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Waste Management 33 (2013) 9881003

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Waste Management
journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/wasman

Systems approaches to integrated solid waste management in developing countries

Rachael E. Marshall , Khosrow Farahbakhsh 1
School of Engineering, University of Guelph, Albert A. Thornbrough Building, Guelph, ON, Canada N1G 2W1

a r t i c l e

i n f o

Article history:
Received 14 September 2012
Accepted 11 December 2012
Available online 26 January 2013
Systems approaches
Integrated solid waste management
Developing countries
Industrialized countries
Post-normal science
Complex adaptive systems

a b s t r a c t
Solid waste management (SWM) has become an issue of increasing global concern as urban populations
continue to rise and consumption patterns change. The health and environmental implications associated
with SWM are mounting in urgency, particularly in the context of developing countries. While systems
analyses largely targeting well-dened, engineered systems have been used to help SWM agencies in
industrialized countries since the 1960s, collection and removal dominate the SWM sector in developing
countries. This review contrasts the history and current paradigms of SWM practices and policies in
industrialized countries with the current challenges and complexities faced in developing country
SWM. In industrialized countries, public health, environment, resource scarcity, climate change, and public awareness and participation have acted as SWM drivers towards the current paradigm of integrated
SWM. However, urbanization, inequality, and economic growth; cultural and socio-economic aspects;
policy, governance, and institutional issues; and international inuences have complicated SWM in
developing countries. This has limited the applicability of approaches that were successful along the
SWM development trajectories of industrialized countries. This review demonstrates the importance of
founding new SWM approaches for developing country contexts in post-normal science and complex,
adaptive systems thinking.
2013 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction
The primary purposes of solid waste management (SWM) strategies are to address the health, environmental, aesthetic, land-use,
resource, and economic concerns associated with the improper disposal of waste (Henry et al., 2006; Nemerow, 2009; Wilson, 2007).
These issues are an ongoing concern for nations, municipalities,
corporations, and individuals around the world (Nemerow, 2009),
and the global community at large (Wilson, 2007). In developing
countries, the waste produced by burgeoning cities is overwhelming local authorities and national governments alike (Tacoli, 2012;
Yousif and Scott, 2007). Limited resources result in the perpetuation and aggravation of inequalities already being experienced by
the most vulnerable of populations (Konteh, 2009; UNDP, 2010).
Systems analyses engineering models, analysis platforms, and
assessment tools predominantly targeting tightly dened engineered systems have been applied to help SWM agencies in
developed countries since the 1960s (Chang et al., 2011). These
system models have been used both as decision-support tools for
planning processes, and for monitoring and optimizing existing
SWM systems. While some systems analysis tools have been used

Corresponding author. Tel.: +1 519 362 7809; fax: +1 519 836 0227.
E-mail addresses: rmarsh01@uoguelph.ca (R.E. Marshall), khosrowf@uoguelph.
ca (K. Farahbakhsh).
Fax: +1 519 836 0227.
0956-053X/$ - see front matter 2013 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

in developing countries (e.g. see Charnpratheep and Garner, 1997;

Chang et al., 1997; Chang and Wang, 1996), most models were
developed in Canada and the United States (Chang et al., 2011).
Even in developed country contexts, prior to 2000, very few models
considered social aspects of SWM, focusing solely on the economic
and environmental spheres (Morrissey and Browne, 2004). None
considered involving all relevant stakeholders, from government
ofcials, industry and formal private sector services providers to
local communities and rag pickers; and none considered the full
waste management cycle from prevention to nal disposal
(Morrissey and Browne, 2004). To date, few models take a holistic
perspective of the SWM system; most focus on isolated problems
within the larger system and are of little use to decision makers
(Chang et al., 2011; Shmelev and Powell, 2006).
While nearly all systems analyses have been unsuccessful at
achieving a broad systems perspective of SWM, they have made
more obvious the need for holistic, integrating methodologies that
address the interconnectedness of socio-cultural, environmental,
economic, and technical spheres.
This need is particularly strong in developing countries, where
the complexities of SWM systems are often higher for a number
of reasons, and the SWM sector is predominantly preoccupied with
collection and removal services (Wilson, 2007).
This paper builds upon the work of Wilson (2007), who explores
6 broad categories of SWM development drivers in developed and
developing country contexts. As Wilson (2007) points out, building

