Warning that tech fixes for rubbish often go to waste

Informal sanitation workers
Copyright: Stuart Freedman/Panos

Speed read

  • Decision-makers often seek high-tech solutions to dealing with solid waste
  • But machines may be unable to handle local conditions or waste streams
  • Educating local people and understanding their behaviour may be more effective

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Decision-makers dealing with waste management tend to overlook the behavioural, economic and institutional factors around waste creation, according to an award-winning paper.
When confronted with waste problems, municipalities tend to target technical solutions, the paper found. But these are not always the best way to deal with solid waste, it shows. A focus on factors such as education, consumption patterns and sanitation habits could help reduce solid waste creation and littering, the paper says.
Last week the paper’s lead author, Lilliana Abarca-Guerrero, collected the monthly Atlas Award, which highlights papers published by Elsevier that could promote social development.

“Awareness and attitude are bigger issues, which need proper education and training before bringing in technology.”

Agamuthu Pariatamby, University of Malaya

For the research, Abarca-Guerrero studied solid waste management in 30 cities in 22 developing countries during field visits and workshops with local waste managers.
“Decision-makers are tempted to believe in technology as a magical solution,” she says.
Waste creation is directly linked to economic development, meaning many growing countries have to figure out how to collect and treat increasing amounts of rubbish.
Abarca-Guerrero describes a municipality in the Andes that bought large and expensive compactors to compress plastic waste. But the machines could not be used on hilly roads and could not process the organic material that made up most of the local waste.
In another example, Sri Lankan administrators wanted to buy modern vacuum-cleaner vehicles to clean pavements, but they proved unsuitable for the country’s dusty roads and tracks.
According to Abarca-Guerrero, the companies that sell such machinery should be more transparent about its suitability and maintenance costs. Municipalities should also talk more to local people and NGOs, and educate local residents about waste issues to figure out the best way to manage solid waste, the paper says.
The paper, published in Waste Management, includes a questionnaire that government agencies can use to create a snapshot of their waste management system. This is designed to enable them to prepare a management plan and make better decisions on waste collection and disposal, says Abarca-Guerrero.

“Quick fixes are not the solution,” she says. “Besides technology, educated people, rules and regulations, and the participation of households are needed.”
Agamuthu Pariatamby, a waste researcher at the University of Malaya in Malaysia, agrees the findings should alert decision-makers in developing countries to the dangers of trying to solve waste issues superficially.
“Awareness and attitude are bigger issues, which need proper education and training before bringing in technology,” he says. “Like the examples given, there are similar white elephants in every developing country, where technology alone has failed miserably, causing unnecessary financial loss.”


Lilliana Abarca-Guerreroa and others Solid waste management challenges for cities in developing countries (Waste Management, January 2013)