Sustainable BuildingsConstructionWhat a Waste: Global Good Practices of Urban Waste Management

What a Waste: Global Good Practices of Urban Waste Management

Abbie Harby
Abbie Harby
"If we were meant to stay in one place we'd have roots instead of feet" and so I move - in cities, between cities, up mountains (and back down again!). And all that using my feet as much as possible - the first mode of transport known to man and the cheapest! I love the outdoors and being in green space. I'm passionate about trying to protect and improve all that we've got and all that we could have to give every single part of nature the best life possible.

From lack of planning to a shortage of resources or an absence of imagination when it comes to strategies, there are many reasons why responsible waste management falls through our fingertips. However, with the world expected to be creating 3.40 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste annually by 2050, there is no time to lose. Solutions are required.

There is no hiding that we are all big-time waste-makers, and our bins are probably a little fuller than we’d like them to be at the end of the week. While reduction of waste, buying food without packaging, and in particular, cutting back on plastic, is essential, what happens to our waste after we throw it away is also critical. Currently at least one third of the 2.01 billion tonnes of solid waste generated yearly is not managed in an environmentally safe way.

The good news there isn’t just one way of dealing with waste, but it is important that we do actually deal with it and so responsibly. So, we’ve looked at a few city’s waste management ideas and initiatives which have seen outstanding results and we think represent examples of good practice in this field.

Benefitting from Bins and Beyond…

Before we get started, it is worth mentioning the multiple benefits of dealing with waste sustainably:

Improving Our Air and Ecosystems

The most obvious, but still significant benefit is the reduced burden proper waste management can have on the environment, wildlife, and air quality. Open burning of waste is a major source of black carbon, which is thought to be 5,000 times more hazardous than CO2.

A lack of planning or poorly planned waste management can also increase the already high emissions released in the waste disposal chain. For instance, inefficient waste collection routes or using old vehicles for waste transportation can both contribute to higher emissions.

Healthier Citizens

Public health should be a priority for every city and good waste management can be a real trump card here. By stopping waste from ending up on the streets or in the drains, you’re not only enhancing the city’s image, but you’ll also prevent unwanted visitors (i.e., pests and vermin) from creeping around the neighbourhoods.

Additionally, if waste is disposed of in unsanitary landfills or dumps, it could pollute underground water with toxic leachate, causing problems for the cleanliness of the city and your water supplies.

Economic Progress

Strong waste management systems can improve the economic situation and quality of life for your city’s population. There are many places around the world where waste represents a significant source of income for individuals and a source of raw materials for certain sectors. Waste collectors gather, clean, recycle and sell waste from the streets and landfills, and by establishing clean disposal techniques, cities can avoid the hazards of open dump scavenging.

With the criticality of the situation right before our eyes and the numerous advantages of strong waste management, not only for the environment but for us too, it’s hard to imagine, why on earth we’re not doing more. But it is never too late to start…

The following cities have all been named in C40 Cities good practice guides on waste to resources and sustainable solid waste systems. They summarised the options for sustainable waste management and therefore what cities should be aiming for as follows:

Scale showing the best and worst options for dealing with waste. Most favoured is prevention, followed by minimisation, reusing, recycling and energy recovery, leaving disposal as the least favoured urban waste management option.

So, how can you get started? Keep reading to take a look at our favourite examples and the main takeaways below.

1. London’s Food, Glorious Food

Sometimes the simplest solutions are the most effective and where better to start than our organic waste. Food and green waste in landfills get decomposed in an anaerobic (without oxygen) environment which generates CO2 and methane. It is thought that in the 20 years after methane is released, it is 84 times more potent than CO2. This is currently a major issue as our methane capture/destruction systems in landfills aren’t yet 100% efficient.

“From a climate perspective, targeting food and green waste reduction has the largest impact of any other solid waste component.”

(C40 Cities)

City: London

When: from 2013

What: FoodSave scheme

  • Working with cafes, pubs, restaurants, and wholesalers to show them how to reduce their food waste, use up surplus food and dispose of any unavoidable waste responsibly.