R.E. Marshall, K. Farahbakhsh / Waste Management 33 (2013) 9881003

an understanding about what has driven SWM in the past can provide much needed context and insight for how best to move forward in the future. While the focus of Wilson (2007) is equally
on the SWM drivers in both industrialized and developing countries, this paper tailors this discussion to developing country contexts by reviewing his drivers as part of the historical backdrop
that frames current SWM practices in developing countries and
exploring the present-day issues specic to SWM in developing nations. Additionally, while Wilson (2007) closes with the need to
work towards integrated, sustainable SWM systems that are locally
appropriate to specic developing country contexts, this paper
takes his perspective a step further by providing a means to begin
working towards this goal: post-normal science approaches and
complex adaptive systems (CAS) thinking. Thus, this review begins
by examining the historical development of SWM in high-income
countries. It then explores the state of SWM systems in developing
countries by examining the challenges presented by economic, social, cultural, political, and international inuences. Finally, it explores the need for a systemic approach in developing country
contexts by examining the benecial perspectives of post-normal
science and CAS thinking.
It should be noted that the author recognizes that stark situational differences exist at all levels: between nations, regions, cities, communities, households, and even individuals. While this
paper makes reference to categories of countries (i.e. developing,
developed, industrialized, high-, medium-, and low-income), by
no means does it imply that the problems are the same amongst
these groups. Indeed, we always pay for generality by sacricing
content, and all we can say about practically everything is almost
nothing (Boulding, 1956, p. 197); it is for this reason that systems
approaches, which are founded upon specic, locally appropriate
methodologies, are so crucial to the future of SWM practices.
2. Solid waste management in high-income countries
The historical forces and mechanisms that have driven the evolution of SWM in high-income countries can provide insight about
how to move forward in developing country contexts (Wilson,
2007). The following sections explore the origins and principal
drivers of SWM development in industrialized countries in order
to provide some context for the changes that are currently taking
place in developing countries.
2.1. Historical origins of solid waste management
Humans have been mass-producing solid waste since they rst
formed non-nomadic societies around 10,000 BC (Worrell and Vesilind, 2012). Historically, public health concerns, security, scarcity
of resources, and aesthetics acted as central drivers for waste management systems (Louis, 2004; Melosi, 1981; Ponting, 1991;
Wilson, 2007; Worrell and Vesilind, 2012). Small communities
managed to bury solid waste just outside their settlements or dispose of it in nearby rivers or water bodies, but as population densities increased, these practices no longer prevented the spread of
foul odours or disease (Seadon, 2006). As waste accumulated in
these growing communities, people simply lived amongst the lth.
There were exceptions: organized SWM processes were implemented in the ancient city of Mahenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley
by 2000 BC (Worrell and Vesilind, 2012); the Greeks had both issued a decree banning waste disposal in the streets and organized
the Western worlds rst acknowledged municipal dumps by 500
BC (Melosi, 1981); and Chinese cities had disposal police responsible for enforcing disposal laws by 200 BC. However, as Worrell
and Vesilind (2012, p. 1) so aptly describe, for the most part, people in cities lived among waste and squalor (p. 1). In both Athens


and Rome, waste was only relocated well outside city boundaries
when defenses were threatened because opponents could scale
up the refuse piles and over the city walls (Worrell and Vesilind,
City streets in the Middle Ages were plastered in an odorous
mud composed of soil, stagnant water, household waste, and animal and human excrement (Louis, 2004). This created very favourable conditions for vectors of disease. Indeed, the Black Death,
which struck Europe in the early 1300s, may have been partially
caused by the littering of organic wastes in the streets (Louis,
2004; Tchobanoglous et al., 1977; Worrell and Vesilind, 2012). In
colonial America, the urban population lived in similar putrid conditions (Melosi, 1981). Many initiatives were implemented to clean
up the streets, but all were short-lived because the poor were focused feeding themselves and the rich were opposed to paying to
clean up for the poor (Wilson, 2007). However, scarcity of resources ensured many items were repaired and reused, and the
waste stream was thoroughly scavenged (Woodward, 1985).
When SWM progress nally began, it was driven by ve principal factors: public health, the environment, resource scarcity and
the value of waste, climate change, and public awareness and participation. These driving forces and the progress they instigated are
depicted in Fig. 1.
2.2. Driver 1: Public Health The sanitary revolution
The industrial revolution brought rapid expansion to both European and American cities. A new era in sanitation began to take
shape between 1790 and 1850 in London, where the high ash content of household waste caused by heating and cooking with coal
created a ourishing market for waste collection and use as a
raw material to meet the excess demand for bricks (Wilson,
2007). In the late 1830s the sanitation revolution began in London
with the appointment of the Sanitation Commission, which established the rst clear linkages between disease and poor sanitary
conditions. It was during this time that a governmental interest
in public health drove better solid waste management practices
forward through legislation, enforcement, and investment in infrastructure. In 1848 and 1875 Public Health Acts were established,
the latter of which required households to dispose of their waste
in a moveable receptacle, which local authorities were responsible
for emptying weekly (see Fig. 1). Similar legislation was implemented in other European countries (Wilson, 2007). In American
cities, population density and the reliance on imported goods increased dramatically between 1790 and 1920 (Louis, 2004). Likewise, the need to export the waste products of their burgeoning
growth beyond immediate city limits increased. Public concern
about sanitation rose as epidemic diseases continued to rock cities
regularly. Thus, governmental interest in public health drove solid
waste management improvements in American cities as well
through legislation and investment in infrastructure (Louis, 2004).
Public health legislation continued to drive waste management
forward in the following century. The rst municipal priority was
to collect and remove waste from the immediate vicinity of residential areas (Wilson, 2007). Once the waste had been removed
from underfoot, priorities shifted to other aspects of the waste
management chain, such as the proliferation of landlls (Seadon,
2006). However, from 1900 to 1970, disposal was for the most part
unregulated and uncontrolled, consisting of dumping and burning
(Wilson, 2007). The focus remained on waste collection and transportation out of the city (UN-HABITAT, 2010).
2.3. Driver 2: Environment The modernization of SWM
After the Second World War landlling was still the principal
waste disposal method, and rapid growth in consumption from


