of CO2, while creating local jobs.

Besides rethinking the production and consumption model of plastics, waste infrastructures in emerging markets should also be built, and dumpsites closed. As waste management is one of the most local services, it should be done with the municipalities if not by the municipalities. Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) are one of the most adapted systems to do so. Local governments are looking for private capital and a technical expertise for the construction and operation of waste projects, including closing and rehabilitating old dumpsites. The informal sector which used to work there should not be forgotten, including offering jobs in the newly created sorting, composting or recycling facilities.

A good example of the success of PPPs is the closure of the Meknes dumpsite in Morocco, and the construction of a waste treatment infrastructure. The former dumpsite covered 25 ha and received 185 000 tons of waste per year. This organic and humid waste was the source of a lot of leachates and biogas generation (125 000t CO2eq in 2015). The new center is now 52 ha, has the capacity to receive 300 000 tons per year, employs the waste pickers, has a sorting center and a compost facility, and a gas collection network allowing to capture 80% of the emitted biogas which is used internally (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Before and After at the Meknes dumpsite

On this basis, building and operating state of the art waste infrastructures leading to a net zero carbon emission could allow to avoid GHG emissions at a cost lower than $15/ton of CO2eq avoided. Assuming a CO2 price above 20$, properly managing waste could soon become economically beneficial.

Putting at work the value of the land freed from the rehabilitated dumpsites, often situated in increasingly crowded and demanded suburbs, could also help finance the newly built waste infrastructure, as well as support part of its O&M costs.

New tools such as digital platforms can be key in helping resolve the issue

The waste challenge also comes at a time where digital solutions, such as collaborative platforms, are turning into powerful tools to accelerate the implementation of ecological alternatives. Emerging digital platforms in North Africa or in India, developed by companies such as Wecyclers, WestAfricaENRG, or Kabadiwalla Connect are finding innovative ways to create value through recycling.

Moreover, emerging countries are not left without assets as the informal sector is already a key player in recycling, resulting in significant levels of collection for some recyclables: 78% of PET bottles are collected in India versus only 50% in France and 30% in the U.S.

This culture adequately combined with new tools such as collaborative digital platforms will have powerful repercussion, even allowing emerging countries to “leapfrog” developed countries with more traditional polluter-pay organisms.

In this framework, private stakeholders must act as enablers and accompany this revolution.