  • Reduced food waste by 150 tonnes by 2015.
  • Diverted 1,000 tonnes away from landfill by 2015.
  • Saved businesses over £350,000 in waste reduction and disposal costs.

Why it was successful:

The scheme was funded by the European Regional Development Fund, the London Waste and Recycling Board and the Mayor of London, all in partnership with the Sustainable Restaurant Association and Sustain: The Alliance for Better Food and Farming.

This external funding opportunity allowed an innovative public-private partnership to be fostered. The project also saw quick results which had a positive impact on climate mitigation statistics and incited further enthusiasm for the project, allowing it to continue and expand.

Encouraging composting food waste at home as part of responsible urban waste management.
Image credit: Unsplash / Lenka Dzurendova

Thinking Big in Oakland and Milan

From small and simple to big and bold. Sometimes you need to think a little outside the box and go beyond the boundaries to see results. The following examples employed tactics ranging from integrated policies, aligning stakeholder priorities to set ambitious targets, and have nevertheless all experienced success.

City: Oakland, California

When: from 2015

What: Zero Waste Franchise agreements and Zero Waste programme

  • The franchise agreements between the city and their waste collection companies offered an expanded service to citizens.
  • The Zero Waste Programme meant that big goals were set: the diversion of 100% of compostable/recyclable materials from landfill; reduction of GHG emissions from waste management by 36% by 2020.


  • By 2016, 250,000 tons of materials had been diverted per year.
  • GHG emissions decreased by more than 450,000 tons annually.

Why it was successful:

While other cities include compulsory ordinances and compliance programmes that require lots of work, this is not feasible in Oakland or similar sized governments with a lack of resources. However, through their partnerships with various stakeholders generating huge outreach and a collaborative process, Oakland has achieved almost the same high levels of waste diversion but with fewer resources. They also built on and learned from their Zero Waste Strategic Plan which successfully set goals and a policy direction but ultimately failed when it came to implementation.

According to the evaluation by C40, another reason for success was the consideration of ALL the challenges facing the city before developing numerous policies, agreements and strategies. This was also made easier by cooperating with the private sector, local stakeholders and the general public.

City: Milan

When: from 2012

What: Integrated Waste Collection System

  • Developed large-scale infrastructure by employing an integrated system.
  • Creation of a residential food waste collection programme and transparent bag programme for recyclables.


  • Reduced residual waste from 450,000 tons (2011) to 315,000 tons (2015).
  • More than tripled the amount of municipal solid waste that was recycled between 2012 and 2015.
  • 0% of organic waste ended up in a landfill.

Why it was successful:

As with Oakland, the collaboration with stakeholders involved in the management chain (e.g., building managers to raise awareness of the programme, municipal waste service companies, and the public) played a significant role. The gradual deployment also worked well to gain support and to ensure all necessary infrastructure was in place first. The city also made sure to accurately measure service requirements as part of the planning process and then designed a consistent programme to meet these demands.

All for One and One for All – Durban and Mexico City

We’ve seen the impact strong partnerships can have in Milan and Oakland, but this level of communication also needs to happen at the community level. Without basic grassroots level support from your citizens, it will be extremely difficult to get anything done…as we’re sure you already know!

City: Durban

When: began in 2006

What: Buffelsdraai landfill closed loop system

  • A large-scale project aiming to be part of the movement to phase out open dumpsites and introduce sanitary controlled-disposal landfills.
  • They want to prevent anything that comes onto the Buffelsdraai site from leaving again, e.g, through extracting the gas from landfill and using it for flaring (removing the methane) which will be used for vehicle fuel and the city’s electricity generation.
  • Leachate from the waste is collected, treated and the water used for dust suppression which saves on using up drinking water.
  • The zone around the landfill is managed as a nature conservancy whereby the community are given seeds that they grow to a certain size and then return them to the landfill in exchange for vouchers. The vouchers can be used for things like food, bicycles and school fees, and the trees are planted as part of the coastal forest re-establishment project.


  • By extracting the gas and reducing methane emissions, the city is predicted to reduce 10 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent over the site’s lifetime of 50 years.
  • The trees planted are expected to save a further 55,000 tonnes of CO2 per year.