R.E. Marshall, K. Farahbakhsh / Waste Management 33 (2013) 9881003

Fig. 1. SWM drivers and progress.

1960 onwards resulted in a larger municipal waste stream with a

higher plastics content (Wolsink, 2010). Finally, the environmental
movement of the 1960s and 1970s brought waste disposal onto the
political agenda in industrialized countries (Wilson, 2007; Wolsink, 2010), which created a signicant shift in policymakers perspectives on how to approach SWM (Wolsink, 2010). New
legislation addressing water pollution and SWM emerged, initially
targeting the elimination of uncontrolled disposal (see Fig. 1).
Subsequent SWM legislation increasingly raised environmental
standards to reduce the contamination of land, air, and water
(UN-HABITAT, 2010; Wilson, 2007). The environmental movement
acted as a primary driver of the policy stages from the 1970s onwards (Wilson, 2007). SWM policy from the 1970s to mid-1980s
focused on waste control, and was therefore characterized by measures such as the daily covering and compacting of landlls and
retrotting incinerators for dust control. The following policy
stage, which emerged in the 1980s and continues today, focused
on gradually increasing technical standards, beginning with landll gas and leachate control, incinerator gas and dioxin reduction,
and now spanning to odour control for composting facilities and

anaerobic digesters (Wilson, 2007). In the 1990s, integrative policy

gained much attention because it had become evident that advocating for ever-increasing environmental protection was not enough; an integrative regulatory approach was needed that
encompassed not only the technical and environmental but also
the political, social, nancial, economic, and institutional elements
of waste management if environmental protection were to be realized (McDougall et al., 2001; van de Klundert and Anschutz, 2001;
Wilson, 2007).
2.4. Driver 3: The resource scarcity and value of waste
In pre-industrial times, resources were relatively scarce. Anything vendible in the waste stream was scavenged and consumer
goods were reused and repaired rather than tossed into the waste
stream (UN-HABITAT, 2010; Wilson, 2007). As cities grew in size
during the industrial revolution, the resource value of waste rose
again, and rag pickers or street buyers collected, used, and sold
materials from the waste stream; an activity that continues today
in many developing countries (see Fig. 1) (UN-HABITAT, 2010).

