This article first appeared on europa.eu.
Around 20 years ago, all Chile’s waste was dumped illegally. Today, about two-thirds of capital Santiago’s waste is processed at a plant outside the city, which recovers gas from the waste to generate electricity. It produces more than 22 MW now, which is expected to grow soon to 30 MW.
“We’re taking a pollutant that has negative impacts on health, negative impacts on climate – both at the local right up to the global scale – and turning it into something that’s beneficial for the community in terms of clean-produced electricity,” said Dan McDougall, Senior Fellow at the Climate and Clean Air Coalition. “We’re trying to take those types of examples, and work with others to scale them up all around the world.”
More such projects are needed to deal with cities’ growing piles of waste. Rapid urbanisation is producing ever-larger volumes of rubbish, with a variety of negative impacts on both residents and the global environment. Unmanaged waste often ends up in the streets or water drains, attracting pests and vermin. Unsanitary landfills can pollute underground water with toxic leachate. And the decomposition of organic materials produces methane, an even more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. If rubbish is disposed of through open burning, however, it gives off black carbon, or soot, which can cause respiratory problems and cardio-vascular disease.
Approached creatively though, the separation, collection and recycling of waste can be a source of income, as shown by the Chilean example. This first needs political will, and politicians need to know the possibilities before they get behind them. Even then, ideas can run into financing difficulties, which are often best solved by persuading outside investors that there’s a business return from waste.
“Retrofitting a proper waste management system in built-up areas is a challenge,” said Alice Kaudia, Environment Secretary in Kenya’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources. “Investors want to know what volumes of waste we are generating, to justify the setting up of an industry that can help us transition from open dumping to use of waste as a valuable input on an industrial scale.”