A clarion call to reduce and phase out open waste burning

By Climate Champions & Engineering X | May 19, 2022

Open waste burning is one of the major contributors of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and poses major health hazards owing to the cocktail of air pollutants it discharges, according to a report published this week.


Open burning of waste in Africa: Challenges and opportunities, compiled by the Engineering X Safer End of Engineered Life mission in partnership with  the UN High-Level Climate Champions was launched at the 9th Africities summit in Kisumu, Kenya.

Key findings included:

  • Open burning of waste produces 11% of global black carbon emissions, with 26% of global waste burned at a residential level and 15% spontaneously burned at dump sites.
  • Emissions from solid waste driven by open dumps and landfills account for about 5-12% of total global GHG emissions while methane generated from decomposing organic waste accounts for around 20% of global methane.
  • Open burning of waste accounts for 29% of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution in the air and this together with other air pollutants cause nearly 1.2 million premature deaths per year in Africa.

According to the report, authored by UN High-Level Champions Waste Leads Professor Desta Mebratu and Dr Andriannah Mbandi, Sub-Saharan Africa generated around 9% of global waste as of 2016, or 180 million tonnes. About two-thirds of that is dropped in landfills and open dump sites, where it risks polluting both the local environment and global climate.

The report notes that children living near these dump sites are ingesting and inhaling toxic substances. The particulate matter emitted in the air causes lung and heart disease, cancer, infertility, low birthweight, premature birth, cognitive development problems, and premature death. Dump sites emit around 20% of the world’s methane and 11% of black carbon – two potent short-lived greenhouse gases that must be slashed in order to limit the impacts of climate change.

The study also highlights that around 70-80% of the municipal solid waste generated in African cities is recyclable – such as biodegradable waste, plastics and paper – and could be worth US$8 billion per year if kept in a circular economy. It recommends taking an engineering approach to addressing the structural deficiencies in waste management and promoting a circular economy that prioritises reuse, recycling and recovery will strengthen local manufacturing, create jobs, reduce unemployment, support inclusive and sustainable local and regional economies, and reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

The report makes it clear that there are major challenges, but also opportunities for the region, including:

  • Reducing and phasing out open waste burning in African urban centres would have significant health and environmental benefits besides reducing emission of GHGs.
  • African countries have unique opportunities to secure multiple economic, social and environmental benefits through local separation and recycling of waste as secondary resources.
  • This would require moving away from piecemeal interventions to systemic transformation with a focus on addressing the systemic deficiencies of waste management systems in African urban centres.

The report also calls for an expansion of the UN High-Level Climate Champions’ partnership with Engineering X, an international collaboration founded by the Royal Academy of Engineering and Lloyd’s Register Foundation, by welcoming other international and regional partners into the work – particularly in the run-up to November’s COP27 summit in Sharm El-Sheikh. The Engineering X Safer End of Engineered Life mission aims to apply engineering expertise to improving existing waste management practices and supporting design-for-waste principles and safer, more sustainable waste policies in the longer term.

In a joint foreword to the report, the UN Climate Change High-Level Champions for COP26 and COP27, Nigel Topping and Dr Mahmoud Mohieldin, say:

“The African Union has set an ambitious target for African cities to recycle at least half of their waste by 2023. Many are still far from achieving this, but according to the UN Environment Programme the goal can be met and even surpassed with a shift of organic waste to composting and bioenergy recovery, along with the refurbishment, repair, reuse and recycling of plastics, paper, metal, glass, tyres and electronic waste.

“To do this, the transformation needs to be systemic. It needs to include the informal waste recyclers who are already getting waste back into the African economy, as well as national governments, cities and development partners.”

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