The waste management debate is a critical conversation for us to have and this is the right time to have it.
I believe that to achieve broad-based and inclusive economic growth as a country, we must centralize discourse on access to sanitation and a clean thriving environment as fundamental in our economic development strategy. Not just because this access guarantees good health (both mental and physical) and therefore a healthier and more productive society; but more importantly because it is a crucial step in bridging the poverty gap and building a strong framework on which we can achieve our sustainable development goals.
There is an undeniable nexus when it comes to environment and poverty which we need to explore in order to constructively contextualize our discussions on waste. The environment is, in many societies, symbolic of privilege especially in urban areas, where private spaces are demarcated by clean surrounding and functional sanitation facilities, whilst public spaces are casually tended to, with few working facilities that are inaccessible to many. Worse still the less privilege spaces, occupied by the poor who form a large part of the urban population, are neglected hence continually increasing their vulnerability and exacerbating their poverty.
What happens subsequently is that poor populations become burdened with concerns that are seemingly more urgent than taking care of the environment. They become occupied with preventing or treating diseases, their families’ safety and security and catering for their basic needs. This leaves us with no space in which to stimulate public discourse on how the environment directly contributes to poverty and in turn results in the downgrading of environmental concerns, much to the detriment of these communities.
So in essence, what we need to explore is how to address our prevailing environmental challenges whilst reducing the poverty gap at the same time. We have to realize that there is no panacea for environmental problems and we cannot seek simple solutions for a problem this complex. We, however, can innovate and develop lasting sustainable solutions that touch on the socio-economic problems that have brought about the waste problem in the first place.
Some countries have got this right. For instance, Japan, when confronted with problems of waste management and a declining local economy, came up with the idea of Eco-towns in 1997. Eco-towns were developed mainly in areas with high industrial activity, where these companies with the partnership of their government, practiced resource recycling as part of their manufacturing process – combining waste management efforts with environmental conservation and economic development for the populations that reside in those areas. Subsequently, the eco-towns have revived Japan’s economy by a sustainable revenue stream for the citizens as well as finding practical and sound solutions to waste disposal and environmental conservation.
Of course none of this is possible without applying a community-based approach to waste management because at the end of the day policy alone will not work if the consumer behavior does not change. Hence even if we were to start using brown paper bags as an alternative, we will still have a society that litters the environment partly due to lack of awareness and on the other hand due to lack of adequate disposal sites in the cities. Our natural water bodies will still be contaminated by other forms of waste and we will still have a health and sanitation problem as a country. As I mentioned before there are no short cuts to deeply rooted socio-cultural issues such as these and must seek waste management solutions that are inclusive.
A sustainable waste management solution looks at addressing behavior change and economic inequality which lie at the heart of our waste problem. This involves creating awareness for proper waste disposal right from the home to waste collection, transportation, segregation and recycling – thereby stimulating a thriving and valuable industry for the country. The approximate cost benefit analysis shows that waste collection alone can employ on average 4,000 people with an estimate earning of Ksh 576 Million. The revenue from recycled material would generate Ksh 6.3 Million daily and Ksh 2 Billion annually. Not to mention other value chains that would sprout from this industry.
E-waste, for example, is fast becoming the world’s largest contributor to pollution. Have we thought about how to manage this waste as a country, seeing as a quarter of the adult population owns mobile phones and other digital devices? Not forgetting that technologies are accelerating faster every year rendering newly developed devices obsolete in very short periods of time.
Recalibrating our conversations on waste to focus on environmental conservation and economic equality, will see us fast creating green jobs, anchoring them on our efforts towards green growth and in the end building a green economy for our children.