R.E. Marshall, K. Farahbakhsh / Waste Management 33 (2013) 9881003

However, recycling rates plummeted from the high levels of preindustrial times to single digits by the 1970s (Wilson, 2007), as this
was a period of immense increase in consumption, strong marketing of commodities, and little regard for resource consumption.
The recycling and reuse that went on in the 19th century was
sparked again in the 1970s by the European concept of the waste
hierarchy, on which current waste policy in the EU is based (Wilson, 2007; Wolsink, 2010). The original idea for the waste hierarchy was rst borne out of the Dutch governments shortage of
landll sites (Wolsink, 2010), but the idea was propelled forward
primarily by the environmental movement. First introduced in
the European Unions Second Environment Action Programme in
1977 (CEC, 1977), the waste hierarchy is a model of waste management priorities based on the Ladder of Lansink, a hierarchy of
waste handling techniques going in order from prevention to reuse, reduction, recycling, energy recovery, treatment (such as
incineration), and nally landll disposal (Price and Joseph, 2000;
Wilson, 2007; Wolsink, 2010). Thus, the availability of land and
its value as a resource somewhat acted as a driver for the move
away from landlling, though land scarcity primarily led to new
treatment options, such as incineration. The waste hierarchy
sparked a massive transition from end-of-pipe to preventative
thinking, which emerged with a multitude of new terms and
phrases pollution prevention, source reduction, waste minimization, waste reduction, toxics use reduction, clean or cleaner technology, etc. to replace the old terms that focused on reaction
and control instead of prevention (Hirschhorn et al., 1993).
This policy shift away from landlling has signicantly increased the use of medium priority waste handling methods,
which were historically more prominent due to resource scarcity
but dropped to single digit percentages in Europe during the rst
half of the 20th century. Recycling, for example, has rebounded
to 25% or higher in Europe (Wilson, 2007), reaching rates as high
as 60% in Austria and the Netherlands (Kollikkathara et al., 2009).
However, Wilson (2007) points out that this is often driven by
statutory targets rather than by the resource value per se ... recycling is practiced because it is the right thing to do, not because
the value of the recovered materials covers the costs (p. 200).
Many governments, industry members, educators, environment
groups, and programs have adopted and endorsed the waste management hierarchy (Gertsakis and Lewis, 2003; Seadon, 2006),
which, along with what Seadon (2006) describes as an almost
mantra-like acceptance among waste professionals (p. 1328),
has sparked a urry of criticisms. According to Gertsakis and Lewis
(2003), the hierarchy is difcult to implement because solid waste
managers in industry and government have little control over production decisions that could inuence higher-level priorities, such
as waste prevention and minimization. Additionally, McDougall
et al. (2001) point out that the waste hierarchy does not make
room for combinations of techniques, account for costs or specic
constraints, lacks scientic or technical basis, and cannot provide
what is fundamentally needed an assessment of the context-specic system as a whole.
2.5. Driver 4: Climate change
Climate change has acted as an environmental driver since the
early 1990s, leading to a shift away from landlling biodegradable
waste, which is a major source of methane emissions, and a
strengthened focus on energy recovery from waste (UN-HABITAT,
2010; Wilson, 2007). This driver was brought on by the global concern about climate change issues, which led to pressure and advocacy around the world. This driver led to a policy stage focused on
waste prevention and target achievements, and characterized by a
series of preventative policy measures, including laws and targets
for compost and recycling goals, diversion from landll, extended


producer responsibility, and landll bans for recyclable materials

(UN-HABITAT, 2010; Wilson, 2007). Policies such as the EU Landll
Directive require reductions in levels of biodegradable material
sent to landll as a method to recover valuable materials and reduce methane emissions (Wilson, 2007). This has further increased
recycling and composting rates, which have been on the rise in cities modernizing their waste systems (UN-HABITAT, 2010). However, since climate change measures can only have signicant
impact if many adhere to this objective, there is no immediate national gain from reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This is the primary weakness of this driver, and one of the primary reasons it is
so difcult to gain consensus for a post-2012 convention for reducing carbon dioxide levels.
2.6. Driver 5: Public concern and awareness NIMBY and behavioural
Public concern and awareness have also acted as SWM drivers
in high-income countries. Poor practices in the past, such as burning dumps and polluting incinerators, have left the public with
negative perceptions of new SWM strategies (Wilson, 2007). While
the public may recognize the need for SWM facilities, the common
Not In My Backyard, or NIMBY, attitude means they would rather
have them located elsewhere (Schbeler, 1996). Wilson (2007, p.
201) describes how negative perceptions of past facilities have
led to the almost inevitable NIMBY reaction to proposals for any
new waste management facility, no matter how clean or sustainable that may be. Unsustainable behaviour also inhibits movement towards better SWM. Therefore, strategies that include
more recycling, repair, reuse, home composting, sustainable consumption, etc. require behavioural change (Wilson, 2007), which
Jackson (2005) believes is becoming the holy grail of any sustainable development strategy. The systems that shape patterns of the
publics activities create complex barriers to sustainable behaviour.
Many people are unable to exercise deliberate choice because they
nd themselves locked into unsustainable patterns caused by habits, routines, a lack of knowledge, institutional structures, inequalities in access, social expectations, and cultural values (Jackson,
2005; McKenzie-Mohr and Smith, 1999). Additionally, each form
of sustainable behaviour has a unique and complex set of barriers
that vary amongst social groups (McKenzie-Mohr and Smith,
1999). Even seemingly closely associated sustainable behaviour,
such as composting and recycling, can be barricaded by different
sets of obstacles (McKenzie-Mohr and Smith, 1999). Therefore,
transferring initiatives that appear successful in a specic context
is unlikely to be effective (Southerton et al., 2011). Overcoming
public attitudes and unsustainable behaviour requires effective
communication, a broad public understanding of the requirements
of SWM, and active participation of all relevant stakeholders
throughout all project stages (Schbeler, 1996). For example, some
of the top strategies identied for overcoming NIMBY opposition
include building project supporters before implementation, developing a comprehensive understanding of causes of opposition, and
acting to remove them through stakeholder consultation, correction of misinformation, and compromise. These best practices
have been effective at combating NIMBY opposition to many major
development projects (Noto, 2010). Thus, building public awareness through such measures and focusing public concern on the
need to develop sustainable behaviour have acted as SWM drivers.
3. Solid waste management in developing countries
For a variety of reasons, poor waste management practices and
associated public health implications remain severely problematic
in many developing countries a century and a half after the