Why it was successful:

Strong community involvement, communication and working with the waste pickers from the very start were all critical to Durban’s closed loop landfill system triumph. The multitude of co-benefits means that citizen support is even more evident as almost everyone has an advantage in some way: people earn a living; planned electricity production reduces long-term costs; re-introduction of coastal forests otherwise threatened by farming; improved public health.

Fresh fruit and vegetable market as part of Mexico City's urban waste management programme.
Image credit: Unsplash / Renate Vanaga

City: Mexico City

When: since 2012

What: Barter Market for Recyclables and Education Programme

  • Reinforcing a culture of recycling, minimisation, and local consumption.
  • The market takes place once a month (since 2012), in a different borough each time.
  • People can trade clean, separated household solid waste recyclables for locally produced agricultural products (e.g., fruit, veg, jams, plants).


  • In 2013, nearly 20,000 citizens attended to trade their waste.
  • Numbers for 2014 showed that 127m3 of landfill space was saved and 128 tons of recyclable waste was collected thanks to the project.
  • In addition, by encouraging consumption of local products, they are reinforcing the fight against malnutrition while supporting local producers and providing jobs to the private waste industry in collecting and reusing valuable recyclables.

Why it was successful:

Offering recycling education allowing citizens to proactively ‘learn through doing’ meant higher engagement levels and continuously strong community spirit. Once people know what to do and what they gain from it, there is no stopping them.

Delhi and Bogota Proving That New Isn’t Always Better

This might seem like an obvious one when we’re talking about waste. Many of the systems, projects and policies that we have mentioned above were created from scratch. But the following cities have managed to make a significant impact just by adapting, upcycling or modernising what they already had.

City: Delhi

When: from 2010

What: Ghazipur dumpsite turned into a waste-to-energy plant.

  • India’s capital recognised that landfilling is not a permanent waste management solution.
  • They decided to combine the need for an answer to their waste problems with the demand for generating local, reliable energy.


  • By 2016, they were generating 12MW of electric power per day.
  • Diverted 15% of Delhi’s waste away from landfill by the end of 2016.

Why it was successful:

The use of an existing dumpsite meant land acquisition was easier and cheaper. It has also many established co-benefits, such as: lower health and safety risks; reduction of toxic emissions; employment opportunities for rag pickers, their families and in particular for women; 2 creches for 70 children are offered as well as functional literacy education for 150 families of employees. The project has been such a success that it is to be replicated in other plants in Delhi and across India.

City: Bogotá

When: from 2012

What: Zero Waste Programme

  • Aimed to incite cultural behavioural change and to have a no-fuss recycling policy.
  • They created a legal framework for a social inclusion plan and for developing the current collection and disposal system into one that prioritises the 3 R’s (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) and conscious consumerism.
  • The advantages have meant the integration of an informal workforce, giving them dignity and better remuneration.


  • Lowered the cost of waste collection by 15.23%.
  • The Dona Juana Landfill biogas plant has reduced CO2 production by 700,000 tons per year.

Why it was successful:

Bogotá managed to achieve this by using the existing informal infrastructure to build an integrated waste collection model, while simultaneously providing livelihoods to local communities. They recognised the need for behavioural change and the potential and acted on it.

Main Take-Aways

  • Food and organic waste can make a big difference and could be a good place to start if you want to see quick results with an immense impact.
  • Bigger doesn’t always mean better – sometimes the simplest of ideas or starting implementation at a lower level can be just as effective as reaching for the moon.
  • Engage everyone – right from the start it’s important to think about all those potentially affected and how you can get them onboard. This includes all stakeholders, and it seems cooperation is key to having a real crowd pleaser.
  • Talk the talk and walk the walk – never stop learning/teaching.
  • Be happy with what you’ve got – there’s no point starting anew if you’ve already got half a solution or a starting point right under your nose. Analyse existing practices and go from there.
  • Combine – there isn’t just one waste management solution, and these tactics can all be combined so that however you choose to deal with waste, your city can make the most profound impact possible.

It’s clear that responsible urban waste management that does not negatively impact either us or the world around us is not only possible, but in these cities, it is thriving. For another example of waste management, take a look at Notable City Tampere.

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