Problems looking for solutions: Waste Management & Land Pollution

The Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) generated yearly in Nigeria is between 16.8 – 25.3 million tons. Nigeria’s population according to the World Bank is about 206 million people and with this number, it is estimated that every individual produces about 0.1 tons of solid waste yearly. The government of Akwa Ibom State on their official website estimated the population of the state to be 5.5 Million in 2016. With a growth rate of 2.5% estimated by the World Bank, the state should have a population of 6.18 million people in 2022. Using this estimate, the state is expected to generate 618,000 tons of solid waste yearly. I live in Uyo, the capital of Akwa Ibom State and all of the solid waste produced by the city is currently being disposed of in landfills after collection from the different waste collection points in the city by the Akwa Ibom Waste Management Authority (AKIWMA).

Hazards of how we dispose our solid wastes

This waste currently being disposed of at a massive landfill along Uyo Village Road contains dangerous chemicals, pesticides and metals that could have adverse effects on human lives. Plastic waste for example contains very toxic chemicals including acrylic, polyvinyl chloride, polycarbonate, and phthalates which are associated with cancers, skin diseases, respiratory disorders, and birth defects in pregnant women. Chemical components such as cadmium, asbestos, mercury, cyanide, arsenic, and chromium commonly found in pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and fertilizer industrial wastes also have devastating effects on human health. The continuous disposal of waste in landfills also makes the dumpsites breeding grounds for disease-transmitting organisms, and toxic chemicals find their way to the human body through vegetables and foods that are grown in polluted lands.

Asides from the adverse health challenges that land pollution poses to residents of the city, Uyo village road, just like other major waste dump landfills in different cities are eyesores and a nightmare to drive by. The surrounding air is heavily polluted, potentially resulting in tourist distraction which impacts the State’s revenue. The Akwa Ibom State Government has been on a drive to revamp her tourism industry as highlighted by the National Association of Tourism Operators (NATOP) during their 5th Annual General Meeting which took place here in Uyo on June 26th 2021.

The increasing waste generation as the population continues to grow poses a threat to urban housing. Areas surrounding landfills and dumpsites generate an appalling smell and odour that makes a significant radius unbearable and unlivable. This is asides from additional pollution to the air by the smoke generated by these landfills which are also constantly burning.

Our water table is not exempted from the adverse effects of pollution as leaching takes place, making toxic elements infiltrate the water table further endangering the health of the populace.  Waste generation is a direct consequence of human activity and we do not expect that less waste would be generated, however the way we currently manage our waste pose more danger to the health of residents, the air, water, environment, wildlife and even the economy of the city. This is not a problem that can or should be ignored.

Waste Disposal: A wicked problem

While the World Bank reiterates that managing waste properly is essential for building sustainable and livable cities, this remains a challenge for many developing countries and cities.

People may wonder why a problem with these many effects does not get as much attention as it should, but I think the analysis is simple.

Tame Problems
Wicked Problems

Researchers classify most problems into two types: Tame problems and Wicked problems, categorized based on the complexity of solving them. Responsibility.com further made it simpler to understand, explaining that a tame problem is one that can be solved by choosing and applying the correct algorithm. A wicked problem, however, is one for which there is no known algorithm to solve it.When you try to solve a tame problem, you arrive at a solution but when you try to solve a wicked problem, the problem reveals more problems and complexity to you. Waste management continues to be a problem in many cities because this is not a tame problem. Effective waste management is expensive, often comprising 20%–50% of municipal budgets. Operating this essential municipal service requires integrated systems that are efficient, sustainable, and socially supported.

Smart Cities have developed effective ways of managing their waste and are tending toward a fully circular economy with zero waste components, basically meaning that everything is recyclable and reusable. Effective waste management is beyond the job of just the waste management agency. AKIWMA alone cannot solve this problem.

Hierarchy of management of wastes in order or preference. Source: Drstuey via Wikimedia Commons

From the image above which shows the hierarchy of preferred options for the management of waste, you will see that waste disposal is the least favoured option as it sits at the bottom of the pyramid, ironically, it happens to be the most practised option. Could this be because it is the most convenient option in terms of ease? All the other options above, from prevention of waste, minimization, reuse, recycling and energy recovery all have layers of complexity in their implementation that requires the involvement and cooperation of multiple entities outside the main entity trying to solve the problem. In many cases, this involvement or cooperation could either be slow to get, complex to implement or impossible altogether, another characteristic of wicked problems.

Where do we go from here?

Just a few new problems that we would likely encounter if we attempted to walk from the top of the hierarchy could be:

  1. How do we get the production and manufacturing processes that supply most of the consumables in the area to factor in the use of items that eliminate waste?
  2. How do we change predominant consumer behavior from a culture of ‘everything disposable’ to promote a culture that reuses items?
  3. Recycling requires that waste is collected in groups of similar items such as plastics, metals, glass, organic waste etc. Sorting already collected waste does not look like an easy task. How do we create waste collection systems that encourage and implement the separation of waste by the populace who actually use the waste?

A look at these initial problems opens up new layers of challenges that need to be responded to, typical of wicked problems. A waste management agency that sticks to its mandate to only clear waste from being visible would very easily resort to a system of collecting from regular dumps and disposing at secluded landfills.

The problem of land pollution from improper waste management put the entire population at risk and it affects us in very many ways, the solution will also have to include all of us. It does not seem like there is an easy solution in sight. The waste management agency alone may not be able to solve the entire problem.

I am writing this from a STEM perspective. How do we get our students to start seeing these problems with the view of creating innovative solutions that can respond to the layers of problems? Feel free to drop ideas in the comments or share to increase awareness and engagement.

Comments

Ekene

In my short time in Thailand, I observed a healthy environmental attitude. There was a culture of cleanliness and an impressive sense of responsibility among many of the citizens to not litter the environment with non-decomposable waste. If we can succeed at stopping Nigerians from throwing ‘gala’ wraps from the windows, we will make a great deal of progress.

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