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Sustainable Solid Waste Management
in Developing Countries

Hisashi Ogawa

WHO Western Pacific Regional Environmental Health Centre (EHC),

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Note: This paper was presented at the 7th ISWA International Congress and Exhibition, Parallel Session 7, "International Perspective". The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinion of the World Health Organization.


In the last 20 years, a number of solid waste management projects have been carried out in developing countries, in collaboration with external support agencies. Some projects were successful in producing lasting impacts on the improvement of solid waste management in developing countries. However, many projects could not support themselves or expand further when the external agencies discontinued their support. A number of technical, financial, institutional, economic, and social factors contribute to the failure to sustain the projects, and they vary from project to project.

Often the recipient countries and cities tend to accept whatever resources are provided to them without due consideration to subsequent resource requirements. The external support agencies have limitations in the amount of resources they can provide and the mandates and modes under which they can operate projects. Sometimes, projects are initiated with specific aims and expected outputs, but their scopes are not comprehensive enough to consider external factors influencing them. The external support agencies often do not fully understand socio-economic, cultural, and political factors influencing the selection of appropriate solid waste management systems. In other cases, very limited follow-up support, including human resource development activities necessary to sustain the project implementation, is provided by the external support agencies.

These problems and constraints associated with external support agencies' collaboration with developing countries in solid waste management can be minimized, and the sustainability of such collaborative projects improved by packaging efforts of external support agencies; defining clear roles of relevant agencies and improving their coordination in developing countries; creating key human resources; supporting strategic planning and follow-up implementations; developing self-financing schemes; and raising awareness of the public and decision makers.


As urbanization continues to take place, the management of solid waste is becoming a major public health and environmental concern in urban areas of many developing countries. The concern is serious, particularly in the capital cities, which are often gateways to the countries for foreign diplomats, businessmen, and tourists. Poor visual appearance of these cities will have negative impacts on official and tourist visits and foreign investment.

Recognizing its importance, a number of developing countries have requested collaboration of external support agencies, both bilateral and multilateral, in improving solid waste management in their cities in the last 20 years or so. Although some projects succeeded in providing lasting positive impacts on the management of solid waste in the recipient countries and cities, many failed to continue activities after the external support agencies ceased their support. This unsustainability of collaborative projects is due to various technical, financial, institutional, economic, and social constraints faced by both the recipient countries/cities and external support agencies.

Such constraints vary from country to country and from city to city, as developing countries and cities within them differ in solid waste management problems and they and external support agencies have different, and often limited, resources available to resolve the problems. Therefore, in order to ensure the sustainability of collaborative projects, the various constraints of both developing countries and external support agencies should be carefully examined and an approach be developed to remove such constraints within the context of the collaborative projects. This paper delineates common such constraints and suggests possible ways of removing these constraints.


A typical solid waste management system in a developing country displays an array of problems, including low collection coverage and irregular collection services, crude open dumping and burning without air and water pollution control, the breeding of flies and vermin, and the handling and control of informal waste picking or scavenging activities. These public health, environmental, and management problems are caused by various factors which constrain the development of effective solid waste management systems. They can be categorized into technical, financial, institutional, economic, and social constraints. Each of these constraints is discussed, in relation to the sustainability of solid waste collaborative projects, below.

(a) Technical Constraints

In most developing countries, there typically is a lack of human resources at both the national and local levels with technical expertise necessary for solid waste management planning and operation. Many officers in charge of solid waste management, particularly at the local level, have little or no technical background or training in engineering or management. Without adequately trained personnel, a project initiated by external consultants could not be continued. Therefore, the development of human resources in the recipient country of external support is essential for the sustainability of the collaborative project.

Another technical constraint in developing countries is the lack of overall plans for solid waste management at the local and national levels. As a result, a solid waste technology is often selected without due consideration to its appropriateness in the overall solid waste management system. In some cases, foreign assistance is given to a component of a solid waste management system for which the use of resources may not be most cost-effective. For instance, an external support agency provided its support to improve a general disposal site. However, the coverage of solid waste collection service is so low that solid waste generated is dumped at many undesignated sites (e.g., open areas, water channels, streets, etc.). As a result, improving the disposal site, although it may not be a bad project, would have little impact on the overall solid waste management effectiveness. In such a case, the low collection coverage is a bottleneck in the overall solid waste management system in the city, and it would be most cost-effective to provide resources to upgrade the collection service.

