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Plastic and more – we must plan to tackle waste

13 June 2019 Author: Victoria Manning

Waste management is one of the big issues of our time.  We are all familiar with the images of plastic in the oceans, but waste also poses a serious threat to humans who live in places with no waste management systems.  

A new report finds one person dies every 30 seconds from diseases caused by plastic pollution and rubbish.  Planning has a key role to play in delivering solutions to the environmental, health and economic problems caused by unmanaged waste.

Proliferation of dumpsites

Waste is material which is discarded.  Waste arises from homes, businesses, agriculture, hospitals and industry.  There are two billion people worldwide without access to solid waste collection services or safe disposal.   

Not having a solid waste collection service means waste has to be dumped or burned.  Even where a collection service is in place, for example in urban areas, waste is often still taken to uncontrolled dumpsites.    

Dumpsites receive roughly 40% of the world’s waste and they are the most polluted places on earth. Dumpsites contribute significantly to manmade greenhouse gases because there is no leachate or methane gas management.

Dumpsites on land can pollute both surface and groundwater, animals and vegetation can be impacted directly from the waste or leachate which then enters the food-chain.

Dumpsites are often alongside rivers or the sea, and therefore may directly pollute them as well as the coastal environment. Coastal dumpsite erosion is also a source of marine litter.

Problems caused by burning waste

Open burning of waste, whether on dumpsites or within towns and villages, creates polluting emissions that are highly damaging. Burning releases toxic pollutants into the atmosphere and the wind can carry them long distances from their origin.

Plants and animals can be impacted as a result of burning leading to food-chain pollution. Plastic waste is often burned for heat or cooking, exposing people to further toxic emissions which can cause respiratory problems.

Single-use plastics such as bags, bottles and food containers often end up in dumpsites or as street litter and can find their way into watercourses, drainage systems and ultimately into the oceans. 70% of the plastic in the oceans comes from places with no waste management.

How can planning help

Waste management is one of the essential utility services of a well-run city or town.   Investment in solid waste management is crucial to delivering many of the Sustainable Development Goals, but is often overlooked by politicians.  

Unsurprisingly, the complex issue of proper waste collection and management requires a range of solutions from a range of stakeholders, including governments, local communities, businesses, NGOs and, of course, planners. 

Planners have a role in locating and safeguarding suitable sites for waste facilities. Planners also need to provide opportunities to segregate and collect waste in public spaces such as markets, and for households and businesses, especially manufacturing and industrial where the potential for pollution from waste is high. 

Planners also need to ensure that new development is planned for in locations away from existing dumpsites.  Understanding the amount and type of waste being generated locally is important, but this can be complicated by ‘waste trafficking’, for example electronic goods from developed countries which end up in dump sites in developing countries.  

Policies and plans for waste management need clear baseline data, outcomes and monitoring indicators. Evidence and data gathering is fundamental to planning for waste.  This includes identifying the amount and type of waste being generated, how much waste will be produced during the plan period, and safeguarding sufficient land for facilities to manage the waste.   

A local, national and global issue

There are a number of initiatives to motivate governments and other stakeholders to meet the challenge of waste management, for example the International Solid Waste Association’s Roadmap to Closing Waste Dumpsites.   

At a local community level, charites like WasteAid (for which the author is a volunteer) share recycling skills in lower-income countries that have no waste management system in place.  WasteAid has produced an award-winning toolkit which provides step-by-step how-to guides for managing waste using no-cost or low-cost techniques. 

Here in the UK we are busy trying to improve recycling rates and divert waste from landfill, but the challenge globally is much more fundamental: to ensure everyone has access to safe solid waste management and disposal. 

Blogs do not necessarily represent the views of the RTPI.

Victoria Manning

Victoria Manning

Victoria Manning MRTPI is a chartered town planner and the director of Vitaka Consulting which provides waste planning services to public and private sector clients. Victoria sits on the RTPI International Committee and is also Secretary of the London Waste Planning Forum. @Vitaka_uk