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It only took a few decades for Kitakyushu, Japan to transform from one of the world’s most polluted cities to a leading ecocity.
When the government-managed Yataha Steel Works set up shop in Kitakyushu in 1901, a host of industries followed suit: steel, chemical, electrical, and ceramics all proliferated in the following decades. The progress drove Japan’s industrialization but the collateral damage was significant.
The factories spewed soot into the sky and sludge into the water. By the 1960s, the city’s Murasaki River ran thick with wastewater, its banks covered in trash deposits. The water in nearby Dokai Bay measured almost zero oxygen (healthy water has 7-8 mg/l; less than 5 mg/l and fish start to die), giving it the moniker the “Sea of Death.”
When air pollution caused school closures and children to develop asthma, several women’s cooperatives decided they’d had enough. Soon, partnerships were formed between citizens, public administration, and industries causing a citywide transformation to take place. Environmental education taught citizens to separate recycling and organic waste, recycling and sewage treatment centres were constructed, strict legislation such as the Law for Environmental Pollution Control was passed, and environmental standards on water and air were implemented. By the 1980s, 150 species of aquatic animals, many of which were thought to be extinct, were found to be living in Dokai Bay. In 1990, Kitakyushu was recognized as a model environmental city with the Global 500 award from the United Nations Environmental Programme.
Kitakyushu’s transformation is an inspiration to cities facing the same problems today, including those being assisted by Municipal Solid Waste Initiative of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition. The Initiative aims to reduce the short-lived climate pollutants methane and black carbon from the waste sector by training city officials, providing expertise through waste management assessments and feasibility studies, and assisting cities with finding financing for waste programmes. Using this approach, the assistance tackles not only urban waste management but the pollutants responsible for climate change and air pollution.
“Kitakyushu has steadily pioneered policies to turn its negative legacy of pollution into a strength,” said Hiroshi Yasutake, the Deputy Director of Kitakyushu Asian Center for Low Carbon Society at the City of Kitakyushu’s Environment Bureau. Today, Kitakyushu is passing that legacy on to other cities.
The Climate and Clean Air Coalition’s Waste Initiative developed the City Waste Exchange Programme which paired Cebu in the Philippines and Medan in Indonesia with Kitakyushu. The programme has also paired cities like Viña del Mar, Chile and Stockholm, Sweden; Nairobi, Kenya and Durban, South Africa; and New Delhi, India and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The hope is that with guidance from a city that can relate, mentee cities can better implement innovative waste management strategies like diverting organic waste to reduce landfills, capturing and burning landfill gas to prevent the release of methane, and banning the open burning of waste to prevent black carbon emissions.
The Waste Initiative is tackling a global problem. The urban population around the world has increased almost six-fold since 1950 and new research suggests the percentage of city-dwellers in Asia and Africa could be significantly higher than previously thought—as much as 90 and 80 percent, respectively.
With that growth comes trash, and lots of it. From 2000 to 2012, the amount of urban waste globally doubled, from 680 million tonnes to 1.3 billion tonnes annually. By 2025, those numbers are expected to double again. Many cities have no formal waste collection which usually means it is burned or deposited into sprawling, open air dumpsites in neglected parts of the city. Some 40 percent of global waste is burned, with devastating health and environmental impacts.
“Waste isn’t just important for the climate but also for public health and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals,” said Dr. Premakumara Jagath Dickella Gamaralalage, the Deputy Director of the Centre Collaborating with UNEP on Environmental Technologies at the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies and one of the Coalition’s implementing partners.
Waste is the third largest man-made source of methane, which is much more efficient at trapping radiation than carbon. In fact, its impact on climate change over 20 years is 84 times greater than carbon dioxide (CO2). Open waste burning and waste collection vehicles also emit black carbon, causing air pollution that not only contributes to climate change but is a leading cause of poor health and premature death.
“Waste management is an important public service because it is a public health issue, it’s an economic issue, and it’s a social issue because women and children work unsafe jobs in the waste sector. Creating sustainable cities start with waste management,” adds Dr. Premakumara.