Research and development activities in solid waste management are often a low priority in developing countries. The lack of research and development activities in developing countries leads to the selection of inappropriate technology in terms of the local climatic and physical conditions, financial and human resource capabilities, and social or cultural acceptability. As a result, the technology selected can never be used, wasting the resources spent and making the project unsustainable. Several guides/manuals on appropriate solid waste management technologies in developing countries are available in the literature, and the selection of technology could be made sometimes based on these guides/manuals. However, in most cases, these guides/manuals must be modified to the local conditions prevailing in the country, and therefore local studies are normally still needed. Such studies can be relatively easily incorporated into a collaborative project and, to the extent possible, should involve local research institutions.

(b) Financial Constraints

In general, solid waste management is given a very low priority in developing countries, except perhaps in capital and large cities. As a result, very limited funds are provided to the solid waste management sector by the governments, and the levels of services required for protection of public health and the environment are not attained.

The problem is acute at the local government level where the local taxation system is inadequately developed and, therefore, the financial basis for public services, including solid waste management, is weak. This weak financial basis of local governments can be supplemented by the collection of user service charges. However, users' ability to pay for the services is very limited in poorer developing countries, and their willingness to pay for the services which are irregular and ineffective is not high either. An effective strategy for raising funds needs to be searched in any collaborative project to ensure its sustainability.

In addition to the limited funds, many local governments in developing countries lack good financial management and planning. For instance, in a town in a developing country, over 90% of the annual budget provided for solid waste management was used up within the first six months. The lack of financial management and planning, particularly cost accounting, depletes the limited resources available for the sector even more quickly, and causes the solid waste management services to halt for some periods, thus losing the trust of service users.

(c) Institutional Constraints

Several agencies at the national level are usually involved at least partially in solid waste management. However, there are often no clear roles/functions of the various national agencies defined in relation to solid waste management and also no single agency or committee designated to coordinate their projects and activities. The lack of coordination among the relevant agencies often results in different agencies becoming the national counterpart to different external support agencies for different solid waste management collaborative projects without being aware of what other national agencies are doing. This leads to duplication of efforts, wasting of resources, and unsustainability of overall solid waste management programmes.

The lack of effective legislation for solid waste management, which is a norm in most developing countries, is partially responsible for the roles/functions of the relevant national agencies not being clearly defined and the lack of coordination among them. Legislation related to solid waste management in developing countries is usually fragmented, and several laws (e.g., Public Health Act, Local Government Act, Environmental Protection Act, etc.) include some clauses on rules/regulations regarding solid waste management. The rules and regulations are enforced by the different agencies. However, there are often duplication of responsibilities of the agencies involved and gaps/missing elements in the regulatory provisions for the development of effective solid waste management systems. It should be also noted that legislation is only effective if it is enforced. Therefore, comprehensive legislation, which avoids the duplication of responsibilities, fills in the gaps of important regulatory functions, and is enforceable is required for sustainable development of solid waste management systems.

Because of a low priority given to the sector, the institutional capacity of local government agencies involved in solid waste management is generally weak, particularly in small cities and towns. Local ordinance/by-laws on solid waste management is not also well developed. These weak local government institutions are not provided with clear mandates and sufficient resources to fulfill the mandates. In large metropolitan areas where there are more than one local government, coordination among the local governments is critical to achieve the most cost-effective alternatives for solid waste management in the area. For instance, the siting of a solid waste transfer station or disposal facility for use by more than one local governments is cost-effective due to its economy of scale. However, as these facilities are usually considered unwanted installations and create not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) syndromes among the residents, no local government is willing to locate them within its boundary. The lack of a coordinating body among the local governments often leads to disintegrated and unsustainable programmes for solid waste management.

(d) Economic Constraints

Economic and industrial development play key roles in solid waste management. Obviously, an enhanced economy enables more funds to be allocated for solid waste management, providing a more sustainable financial basis. However, by definition, developing countries have weak economic bases and, hence, insufficient funds for sustainable development of solid waste management systems.

Local industry which produces relatively inexpensive solid waste equipment and vehicles will reduce, or in some cases could eliminate totally, the need for importing expensive foreign equipment/vehicles and therefore foreign exchange. Such local industry can also supply associated spare parts, lack of which is often responsible for irregular and insufficient solid waste collection and disposal services. However, the lack of industry manufacturing solid waste equipment and spare parts and a limited foreign exchange for importing such equipment/spare parts are the rule rather than exception in developing countries.

