Waste is a growing global problem which affects the health and well-being of people and the planet. Urban children in low-and middle-income countries, particularly the poorest, are among the most vulnerable to the health and environmental risks caused by poor waste management in cities. In this blog, to inspire our readers to take action, we spotlight three African changemakers responding to the waste challenge in innovative ways.
In November 2022, Cities4Children hosted a webinar on the challenge of waste in cities. We invited two youth-led organisations to share their incredible work on addressing the waste challenge in cities in Bangladesh and Kenya. BD Clean from Bangladesh is a self-formed multi-city network of over 33,000 members who gather in small groups every weekend to work with local communities to collect and remove waste from selected neighbourhoods. In Nairobi, Kenya, the Dandora Transformation League hosts an annual competition to transform waste-laden spaces across the city into productive spaces for the community. To learn more about their transformative efforts, watch the webinar recording or read about their work in chapter 5 of our Cities for and with children and youth: Ideas to inspire action guide.
The problem of waste in Global South cities
Annual waste generation, already a serious management challenge, is expected to increase by 73% from 2020 levels to 3.88 billion tonnes globally in 2050. In cities in low-income countries, over 90% of waste is disposed of in unregulated dumps or burned in the open.[i] Effective waste management is expensive, often comprising 20%–50% of municipal budgets.[ii] Poorly managed waste pollutes air, water and soil, clogs drains and causes flooding, transmits diseases, increases respiratory problems, and harms plant and animal life and ecosystems.
The waste problem is highly unequal and unjust. Poor residents in slums and informal residents who generate the least waste are most affected. Many live near large open waste dumpsites, or work in the informal waste sector, and most live in areas with no waste management services. In Kampala, Uganda, for instance, 90% of those living in slums lack these services, compared to 33% of residents in non-slum areas.[iii] Children living near waste dumps or engaged in the informal waste sector are among those most susceptible to the health and social risks posed by poor waste management.
How does waste affect children?
An estimated 350 – 500 million children live in urban slums and informal settlements.[iv] The large open dumpsites that often border and even permeate these settlements pose particular risks. These towering piles of rubbish exude noxious fumes, cause fires, pollute air, soil and water in surrounding areas, and the waste can infiltrate streets and open spaces, exposing children living, playing, or working close to dumpsites to health risks such as injuries, skin infections, upper respiratory problems, cancers. Nor are these problems unique to large dumpsites. In settlements unserved by waste collection, playing children are constantly exposed to waste-related hazards. A report by UNICEF shows e-waste is a more recent and rapidly growing problem. It has risen by 21% globally in the last 5 years and children living, working or playing near e-waste recycling centres are exposed to a range of serious health risks, including cancers, heart disease and behavioural problems.
Especially in settlements close to dumpsites, informal waste labour is a major source of income and livelihood. Children from these settlements are not uncommonly employed along with adults. Aside from the health risks associated with the very difficult work conditions, they are more likely to drop out of school, to be socially stigmatized, and to suffer from low self-esteem and other psychological issues. Both the mental and physical health concerns have short and long-term implications for their development, well-being, and ability to thrive.[v]
3 youth-led innovative ways to tackle waste
It is easy to blame the waste problem in cities in low-and-middle-income countries on inefficient local governments, and waste management should indeed be the responsibility of local governments. But in the contexts of rapid and unequal urbanization and increasing consumption in cities, these local bodies can be overwhelmed. The challenges they face range from the global to the local – from polluted global ecosystems and worsening climate change impacts down to the high costs of efficient waste management and the careless disposal of medical waste and other toxic substances. The situation requires urgent action and calls for whole-of-government and whole-of-society approaches.
The WasteWiseCities program led by UN-Habitat has documented several good practices relevant to local authorities, students, youth, entrepreneurs, and local communities.
Youth often bring incredible energy and innovation to the waste challenge. Here are three inspiring examples of how young people in Africa are addressing the waste problem.