R.E. Marshall, K. Farahbakhsh / Waste Management 33 (2013) 9881003

European sanitary revolution, despite increasing globalization

(Konteh, 2009). In industrialized nations, the health benets from
solid waste and sanitation systems are largely taken for granted,
and the focus has moved from sanitation-related communicable
diseases to diseases of afuence (cancer, cardiovascular disease,
drug and alcohol abuse) and sustainability (Konteh, 2009; Langeweg et al., 2000; McGranahan, 2001). Meanwhile, many developing
countries are currently affected by the double burden of the combined effects of the diseases of afuence and communicable diseases (Boadi et al., 2005; Konteh, 2009). Wilson (2007, p. 204)
points out that [i]n some countries, simple survival is such a predominant concern, that waste management does not feature
strongly on the list of public concerns. When SWM is on the public
agenda in developing countries, it is driven by the same concerns
as industrialized countries, although it tends to be driven most
strongly by public health; the key priority is still getting the waste
out from underfoot, as it was for the Europe and the United States
up until the 1960s (Coffey and Coad, 2010; Memon, 2010; Rodic
et al., 2010; Wilson, 2007). Environmental protection is still relatively low on the political and public agendas, although this is
starting to change (Wilson, 2007). Though legislation is often in
place requiring closure and phasing out of unregulated disposal,
enforcement tends to be weak (Wilson, 2007). The resource value
of waste is an important driver in many developing countries today; informal recycling provides a livelihood for the urban poor
in many parts of the world (UN-HABITAT, 2010; Wilson, 2007). Climate change is an important driver worldwide the clean development mechanism under the Kyoto protocol, in which
developed countries can buy carbon credits from developing nations, can provide a key source of income to encourage cities in
developing countries to improve waste management systems (Wilson, 2007).
Many similarities exist between the historical SWM development trajectories of industrialized countries and the current trajectories of developing countries. Many cities in lower income nations
are experiencing similar conditions to those of the 19th century in
high income countries: high levels of urbanization, degrading sanitary conditions and unprecedented levels of morbidity and mortality, which affected mostly the working class population
(Konteh, 2009, p. 70). Indeed, increasing urbanization and socioeconomic disparities, inadequate provision of sanitary and environmental amenities, social exclusion and inequalities related to
existing SWM systems, and high levels of morbidity and mortality
linked to inadequate sanitation, waste disposal, and water supply
provision were common then as they are today, particularly in
poorer urban neighbourhoods in lower income countries (Konteh,
In spite of the apparent parallels, the contexts in which developing nations are situated are starkly different from the historical
contexts of developed countries. Rapid urbanization, soaring
inequality, and the struggle for economic growth; varying economic, cultural, socio-economic, and political landscapes; governance, institutional, and responsibility issues; and international
inuences have created locally specic, technical and non-technical challenges of immense complexity (see Fig. 3). The following
sections will explore these contextual aspects and the challenges
they present for SWM systems in the developing world.
3.1. Urbanization, inequality, and economic growth
Urbanization has exploded with great speed and scale in recent
decades with more than half the worlds population now living in
urban centres (Tacoli, 2012, p. 4), as countries and even individual
cities struggle to be competitive in the global marketplace (Cohen,
2004). While just 16 cities contained at least a million people at the
start of the 20th century the vast majority of which were in