Also in small developing countries, waste recycling activities are affected by the availability of industry to receive and process recycled materials. For instance, the recycling of waste paper is possible only when there is a paper mill within a distance for which the transportation of waste paper is economical. The weak industry base for recycling activities is a common constraint for the improvement of solid waste management in developing countries, such as those in the Pacific region where a large volume of package waste is generated.

(e) Social Constraints

The social status of solid waste management workers is generally low in both developed and developing countries, but more so in developing countries then developed countries. This owes much to a negative perception of people regarding the work which involves the handling of waste or unwanted material. Such people's perception leads to the disrespect for the work and in turn produces low working ethics of laborers and poor quality of their work.

Because of insufficient resources available in the government sector, collaborative projects often have attempted to mobilize community resources and develop community self-help activities. Results are a mixture of success and failures. Failed projects with inactive communities usually did not provide people in the community with economic as well as social incentives to participate in activities. The social incentive is based on the responsibility of individuals as part of the community for the improvement of the community, and is created by public awareness and school education programmes. The lack of public awareness and school education about the importance of proper solid waste management for health and well-being of people severely restricts the use of community-based approaches in developing countries.

At dump sites, transfer stations, and street refuse bins, waste picking or scavenging activities are common scenes in developing countries. People involved have not received school education and vocational training to obtain knowledge and skills required for other jobs. They are also affected by limited employment opportunity available in the formal sector. The existence of waste pickers/scavengers creates often an obstacle to the operation of solid waste collection and disposal services. However, if organized properly, their activities can be effectively incorporated into a waste recycling system. Such an opportunistic approach is required for sustainable development of solid waste management programmes in developing countries.


External support provided to solid waste management in developing countries has its own limitations and constraints. As constraints in developing countries, they can be divided into technical, financial, institutional, economic, and social constraints and are discussed below.

(a) Technical Constraints

Industrialized countries, which provide external support to developing countries, usually have technical expertise and human resources suitable for solid waste management in these countries. Their school and university education and subsequent on-the-job training are targeted for the technologies of solid waste management applicable to these countries. However, there is the lack of human resources with sufficient experiences and knowledge of solid waste management in developing countries. Opportunities to learn solid waste management problems and practices in developing countries through regular training programmes and seminars are rarely provided in industrialized countries.

The lack of knowledge and experience in solid waste management situations in developing countries leads to a tendency to support and provide the technologies available in the donor country regardless of their applicability to the developing country situation. In some cases, the solid waste management equipment and facilities, which are obsolete and outdated in the donor country, are provided as foreign aid to the recipient country.

Communication between consultants provided by the external support agency and the local counterpart in the developing country sometimes becomes a constraint in implementing an effective collaborative project. The communication difficulty occurs in two different situations: (i) no common spoken language exists between the external consultants and the local counterpart; and (ii) the local counterpart does not understand technical terms. Efforts by both sides to improve communication ability are being made in a number of countries.

As mentioned earlier, the lack of an overall plan for solid waste management leads to a solid waste management system which is not cost-effective. It also encourages a piece-meal approach by the external support agency. Referring to the earlier example of support for improvement of a disposal site, it can be easily seen that the external support agency made the decision to support without sufficient consideration to other components of solid waste management. Piece-meal, or not comprehensive approaches taken by external support agencies, often result in unsustainable solid waste management projects.

(b) Financial Constraints

Obviously, all donor agencies have their own upper limits to financial support. Solid waste management is one of many sectors for which an external agency provides its resources. For some donor agencies, solid waste management may not be a priority sector for support. As a result, there is a finite (and often limited) amount of funds that can be allocated to the sector.

Because of its inherent nature, solid waste management does not render itself to an operation which can easily generate revenues. This is particularly true in developing countries where the willingness and ability to pay for solid waste management services are low. For external lending agencies, this means that the risk of providing a loan to such a project is generally high. The high risk of loan projects can be lessened by building into the projects revenue raising systems (e.g., user charges, sales of recycled materials).