1. Be a citizen journalist and make some noise on social media
One concerned young resident of Nairobi, decided to post a picture of open waste and raw sewage outside a hospital and school in an informal settlement once a day for 30 days to get the attention of the local authorities. According to her, the open flow of waste mixed with sewage in the area has persisted for over 15 years, and it’s impossible to cross the street without ‘being washed by filth’. She also describes in her posts the children scavenging in the large dumpsite adjoining the settlement and playing in the open sewage, who are especially at risk. According to this article, her social media campaign paid off, she received responses from the governor of the Nairobi City Council and the Director of Water and Sanitation. More importantly, this has led to physical transformation with new infrastructure being laid to address the problem.
2. Be a social entrepreneur and upcycle waste
Another young resident of Nairobi, a scientist by education, inspired by the work of Nobel Prize-winning environmentalist Prof. Wangari Maathai, decided to give up her career as a data analyst and instead dedicate her efforts towards recycling waste. After a year of trying and testing, she created a paving block from recycled plastic and sand. With funds raised in the United States, she now has a start-up, Gjenge Makers Ltd, which employs over 100 youth from informal settlements to find plastic bottles and transform them into durable paving blocks. According to this article, Gjenge makers Ltd, by the end of June 2022, had converted 100 tonnes of plastic into 200,000 paving tiles. In such types of initiatives care should be taken to ensure that protective gear is used to collect and sort plastic waste and that upcycled materials do not release microplastics into natural water bodies and ecosystems.
3. Leverage technology to set up innovative systems
In Nigeria, SOSO CARE is a social enterprise that connects informal residents in Nigerian cities with low-cost, basic healthcare by accepting cash or recyclables in exchange for healthcare insurance. Nigeria generates 32 million tonnes of waste annually, the most generated by any nation on the continent. Very little of this waste is collected or recycled. A significant proportion of waste in cities ends up in open dumpsites close to slums and informal settlements. This enterprise sets up recyclables collection centres close to informal settlements where residents can exchange recyclables for a basic healthcare plan honoured by a network of 1000 hospitals. In our communication with SOSO CARE we found that there are several types of care plans associated with recycled waste. For example, users can get hospital coverage for a month with 15kg of plastics and one year pharmacy coverage for one condemned car battery. Hospital coverage includes primary patient care and minor surgery. The funds from the sale of recyclables are used to process the insurance premiums. SOSO Care has operations in Abuja, Abia, and Kaduna. It currently has 7500 persons on its care plans, 70% of whom are women and children from informal settlements. It aims to also set up operations in Lagos and, over the next 2-3 years, to connect 200,000 to 300,000 residents to low-cost healthcare.
Finding solutions to the waste problem in Global South cities is essential for enabling healthy and resilient cities that respect and promote the rights of all children to a safe and clean living environment. Local, regional, national and international policies and programmes are essential for supporting systemic solid waste-management in cities. But alongside these, supporting youth to incubate, test, learn and scale innovative waste management practices can support job creation, reduce waste, and improve the health of the planet and people.
[i] Kaza, Silpa, Lisa Yao, Perinaz Bhada-Tata, and Frank Van Woerden. 2018. What a Waste 2.0: A Global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050. Urban Development Series. Washington, DC: World Bank. doi:10.1596/978-1-4648-1329-0. License: Creative Commons Attribution CC BY 3.0 IGO
[iii] UN Habitat, Waste Wise Cities and African Clean Cities Platform (2021) Newsletter 12 October 2021 – municipal solid waste management & marine litter. https://bit.ly/3awcKwn
[iv] UN DESA, 2018, The 2018 Revision of World Urbanization Prospects
[v] Parveen, S and Faisal, IM (2005) Occupational health impacts on the child waste-pickers of Dhaka City. WIT Transactions on Biomedicine and Health 9. https://bit.ly/3sY0U4t; Hunt, C (1996) Child waste pickers in India: the occupation and its health risks. Environment and Urbanization 8(2): 111–118
The Ideas4Action series aims to inspire with ideas that have worked in other cities and countries so that you too, can take action in your own city. Read more of our blogs here.
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