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  • Writer's pictureChannara Thea

Steps Toward Zero Waste Communities in Asia

Updated: Jan 18

Trash collections, such as this one at the beach, are no sustainable long-term solution.

Zero Waste is often used as a buzzword in today’s sustainability discourse. However, the term is older than one might think. It was first introduced in the 1970s by Paul Palmer, a United States (US)-American chemist. Subsequently, in the 1990s, the zero-waste movement started to grow significantly and with it the 3 R’s principle of reducing, reusing, and recycling. But why is the Zero Waste approach so relevant today? What is behind its conceptual influence on countries around the world with very different local circumstances? And how do Zero Waste practices potentially play out in Asian least developed countries?

To begin with, waste management is a global issue which affects people often on a very individual level. The improper management of solid waste could hence harmfully affect human health, the environment, and economic development. The act of waste burning for instance can contribute to triggering breathing diseases and increase respiratory problems. For vulnerable societies, landslides of waste dumps can cost their homes or even their lives.

At the same time, waste dumped in the ocean is threatening the lives of marine creatures. Plastic, oil, toxic chemicals, and any other kind of waste can severely destroy aquatic animals, their foods, and their shelters. 242 million tonnes of plastic were generated globally in 2016, and an estimated 1.6 billion tonnes CO₂-equivalent was generated by that solid waste. If there is no proper waste management in place, the estimated CO₂-equivalent that will be generated by the year 2050 amounts to 2.6 billion tonnes.

Hence, as the need for sustainable waste management coincides with that for a healthy environment and the growth of sustainable economies,  Zero Waste initiatives are the solution. As part of this approach, the waste is correctly separated for reuse and recycling, and, for instance, converted to biogas, biofertilizer, and energy. Potentially, in all-encompassing zero-waste approaches, more than 99% of the waste could be usefully kept. In consequence, only less than 1% of waste must be dumped in landfills.

Waste separation practices are a first step to raise awareness on avoiding waste wherever possible.

Given this transformative power, the Zero Waste concept is shifting longstanding consumption patterns and production processes to use reused resources, reduce pollution, and scaling down the amount of waste generated. In the US, San Francisco is known as the best Zero Waste practitioner. As the first city in the US to implement the three-stream sorting for compost, recyclables, and landfill, the city advertised its new strategy with appealing imagery and in various languages. In 2013, San Francisco reached an 80% rate of waste diversion, while, in 2019, 41% of the city’s carbon emissions were reduced compared to 1990.

Similar to San Francisco, in the European Union, Sălacea, a small town in the north-western part of Romania, has been practicing terrifically in adopting the Zero Waste approach. By applying a door-to-door separate collection system, effective impacts have been achieved. A drop of 55% in the total waste generated was reached, as well as a drop of 43% of landfill waste, while separate waste collection rose from 1% to 61%, and the rate for recycling equally rose from 1% to 40% within 3 months.

Meanwhile, in Asia, with an expected  population growth from more than 1.8 billion in 2017 to almost 3.0 billion in 2050, urban waste generation  is expected to grow beyond any waste management capacity. Despite this alarming estimation, solid waste management in urban areas still is not prioritized in most Asian countries. The reliance on landfills, incineration, and composting for waste dumps often remains the first choice, as evidenced by a waste collection rate of only 44% in South Asia, and 71% in East Asia and the Pacific. Incorporating the 17 largest dump sites in the world, most low- and middle-income countries in Asia are facing a lack of waste separation before its transfer to the final dump site. Moreover, emphasis on practicing the 3Rs concept in waste collection services is still low, often due to budget constraints, particularly in developing Asian countries. This could create excessive amounts of GHG emissions, air and water pollution, city flooding, and airborne diseases, all of which are mostly affecting poor and vulnerable groups.

Informal waste collectors are part of an ecosystem that lowers the impact of residual waste.

Thus, undeniable challenges in prioritizing solid waste management in Asian least developed countries are remaining. One common problem here are budget constraints that hinder improving towards solid waste management systems. Further, municipalities are often not fully up to date with existing solid waste management policies and financing modalities of the countries. They heavily rely on public funding rather than developing partnerships with the private sector to decrease the costs. Furthermore, as a result of a lack of collaboration among stakeholders such as policymakers, policy implementors, and the private sector, and the gaps in current policies, the 3 Rs practice are hardly adopted in everyday households. The lack of information and knowledge of the importance of waste separation could lead citizens to not properly practice this concept.

According to best practice cases of solid waste management in Yokohama, Japan, waste separation has proven to be a vital solution in reducing waste dumped in landfills. Here, an implementation framework of a waste separation plan was introduced. The 4 key steps in developing a waste separation plan include:

  1. Administrative Preparation: The first step of planning is forming the organizational team. In order to ensure the ownership and commitment of city leaders such as the mayor or city councillors, they must primarily be responsible for developing waste separation programs and establishing the team. 

  2. Creating a Municipal Waste Separation Plan: Secondly, a situation assessment needs to be conducted. Here, potential key stakeholders in the process of waste-flow should be identified, starting from household collection to the transfer to a recycling area or landfill. Key stakeholders, in this regard, would be private companies, nongovernmental organizations, and manufacturers Subsequently, the waste separation plan should be formulated by identifying target recyclable materials, separation methods, and collection methods.

  3. Pilot Implementation: During the pilot implementation, the specific target areas of the project should be identified and selected. Raising awareness and participation levels of stakeholders can be achieved by conducting a campaign that addresses the importance of environmental conservation. In unity with the campaign, there should be an implementation of an enforcement method, the “pay-as-you-throw” system, where the waste separation is mandatory by law, penalties for non-compliance household will be thoroughly applied. In contrast, household that generate less waste and properly separate it for disposal will be awarded with incentives.

  4. Review and Upscaling: By completing the pilot implementation, an evaluation, and feedback from the public, stakeholders, and project implementors should be documented and reviewed for scaling up described activities throughout larger areas of the relevant city.

There are plenty of creative pathways to deal with single-use plastics.

In summary, the zero-waste approach is a collective effort and commitment of varied stakeholders to reach the avoidance of unused trash. In order to reach this goal, effective and close collaboration from the government, the private sector, and citizens is required. In this regard, best practices of regions close to areas with waste deficits could serve as remarkable lesson for least developed countries to learn and contextualize to their countries’ condition. With the improvement of understanding of waste management importance among citizens, addressing the gaps of existing policies, and public-private partnerships, the possibility of developing countries in Asia achieving zero waste goals is growing.


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