industrial nations at the start of the 21st century 400 cities contained over a million people, and approximately three-quarters of
these urban centers were in low- and middle-income countries
(Cohen, 2004). This rapid, unplanned growth has resulted in a
number of extreme land use planning and infrastructural challenges that have crippled the capacity of national and municipal
governments to increase SWM service levels at the rate they are
demanded. This, in combination with extremely slow and inefcient institutional structures, has had a disastrous effect on the
quality and reach of SWM services in many regions of the world
one that is projected to worsen in the future. The fact that nearly
all of the worlds population growth is projected to occur in urban
areas (Cohen, 2004) from now until 2050 much of which will
take place in the worlds poorer regions has raised concerns
about growing urban poverty and the inability of national and city
governments to provide services to the residents of their burgeoning cities (Tacoli, 2012, p. 5). Many more people will be pushed
into slums, where sanitary conditions are appalling and waste
amenities are non-existent; the number of people living in slums
is now estimated at some 828 million and growing in actual numbers even though 200 million slum-dwellers have moved out of
slum quality conditions (UNFPA, 2011).
Almost invariably, the SWM demands of these high-density,
low-income settlements are inadequately served or neglected altogether even though these areas have the greatest need for these
services since there is no space among the densely packed housing
for waste burial or composting and they are less able to make alternate arrangements to dispose of waste (Coffey and Coad, 2010).
Collection may not be carried out in these unplanned settlements
due to a lack of space for refuse containers, narrow roadways, steep
gradients, and unsurfaced roads that standard collection vehicles
cannot manage (see Fig. 3) (Coffey and Coad, 2010; Henry et al.,
2006). Therefore, waste is dumped into open spaces, on access
roads and in waterways where disease vectors breed (see Fig. 3)
(Coffey and Coad, 2010; Konteh, 2009). Waste clogs drains, creating ooded, stagnant nurseries for mosquitos carrying malaria
and dengue fever. Animals and waste pickers scatter the waste,
and leachate from garbage heaps percolates into soil and waterways. This results in contaminated food, water, and soil, and serious environmental and health implications, particularly for the
most vulnerable, such as children and the elderly (Coffey and Coad,
2010; Tacoli, 2012). This kind of environmental degradation can
also negatively impact the (sometimes fragile) economies of those
countries that rely heavily on tourism (Henry et al., 2006).
3.2. Cultural and socio-economic aspects
The structure and functioning of SWM systems are founded on
the behaviour patterns and underlying attitudes of the population
factors that are shaped by the local cultural and social context
(Schbeler, 1996). The substantial diversity of social and ethnic
groups that often exists within rapidly expanding cities, even within individual residential communities, greatly inuences municipalities capacities to implement SWM strategies (Schbeler,
1996). Public awareness and attitudes towards waste can impact
the entire SWM system, from household storage to separation,
interest in waste reduction, recycling, demand for collection services, willingness to pay for SWM services, opposition to proposed
locations of waste facilities, the amount of waste in the streets, and
ultimately the success or failure of a SWM system (Henry et al.,
2006; Schbeler, 1996; Yousif and Scott, 2007; Zurbruegg, 2003).
In parts of the Arab world and Latin America, for example, opportunities to strengthen waste institutions may be limited by the fact
that SWM is not seen as an honourable profession (Wilson, 2007).
The cultural and socio-economic context also inuences the
waste composition generated by a population (Coffey and Coad,

R.E. Marshall, K. Farahbakhsh / Waste Management 33 (2013) 9881003

2010; Schbeler, 1996). In some cases, shops sell food that is largely pre-prepared, while in others, fresh meat or large quantities
of fresh vegetables and fruit drastically alter the waste composition. Cooking and heating with solid fuel affects the waste composition by eliminating items that would otherwise be discarded,
such as paper, and contributing hot, abrasive ashes to the waste
stream (Coffey and Coad, 2010). Local architecture, such as mud
brick housing and unpaved oors can mean large quantities of dust
and soil enter the waste stream, while sanitary practices can inuence the quantity of excreta in the waste (Coffey and Coad, 2010).
Socio-economic status at the neighbourhood and household level
affect waste composition: higher literacy increases the paper content of waste, and wealthier groups often choose to discard durable
items instead of repairing them (Coffey and Coad, 2010). Recycling
and reuse is affected by differences in how social groups value
items that would otherwise enter the waste stream. Often much
of the organic waste is fed to livestock, and items like food and
drink containers are reused in the household (Coffey and Coad,
2010). Informal recycling is carried out by waste pickers, who value much of what might otherwise enter the waste stream (Coffey
and Coad, 2010; Schbeler, 1996; UN-HABITAT, 2010; Wilson,
Social expectations of waste collection are also dependent on
waste composition, and therefore on cooking and eating habits. If
large quantities of odour-generating food (e.g. sh) are consumed,
waste collection rates are expected to be more frequent, particularly in warmer climates (Coffey and Coad, 2010; Jha et al.,
2011). Disposal is also greatly inuenced by social attitudes. Some
social groups always dispose of waste in the appropriate containers, while others view the street as an appropriate disposal location. Householders and city ofcials alike may have no interest in
whether waste is dumped illegally or sent to a proper disposal
facility, as long as it is removed from the urban zone (Coffey and
Coad, 2010). In some urban areas, the primary focus is still on food,
shelter, security and livelihoods; waste will become a priority only
when these more basic needs have been met (Konteh, 2009), and
only becomes an issue when public health or environmental damage impact these priorities (Wilson, 2007).
3.3. Political landscapes: Policy, governance, institutional issues
Politics inevitably play a large role in SWM systems. The structure, functioning, and governance of SWM systems are affected by
the relationship between central and local governments, the role of
party politics in local government administration, and the extent
that citizens participate democratically in policy making processes
(Schbeler, 1996). In low-income countries, the greatest challenge
is to strike the right balance between policy, governance, institutional mechanisms and resource provision and allocation (Konteh,
2009, p. 74).
3.3.1. Policy
A democratic, public process of SWM goal formulation is essential to determine the actual needs of the citizens, and therefore to
be able to prioritize limited municipal resources in a just manner.
Policy weaknesses are consequently some of the critical causes of
failed SWM systems in many low-income countries, as inadequate
formulation and implementation of realistic policies is common
(see Fig. 3) (Konteh, 2009). While developed countries addressed
their SWM needs by putting in place effective, functioning policy
measures, [i]n many cities of the developing world remedial measures have been elusive; efforts are uncoordinated or ad hoc, and
the resources invested in the sector inadequate (Konteh, 2009,
p. 72). Additionally, civil unrest and political instability has contributed to the growing SWM problem in low-income urban areas