In 2015, pollution in Cebu was so bad that the Philippine government warned residents to wear goggles and dust mask respirators if they went outside. If it worsened, people were warned not to leave the house at all. While the waste sector wasn’t solely responsible, it certainly wasn’t helping.
As part of the city exchange programme, officials from Cebu and Kitakyushu travelled to each other’s cities several times. During the visits, Kitakyushu emphasized the linkages between environmental conservation and waste management and sustainable development. It also assisted Cebu with developing legal systems for electric and electronic waste management.
As a result, said Yasutake, awareness and knowledge about environmental administration has increased throughout Cebu City Hall. The Chamber of Commerce and Industry have also improved, including by installing collection boxes for electric and electronic waste and by implementing city-wide collection campaigns. Cebu has also started enforcing penalties for not segregating waste and enacted neighbourhood-level composting projects.
In neighbouring Indonesia, Medan also has parallels to Kitakyushu before its transformation. Only 80 percent of solid waste is serviced by formal garbage collection systems and the city’s waste disposal sites are expected to be filled to capacity in the next two years. Countrywide, waste is expected to grow by 76 percent in the next decade.
Kitakyushu is helping Medan with four main programmes: using composting and waste banks as waste management tools, getting households to compost, analysing waste composition, and undertaking environmental assessments. In 2017, Kitakyushu was assisted Medan in developing a work plan for reducing short-lived climate pollutants from the waste sector, which has now been codified into a Mayoral Act called Local Government Strategy on Waste Management. The work plan was developed with the financial support of the Coalition’s Waste Initiative.
“We know that impactful action on environmental challenges requires citizen participation and social inclusion,” said Willy Irawan, the Head of Division for Planning and Environment of Medan Municipality. For this reason, Medan has also kicked off an environmental education programme based on its learnings from Kitakyushu and made composting, waste banks, and waste separation mandatory. Now, Medan is looking to Kitakyushu and the Coalition for advice on designing their new waste disposal site since the current waste disposal site will be at capacity in the next two years.
In all of these cities, it’s not just about using complex waste disposal technology, it’s about engaging every citizen at the household level.
“Medan has seen how Kitakyushu manages their waste. Impactful action should be started at the community level,” said Irawan. “Citizen participation is required. We know that Kitakyushu is utilising hi-technology on waste management but first things first, the behaviour change is the most important.”
Moreover, it isn’t just municipal governments that are benefiting from the exchanges.
“The private sector in Kitakyushu visited Medan and Cebu so this has started a new collaboration with the private sector in mentee cities. It’s opened up not only city-to-city local staff to local staff but also other players like civil society and the private sector,” said Dr. Premakumara. “Sustainable waste management is not only the government, it’s civil society, academics, the private sector, and city governments––all of these work together. It’s not only specific infrastructure or specific technology but the entire system.”
It’s a lesson that sustains throughout the city exchanges, the success of which proves the benefits of Kitakyushu’s mentorship isn’t an anomaly.
In 2015, senior city officials from Copenhagen in Denmark and Sao Paulo in Brazil visited each other to discuss how to improve Sao Paulo’s waste management system. The exchange focused on, among other things, developing a master plan, financing for a waste management system, and inclusion of the informal waste sector. The intervention encouraged Sao Paulo to develop school citizen awareness and waste diversion and treatment programmes.
City officials from Durban in South Africa visited Nairobi, Kenya to strategize on landfill and waste management and help with Nairobi’s efforts to close the sprawling Dandora dumpsite—the largest in the city, and possibly the world. In turn, city officials from Nairobi visited Durban to see the city’s sanitary landfills and waste diversion programs first hand. With the guidance of Stockholm, Vina del Mar in Chile was inspired to work on implementing waste separation and collection programmes and organic waste treatment.
When it comes to municipal waste management, it’s the cities themselves that know best. As the Coalition’s city exchanges continue, each of them will have the chance to prove that, like Kitakyushu, a negative history of pollution can be turned into a future waste management strength.
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