Despite rarely achieving the same public and political profile as other utility services, waste management can be considered a ‘basic human right’ alongside water and sanitation, energy, transport and communications.
In the UK, none of us can remember a time without a regular waste collection. The 1875 Public Health Act required households to deposit rubbish in a “movable receptacle”, ushering in the dawn of the dustbin. Since the weekly collection was enshrined in the 1936 Public Health Act, the binmen have come around like clockwork to whisk our rubbish away.
Our waste collection crews are in fact so dependable, that we quite happily take them for granted. Compared to inventive concepts and celebrity-backed campaigns, traditional waste collection and disposal services are neither trendy nor woke. While heads have been turned by more visually appealing themes, troops of waste collectors have been quietly getting on with clearing our rubbish and disposing of it – essentially to protect our health.
The earth-shattering events of the last few weeks have given us pause for thought, and many people are for the first time seeing binmen through the lens of public sanitation. Regardless of our position on unnecessary packaging and single-use disposables, we all need our rubbish to be collected, and we’re fortunate that despite the current lockdown tens of thousands of people are continuing to put themselves at risk to remove the waste from our streets.
Over the past couple of weeks, waste collectors working for WasteAid’s Proud Partner Biffa have received and shared heartfelt thank you notes from grateful residents. Maybe we’re not so blind to their value, after all.
Now we find ourselves in a global health crisis, waste collectors deserve our recognition and support in delivering what is undoubtedly a vital public service.
Mick Davis, Chief Operating Officer, Resources & Energy at recycling and waste management company Biffa said, “Our crews pick up and process 81,000 tonnes of waste from British homes and businesses every week. Without waste collection services, piles of rubbish would soon build up and become breeding grounds for disease.
“We formed our Proud Partnership with WasteAid to help share the health and environmental benefits of decent waste management around the world, while creating economic opportunity in vulnerable communities.”
We can measure the health benefits of waste management by looking at the many places around the world that don’t have it. In more countries than not, a regular waste collection is a luxury only the wealthy can afford. As a consequence, people’s waste builds up in the streets and blocks waterways, or is left smouldering and filling the air with thick black smoke.
All of this has a direct health impact on residents, particularly children. Heaps of uncollected waste encourage vermin, flies and mosquitoes to breed, increasing cases of cholera, malaria and dengue fever. Burning waste releases gases and pollution that cause respiratory disease and cancer, and stunt childhood development.
Consider again the concept of waste collection as a basic human need: children growing up where rubbish is not collected have six times the normal rate of respiratory diseases, doubled incidences of diarrhoea, and by the age of eight are four centimetres shorter than their peers.
Waste collectors are vitally important for public health, and yet around the world their work is habitually undervalued.
Accumulating waste poses risks to all citizens of a city, rich and poor. A dirty environment has also been shown to decrease morale and contribute to increased dumping, with four out of five of British people say that seeing litter on the streets makes them frustrated and angry (Populus, 2015). Uncollected waste affects our mental wellbeing as well as our bodies.
Lower-income countries have made significant progress since the 1990s, when only half of households had any kind of waste collection service. Yet globally, there are still 2 billion people whose rubbish never gets collected, and 3 billion whose waste ends up at persistent informal dumpsites, in the environment, or being openly burned.
WasteAid campaigns to raise the profile of waste management around the world, and to help community groups collect, manage, recycle and dispose of waste in practical, safe and sustainable way. With the spread of coronavirus, many of our partner organisations cannot simply stay home to stay safe. They are obligated to keep waste collection services going, and thereby to help limit the spread of disease in their communities, towns and cities.
If the last few weeks have taught us anything, it is that public health sits alongside planetary health as an urgent and shared priority. Waste collectors everywhere deserve our respect, our support, and our help to deliver their vital service while staying safe.
Waste, health and sanitation
A lack of waste management system has a direct health impact on residents, particularly children:
The uncontrolled burning of waste creates toxic emissions that cause lung diseases and skin and eye conditions.
Accumulated waste encourages mosquitoes to breed, resulting in the spread of cholera, dengue fever and other infectious diseases.
Vermin such as rats and dogs are attracted to piles of waste, causing a nuisance and spreading disease.
When livestock (especially pigs) eat human or solid waste that contains disease and antibiotics, they contract the disease which builds up antibiotic resistance (for example, the Ebola crisis which emerged in Sierra Leone in 2013).
Uncollected waste blocks drains and increases the risk of flooding, which can kill people either by floodwaters or the diseases that follow (e.g. cholera).
Uncontrolled dumpsites, and in particular the mixing of hazardous and other wastes, can cause disease in neighbouring settlements as well as among waste workers.
Waste dumping can contaminate surface and groundwater with pollutants and waterborne diseases, leading to malnutrition and stunting in children.
Sustainable Development Goals that link waste management with sanitation
3 Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
3.9 By 2030, substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water, and soil pollution and contamination.
6 Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
6.3 By 2030, improve water quality by reducing pollution [and] eliminating dumping and minimising the release of hazardous chemicals and materials.
12 Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
12.4 By 2020, achieve the environmentally sound management of chemicals and all wastes throughout their life cycle, in accordance with agreed international frameworks, and significantly reduce their release to air, water and soil in order to minimise their adverse impacts on human health and the environment