UN calls on countries to find ways of turning waste into wealth


March 19, 2024

When Dr Leah Tsuma, the founder of Asticom Limited, succumbed to cancer in August 2021, her idea of generating 10 Megawatts of electricity from municipal waste from Kibera, one of Kenya’s biggest informal settlements, seemed to have died, too. But, three years later, the dream was the subject of discussion at a global forum when scientists at the Sixth Session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-6) in Nairobi, Kenya, called on the world to start turning rubbish into wealth.

On the third day of UNEA-6, held in March 2024,  the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), in collaboration with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), released a report assessing global waste management and analyzing data concerning municipal solid waste management worldwide. “Waste generation is intrinsically tied to Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and many fast-growing economies are struggling under the burden of rapid waste growth,” said Inger Andersen, the Executive Director at UNEP.

Indiscriminate waste disposal practices

According to the report, the world generates two billion tons of municipal solid waste annually. One study shows that between 400,000 and one million people, most of them in developing countries, die every year of diseases related to mismanaged waste, including diarrhea, malaria, heart disease, and different types of cancer.

Scientists have pointed out that indiscriminate waste disposal practices can introduce hazardous chemicals into soil, water bodies, and the air, causing long-term, potentially irreversible damage to local flora and fauna, negatively impacting biodiversity, harming entire ecosystems, and entering the human food chain. Another report by UNEP shows that methane, a greenhouse gas released from the decomposition of organic waste in landfills and dumpsites, directly contributes to global warming.

Shift to a zero-waste approach

The new report finds that reducing waste by taking waste prevention and management measures could limit net annual costs by 270.2 billion dollars by 2050. Projections show that a circular economy model, where waste generation and economic growth are decoupled by adopting waste avoidance, sustainable business practices, and total waste management, could yield a full net gain of 108.5 billion dollars annually.

“By identifying actionable steps to a more resourceful future and emphasizing the pivotal role of decision-makers in the public and private sectors to move towards zero waste, this (report) can support governments seeking to prevent missed opportunities to create more sustainable societies and to secure a liveable planet for future generations,” said Andersen.

According to Zoë Lenkiewicz, the report’s lead author, the findings demonstrate that the world urgently needs to shift to a zero-waste approach while improving waste management to prevent significant pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and negative impacts on human health.

“Pollution from waste knows no borders, so it is in everyone’s interest to commit to waste prevention and invest in waste management where it is lacking. The solutions are available and ready to be scaled up. What is needed now is strong leadership to set the required direction and pace and ensure no one is left behind,” said Lenkiewicz.

Therefore, scientists are calling on countries to adopt the circular economy scenario. This scenario has a net-positive effect on greenhouse gas emissions and human health and significantly reduces the negative impact on ecosystem quality.

Greener waste disposal practices

In his speech at UNEA’s high-level segment, Kenya’s President William Ruto said that efforts to share resources such as oceans will require international collaboration.

“International collaboration is crucial in promoting adopting the ‘reduce, reuse, and recycle’ life cycle approaches to waste that are vital for sustaining the blue economy and its ecosystems,” said Ruto. “We are (currently) implementing the Green Economy Strategy and Implementation Plan to shift waste management to a circular economy,”

So far, according to Earth.org, Germany has been celebrated as a world leader in recycling municipal waste, thus becoming the benchmark for other countries when it comes to implementing greener waste disposal practices.


Isaiah Esipisu is an independent journalist and a media consultant. He is the continental Coordinator for the Pan Africa Media Alliance for Climate Change (PAMACC).