(c) Institutional Constraints

External support agencies have their own organizational mandates and structure that limit their activities to certain operations such technical cooperation, loan/lending of capital funds, training, and so on. Even in the same donor country, there are usually different external support agencies, each specializing in one area of support. The extent of their geographical coverage is also limited to certain countries for their support. These organizational mandates and operational coverage of external support agencies determine the levels and types of resources provided to solid waste management projects in developing countries.

As mentioned above, in many cases their support is piece-meal and not comprehensive as individual projects to be effective in introducing substantial and lasting impacts on solid waste management in the recipient countries. There is also lack of coordination among the various external support agencies to complement each other's efforts, although it is gradually improving recently. With better coordination and communication among them, the sustainability of solid waste management projects in recipient countries will be improved.

(d) Economic Constraints

The economic situation of the donor is a determinant to the amount of funds that can be allocated for foreign aid to developing countries. Thus, it influences the levels of resources provided to solid waste collaborative projects. However, the economic situation of one donor country is not so critical for the sustainability of solid waste management projects in developing countries.

External support agencies in industrialized countries tend to promote solid waste management technologies developed in their countries and use consultants from their countries. It is understood and often accepted that there is a bias in the selection of equipment, facilities, and consultants for solid waste management collaborative projects. As mentioned earlier, the provision of solid waste equipment was done from the point of view of the donor agency, instead of the need of the recipient country. For instance, two large compactor trucks of 8-tonne capacity each were provided to the capital town of a small island country where an estimated 7 tonnes per day of solid waste was generated and there were many narrow streets. In another developing country where solid waste is wet and has a low calorific value, the construction of an incinerator was recommended by a group of consultants from a developed country where incineration is very common. Often, the appropriateness of a technology to be used in a developing country is not fully assessed, and the technology is adopted based on the norm and experience of the donor country.

(e) Social Constraints

In any country, developed or developing, there are social or cultural norms accepted only by the society. Such norms affect designs of solid waste management systems. Where the society allows only a certain social class or group to deal with solid waste, the availability of work force for solid waste collection and disposal becomes constrained by this rule. In some countries, directly handling human waste is a traditional taboo, which then prohibits the application of co-composting of refuse and human waste. The lack of understanding of local cultures and ways of life by the external support agency is often a cause of failure of a collaborative project.

Communication difficulty was cited as a constraint earlier. In addition to the language-related communication problem, the lack of decent attitude and experience of external consultants in working with officials of developing countries results in unnecessary tension between the consultants and local counterpart.


The discussions in the preceding sections indicate that there are various constraints faced by both the recipient and donor countries in developing and implementing sustainable solid waste management systems. There is no simple measure to remove or loosen any of these constraints. Some constraints are harder to remove than others. A multitude of measures are usually required to produce a successful outcome of a collaborative project. A mix of some of the following measures or approaches may lead to a successful outcome.

(a) Packaging External Support

A number of external support agencies recognize solid waste management as a priority issue in developing countries and are interested in supporting to improve the situation. However, their approaches to solving solid waste management problems in developing countries have been piece-meal and not well coordinated. Also, their support has been provided mostly on a short-term basis. These characteristics of external support are inherent in the organizational mandates and operational modes of the external support agency, and therefore they cannot be easily changed.

What can be changed, however, is to combine support from different international aid agencies to make a collaborative project more comprehensive and long-term/continuous. This requires better coordination and communication among the external support agencies and development of partnership among them, removing the organizational egos and sharing and contributing their resources to the benefits of the recipient country. The collaborative project should be designed to improve the solid waste management situation gradually over a long period, instead of attempting a quick fix.

(b) Defining Clear Roles of Relevant Agencies in Developing Countries

Better coordination for effective implementation of a solid waste management collaborative project is also required by the various agencies involved in solid waste management in the recipient country. However, as mentioned earlier, many solid waste management projects in developing countries suffer from the lack of coordination among the relevant agencies, which often results from the lack of clear roles defined for these agencies in solid waste management. To ensure effective institutional support for a collaborative project for solid waste management, the roles and responsibilities of the various agencies involved should be defined clearly and a coordination mechanism be established. This can be done without drafting new legislation or amending the existing one, which is normally a time-consuming exercise in any country. A working group involving officials from the various agencies can be set up to discuss initially the roles and responsibilities of their respective agencies, and the working group can be later upgraded to an administrative committee or task force.

