Image of urban trash.

Written by Nikola Alexandre

Municipal waste generation is notoriously difficult to measure. The ways in which cities define municipal waste vary greatly, there are no standardized data collection methods, and it is rare to find third party reporters of municipal waste streams. Furthermore, informal waste collection systems, responsible for huge amounts of waste processing, are often not incorporated into official numbers. Improper waste management can have severe health impacts on the communities and ecosystems in which dumps and waste treatment plants are located, and current consumption and subsequent waste generation levels perpetuate environmental destruction through ongoing resource extraction.

From a high level, estimates of global municipality waste vary between 1-2 billion tons per year.1Hoornweg, Daniel; Bhada-Tata, Perinaz. 2012. What a Waste : A Global Review of Solid Waste Management. Urban development series. Knowledge Papers. (15). World Bank, Washington, DC. 2UN Habitat. 2010. Solid Waste Management in the World’s Cities. Earthscan. Future projections are primarily influenced by city development levels. If current amounts of per capita waste generation are maintained as they are, The City Waste Project puts global municipal waste at 2.5 billion tons per year by 2025. If developing countries generate waste at the same level as OECD country average rates, the global total will be closer to 4.6 billion tons. And this only accounts for solid waste, which means it does not include sewage or grey water.3United Nations Human Settlements Programme. (2010). Solid Waste Management in the World’s Cities. Retrieved from:

This increase in municipal waste can be attributed to a number of interacting factors.4UN Habitat. 2010. Solid Waste Management in the World’s Cities. Earthscan. First, the number of people in cities is growing. Second, as per capita income in cities increases, so does the intensity of consumption and, because of how products are currently designed, this leads to an increase in waste generation. Third, businesses are generating larger and larger amounts of waste, the by-product of disposable product design. Fourth, the substances in products are increasingly complex and challenging to disassemble. This is particularly problematic in cities where formal and informal economies built on product disassembly and sorting have historically helped keep waste levels under control. Today, the specific components of solid waste vary greatly between cities and regions, but major trends include high amounts of organic waste, paper, and (increasingly) electronics.

Although the UESI did not develop a waste indicator for the reasons outlined above, it is clear that waste management is a core component of urban environmental performance. Improper waste management can generate methane emissions, poison groundwater, pollute soils, and contaminate air with particulate matter and fumes.5Vaverková, M. D., Adamcová, D., Zloch, J., Radziemska, M., Boas Berg, A., Voběrková, S., Maxianová, A. 2018. Impact of Municipal Solid Waste Landfill on Environment – a Case Study. Journal of Ecological Engineering. 19(4): 55-68. Although limited to a European context, a systematic study of the impacts of municipal waste exposure found causal negative effects on public health for a number of health outcomes, including cancers and birth defects.6Fazzo L, Minichilli F, Santoro M, et al. 2017. Hazardous waste and health impact: a systematic review of the scientific literature. Environmental Health. (16) 107 Furthermore, low-income and minority communities are disproportionately the ones who suffer from waste exposure – making waste management an unquestionable equity issue.7Marco Martuzzi, Francesco Mitis, Francesco Forastiere. 2010. Inequalities, inequities, environmental justice in waste management and health, European Journal of Public Health. 20 (1): 21–26. Since the late 1980s, research has shown that race was the strongest predictor of whether or not a US community lives near a toxic waste dumping or processing site.

The city of Charlotte, North Carolina, USA, provides a good example of a city actively investigating business cases, policies, and metrics to reduce its waste generation by strategically investing in the circular economy. The circular economy can be characterized as a system that designs products for easy repair, reassembly, and reuse so that materials continuously re-enter the economy and generate value – instead of accumulating in landfills.8Gladek, E. (6 February 2010). The Seven Pillars of the Circular Economy. Metabolic. Retrieved from: It is an economic system that capitalizes on the notion that the labor and resources that go into manufacturing a product are wasted when that product is destroyed, whereas they can generate more value if, instead, that product is repurposed. An “extended producer responsibility” policy approach is increasingly being used to ensure companies are held accountable for the environmental impact of their products.9Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OCED). Fact Sheet: Extended Producer Responsibility. Retrieved from:

In order to achieve this new way of doing business, Charlotte is incentivizing the preservation of product value and disincentivizing waste generation at the design level. Charlotte is the first US city to adopt the circular economy as a public sector strategy, and it is planning to leverage waste generation into a unique opportunity to increase equitable economic development, business development and innovation, and environmental health. A recent study by Metabolic, Envision Charlotte, and the City of Charlotte found that the city’s 900,000 tons of annual waste contains a residual value of approximately $111 million per year. Adopting a comprehensive waste diversion strategy, that harnesses materials otherwise headed towards landfills, could enable the city to create more than 2,000 jobs. Transitioning to a fully circular model could generate roughly $2.3 billion in revenue by 2040.10Opray, M. (19 October 2018). How a Circular Charlotte Could End Waste and Poverty. Metabolic. Retrieved from:

With this roadmap in mind, the city has developed a series of short- and long-term strategies supported by 29 key performance indicators (KPIs). These indicators cover a range of areas, but focus on tracking (1) reduction in waste and toxic material generation, (2) increases in innovation practices through growth in clean tech, circular businesses, and R&D, (3) increases in environmental quality, and (4) accessible circular job creation.11The City of Charlotte, Envision Charlotte, & Metabolic. (2018). Circular Charlotte: Towards a zero waste and inclusive city. Retrieved from: Cities interested in developing waste reduction performance indicators can draw inspiration from Charlotte’s full strategy, and national and international governments can use it to think through policies to ensure standardized data collection methods.

Image credit: Shutterstock_505890361_By Tainar.