by forcing millions of displaced people to seek refuge in major cities (Boadi et al., 2005; Konteh, 2009).
SWM is also not always a high priority for local and national
policy makers and planners. Other issues with more social and
political urgency may take precedence and leave little budget for
waste issues (Memon, 2010; Yousif and Scott, 2007). In some countries, such as Guatemala, serious SWM project continuity problems
arise because all municipal ofce workers including those not involved in elections are replaced during any change in government (Yousif and Scott, 2007). This lack of long-term
commitment results in the abandonment of work completed in
previous terms (Zarate et al., 2008). Projects can also be shelved
due to political fallout between different political parties and local
authorities (Henry et al., 2006).

3.3.2. Governance
In all urban centers around the world, any form of environmental management is an intensely political task, as different
interests (including very powerful interests) compete for the most
advantageous locations, for the ownership or use of resources and
waste sinks, and for publicly provided infrastructure and services
(Hardoy et al., 2001, p. 19). Many of these conicting interests
contribute to the degradation of essential resources and urban
environmental health if good environmental management is absent (Hardoy et al., 2001; Konteh, 2009). As these factors have
gained recognition, there has been a shift in the urban development literature from government, which focuses on the role,
responsibilities and performance of government bodies, to governance, which additionally considers the relationship between
government and civil society (Hardoy et al., 2001). Good governance requires the participation and collaboration of all relevant
parties, including government, non-governmental organizations
(NGOs), community groups and the private sector (see Fig. 3)
(Konteh, 2009). According to the Asian Development Bank, the
four principle elements of good governance are accountability,
participation, predictability, and transparency (Bhuiyan, 2010).
Good governance allows low-income groups to inuence policy
and resource allocation (Hardoy et al., 2001), and therefore it is
essential for equitable, effective, and efcient SWM. Indeed, the
efciency, along with the effectiveness of SWM in a city [are
some] of the indices for assessing good governance (Bhuiyan,
2010, p. 126). Low-income countries tend to lack the appropriate
governance institutions and structures typically found in high-income countries, such as public policy research institutions, freedom of information laws, judicial autonomy, auditors general,
police academies, etc. (Bhuiyan, 2010). This lack of democratic
structures and competent, representative local government creates barriers to proper SWM. Political jostling for power means
that local authorities base decision-making on the interests of
their parties (Henry et al., 2006; Zurbruegg, 2003). Henry describes how the upgrading of Nairobi slums has not been implemented because some councilors incite their constituents to reject
such a move out of an unfounded fear of voters who might be
moved out once slum upgrading efforts get underway. There are
instances when some councilors hinder particular projects for
political reasons only (Henry et al., 2006, p. 97). Government
bodies maintain inated workforces for political reasons, which
consume much-needed funds (Henry et al., 2006). Petty and high
prole corruption are also rampant in many countries. While it
has been widely recognized that corruption retards economic
growth, distorts the political system, debilitates administration
and undermines the interests and welfare of the community, corruption remains one of the most pervasive and least confronted
challenges facing public institutions in developing countries
(Bhuiyan, 2010, p. 131).


