Open waste burning: a globally neglected threat

Dr Andriannah Mbandi, waste management deputy lead, United Nations high level climate champions and Engineering X initiative on open burning of waste looks at the challenges the world faces in dealing with garbage

The COP27 climate summit is drawing global scrutiny of the progress made by individuals, organisations, and governments in tackling climate change, as well as the issues that they have overlooked. Despite its catastrophic impacts on health, climate and the economies of developing countries, the open burning of waste has long been neglected and has not been mentioned in negotiations on climate change or included on national and global health agendas.

Today’s waste is increasingly complex – composed not only of organic matter, but also plastic, e-waste, medical waste, and construction waste. One in three people worldwide are forced to dump or burn their waste, producing huge amounts of pollutants that are immensely harmful to human health and the environment.

Waste disposal often unregulated, and open burning commonly occurs in open streets and neighbourhood sites. The impacts are not contained to the local communities – open burning of waste has knock-on effects on global wellbeing, air quality and biodiversity.

There is an immediate impact on the environment. Open dump sites produce methane, while the burning of this waste is a significant contributor to greenhouses gases including carbon dioxide, as well as pollutants like black carbon and fine particulate matter. Between five and ten per cent of climate change emissions are thought to be attributed to the open burning of waste. The chemical cocktail of pollutants released also poses serious health hazards.

On top of this, the burning of complex materials like e-waste can also release heavy metals. This can lead to the leakage of harmful chemicals and metals into the surrounding soil, poisoning rivers, and waterways. Contamination of water sources has dire impacts on the health of the local population as well as local ecosystems. The impact of this environmental damage and ecosystem collapse is felt far beyond the local region.

While most developed countries have moved away from open dumping and burning of waste, these are widely practiced in most developing countries, most prominently in Africa, due to the lack of waste management infrastructure in the continent.Only 11 per cent of waste generated from African urban centers is disposed in properly designed and managed sanitary landfills while the remaining 89 per cent of waste is either openly burnt or dumped in non-sanitary landfills and disposal sites.

The root of the problem lies in systemic deficiencies. There is a distinct lack of awareness of the negative impacts of open waste burning at individual, community, and governmental levels. Often there is no existing infrastructure in place for controlled waste disposal, while local governments do not have the capacity to implement better waste management systems. There is also insufficient understanding of the potential economic benefits that could be reaped from investment and development of more efficient and controlled circular waste management systems.

Steps are currently being taken to develop solutions to tackle this overlooked climate threat. The Safer End of Engineered Life programme established by Engineering X, an international collaboration founded by the Royal Academy of Engineering and Lloyd’s Register Foundation, aims to raise awareness of the challenges and opportunities of open burning. A fundamental principle of the project is ensuring a holistic approach to the planning and implementation of solutions, through direct inclusion of the informal sector and cooperation across all levels.

To tackle such a deep-rooted issue, African and global stakeholders must collaborate on technical as well as socially focused solutions, while organisations and governments must be held accountable for the disposal of manufactured products.

In September, leaders across Africa acknowledged the severity of this issue at the 18th Africa Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN) in Dakar, making a historic decision to begin laying the foundations for a more sustainable, controlled alternative. However, awareness of the problem is lacking globally.

One of the key resolutions was to bring open burning of waste into the discussion at COP27, with plans in place to launch a multistakeholder partnership on reducing open waste burning by 60% by 2030 and eliminate open burning of waste by 2050.

The COP27 summit in Sharm El Sheikh is being hailed as the COP of action – now is the time to address the problem of open the burning of waste and prevent the practice growing still further, with catastrophic consequences for human health and the environment.

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