The Challenge of Urban Solid Waste Management

In the rapidly evolving urban landscape, managing Urban Solid Waste (USW) is a daunting challenge for governments. Guaymas, Sonora faced a garbage crisis in 2018 due to lapses by a contracted firm. Research showed pervasive negative perceptions about waste.

The Challenge of Urban Solid Waste Management
Piles of uncollected waste, reflecting the challenges of efficient urban waste management. Image by Nicolas DEBRAY from Pixabay

In the rapidly evolving urban landscape, the management of Urban Solid Waste (USW) – often derogatorily termed “garbage” – is emerging as a daunting challenge for governments across the globe. The modern cities, with their unplanned growth patterns, are at the front line of this mounting issue, emphasizing the urgency of informed, collective action to reduce waste.

Defining Urban Solid Waste (USW)

Broadly, USW encompasses waste resulting from the disposal of materials in domestic activities, such as consumption of products, their wrappings, packaging, and containers. Wastes possessing household characteristics, whether from establishments, public space clean-ups, or road maintenance, also fall under this category, unless otherwise defined.

Typically, these wastes are dismissed simply as “garbage”. This term, colored with negative shades, is rooted in the practice of discarding waste in public or domestic spaces. The unchecked rise in waste deposition, stemming from insufficient policies, paves the way for numerous consequences spanning health, public safety, environment, and sociocultural domains.

To fully harness the potential of USW in sustainable production cycles, it is crucial to facilitate its integration into municipal collection systems, which requires meticulous waste segregation.

A Case Study

Back in 2018, Guaymas, a city in Sonora, grappled with a profound garbage crisis due to service lapses by the contracted firm, Promotora Ambiental, S. A. de C. V. (PASA). Historically, PASA had clinched a 15-year contract in 2006 to handle the city's MSW, a result of 1990s “second generation reforms” which sought privatization and decentralization of public services. These reforms were originally envisioned to streamline processes, cut costs, and instill a participative spirit among citizens.

However, PASA consistently fell short in their waste collection commitments, largely owing to financial constraints. The situation spiraled, with public spaces and households drowning in garbage. This disorder, unfortunately, bred a domino effect: existing garbage became a magnet for even more littering, leading to troubling social practices, such as uncontrolled littering in streets and beaches.

An Ethnographic Study

Researchers from the Center for Research in Food and Development (CIAD) embarked on an insightful journey to comprehend perceptions and practices around waste management among the local populace. Through ethnographic techniques, they gleaned invaluable patterns of behavior.

Some revealing findings included:

  • The pervading mindset aligned garbage with concepts of dirtiness, with men showing more aversion to filth, but paradoxically, women taking a more active role in its management.
  • Common practices of disposing of waste often have environmental repercussions. While the affluent had more sophisticated methods, the underprivileged were accustomed to harmful means due to prolonged exposure to uncollected garbage.
  • Young individuals exposed to proper waste management were more responsible and aware compared to those raised amidst clutter.
  • Rampant consumerism was identified as a catalyst for irresponsible disposal habits, especially in public spaces.
  • There existed a pronounced discrepancy in waste collection based on socio-economic class and even the 'tip' provided to collectors.

Toward a Cleaner Tomorrow

For a lasting transformation in attitudes and behaviors, it is paramount to engage the community in sustained environmental education initiatives. Only through cohesive efforts from public bodies, service providers, and the citizenry can we hope to redefine our relationship with waste and drive sustainable urban futures.