(c) Developing Human Resources

For sustainable solid waste management in developing countries, human resource development should always be part of the external support package. Without local human resources, a collaborative project initiated by external support will not be able to continue. To develop human resources with technical expertise in solid waste management in developing countries, there are three strategically important groups for external support, namely (i) key personnel in the national coordinating unit of the central government; (ii) operational managers of selected local governments; and (iii) university and other higher educational institutions. Among these target groups, the strengthening of human resources in the national coordinating unit and one or two selected local governments is the first priority and should be done in short term while support to higher educational institutions is a long-term programme.

It is the responsibility of the recipient country to select these potential target groups and improve their communication abilities. The donor countries should also improve their human resources in terms of their communication ability and knowledge of solid waste situation in developing countries.

(d) Supporting Strategic Planning and Follow-up Implementation

Overall solid waste management plans at both the national and local levels are essential for utilizing limited resources most effectively, and providing a frame of reference for potential external support. Therefore, the formulation of national and local strategic plans for solid waste management should be considered at the initial stage of the external support package.

Realizing the importance of strategic planning, many external support agencies have supported or are beginning to support the preparation of overall national and local plans before providing equipment and facilities. However, the operation of such technical assistance is often separated from that of the provision of loans and grants for facilities and equipment. As a result, the follow-up action to the planning assistance (i.e., provision of grants and loans for facilities and equipment) is delayed or not given at all. Consequently, there are many plans produced, but they have not been implemented. For the sustainability of a solid waste collaborative project, it is crucial to provide external support to follow up on the implementation of the plan prepared. Here again, the approach of packaging external support can play a key role.

(e) Developing Self-financing Schemes

The governments of developing countries have limited funds for solid waste management and must develop measures to reduce and recover the expenditure and increase revenues where possible. They need to turn their solid waste management systems to more self-financing programmes. External support can be effectively used to develop different alternative cost-cutting, cost-recovering, and revenue-raising schemes (e.g., waste minimization, deposit-refund system for recyclable materials, import or sales tax on certain packaged products, collection of user service charges, etc.) and implement pilot studies on these economic incentive measures.

Private sector participation in solid waste management collection and disposal services is also a way to reduce the financial burden of the government. It can draw not only investment finance from private companies for solid waste management equipment and facilities, but also managerial expertise and technical skills. Experiences in developing countries, which are reported elsewhere3, indicate that privately operated services are generally more cost-effective than public sector services. Therefore, the use of private sector resources through a contractual arrangement provides a potential alternative towards self-financing solid waste management.

Effective application of economic incentive measures and private sector resources in solid waste management requires human resources to design and manage such schemes. Aside from human resources development in technical aspects of solid waste management, human resource development in financial planning and management is necessary and often a key to the development of more self-financing schemes.

(f) Raising Awareness of the Public and Decision Makers

Effective management of solid waste requires the cooperation of the general public. Lifting the priority of, and allocating more resources to, the solid waste management sector needs the support from decision makers. It is, therefore, important to ensure that public and decision makers' awareness activities are incorporated into the external support package. The aim of these activities is normally long term and it takes some momentum to build up before the effects are realized. But, once the interests of the public and decision makers in improving solid waste management are created, the sustainability of solid waste management projects will be significantly improved.

Enhanced awareness of decision makers may lead to changing national socio-economic and industrial development policies and associated government programmes in favor of improving solid waste management systems in developing countries. For instance, more financial aid and tax incentives may be introduced to encourage the development of recycling industry and business, or labourer protection programmes may be provided to improve wages and working conditions of laborers, including solid waste management workers. Changing national policies in donor countries could also improve ways in which their technologies are transferred to recipient countries.


All of the participants took part in a long and interesting discussion. A number of issues were brought about during the meeting, some of which did not deal with the main topic of the event and consequently are not presented herein.

The main conclusions that evolved from the Round Table were:

- the traditional hierarchy should not be emphasized for the management of municipal solid waste under low-economic conditions;

- the implication of privatization of solid waste services on the hierarchy should be considered;

- the management of industrial wastes should include cleaner production;

- scavengers or informal waste pickers should be incorporated into the formal sector and be provided with sanitary working conditions; - and in the event that waste reduction and recycling activities are implemented, they should be promptly rewarded.


Bartone, C.R. 1995. "The role of the private sector in developing countries: Keys to success. Paper presented at ISWA Conference on Waste Management - Role of the Private Sector, Singapore, 24-25 September 1995.

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