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3.3.3. Institutions
Effective SWM requires the denition of clear roles and legal
responsibilities of institutions and government bodies to avoid
controversies, ineffectiveness, inaction, and making SWM systems
politically unstable (Schbeler, 1996). Even when regulatory and
legislative frameworks exist, governments with weak institutional
structures are easily overwhelmed by increasing demands for
SWM as urban populations explode (Halla and Majani, 1999; Hardoy et al., 2001; Konteh, 2009).
Institutional aspects of SWM include:
 the degree of decentralization, i.e. distribution of authority,
functions, and responsibilities between central and local governmental institutions;
 the structure of institutional systems responsible for SWM and
how they interact with other urban management sectors;
 organizational procedures, for planning and management;
 the capacity of responsible institutions; and
 involvement of other sectors, including the private sector and
community groups (Schbeler, 1996).
Institutional aspects also include the current and future legislation, and the extent to which it is enforced (Zurbruegg, 2003). A
straightforward, transparent, unambiguous legal and regulatory
framework, including functioning inspection and enforcement procedures at the national, provincial, and local levels, is essential to
the proper functioning of a SWM strategy (Coffey and Coad, 2010;
Schbeler, 1996). According to Wilson (2007, p. 203), there seems
to be general consensus that weak institutions are a major issue in
emerging and developing countries (e.g. Asia, Africa, Latin America,
Russia), so that institutional strengthening and capacity building
becomes a major driver for SWM (see Fig. 3). Enforcement of laws
governing regular SWM activities and new project implementation
is often poor, resulting in improperly functioning SWM systems
(Coffey and Coad, 2010; Henry et al., 2006). For example, the polluter pays policy is inappropriate for many countries because the
lack of enforcement causes large waste generators to simply dump
illegally (Coffey and Coad, 2010). Developing effective, efcient municipal SWM plans is difcult in developing countries because data
on waste generation and composition is largely unreliable and
insufcient, seldom capturing system losses or informal activities
(Jha et al., 2011; Shimura et al., 2001; UN-HABITAT, 2010).
In developing countries, SWM is often under-funded due to a
combination of inadequate resources from municipal tax revenues,
insufcient user fees, and the mismanagement of funds (Coffey and
Coad, 2010; Zurbruegg, 2003). This persistent lack of funds prevents capacity building and the improvement and expansion of
SWM handling capacities (Henry et al., 2006). According to the
World Bank and USAID, it is therefore common for municipalities
in developing countries to spend 2050% of their available municipal budget on SWM, which often can only stretch to serve less than
50% of the population (Henry et al., 2006; Memon, 2010). In lowincome countries, 8090% of this budget is spent on collection
while in high-income countries less than 10% is spent on collection
services (Memon, 2010). As the price of land increases, it becomes
increasingly difcult to for municipalities to site landlls close to
urban areas, while transportation costs become a major constraint
to constructing landlls at a distant location (Memon, 2010), exacerbating the problem. Much-needed resources are consumed by
inefciencies, frequently caused by inefcient institutional structures and organizational procedures, and poor management capacity (Zurbruegg, 2003). Structural problems often arise when
revenue collection and investment decisions happen at the central
government level while operation and maintenance occur at the
local level. Capacity issues are also common. Schbeler (1996, p.
32) states that large discrepancies often exist between the job

requirements and the actual qualication of the staff at the managerial and operational levels. Overstaffed local authorities nd it
difcult to meet the large wage payments of poorly trained workers (Henry et al., 2006).
One substantial way that funds are mismanaged in developing
countries is through the use of techniques from the conventional
SWM approach of industrialized countries (Henry et al., 2006). Imported, sophisticated vehicles and equipment for collection, treatment, and disposal are expensive and difcult to maintain and
operate (Coffey and Coad, 2010; Zurbruegg, 2003). Frequently,
the waste composition in developing countries is very different
from the waste characteristics they are designed to handle, causing
them to break down rapidly or be of little use in the rst place
(Memon, 2010; Zurbruegg, 2003). Typically, within a short period
of time only a small percentage of the vehicle eet remains in operation (Coffey and Coad, 2010).
These managerial challenges are compounded by the fact that
waste quantities are increasing rapidly in most cities at a greater
rate than in high-income countries due to increases in wealth
and in quantities of waste produced per person, an increase in
the number of people living and working in the city, and rising
quantities of waste produced by businesses (UN-HABITAT, 2010).
3.4. International inuences
In the absence of strong political or cultural drivers, international nancial institutions (IFIs), such as the World Bank, act as
key drivers for SWM development. IFIs generally have a strong focus on environmental policies (including those related to climate
change), poverty reduction, institutional capacity building, good
governance, and private sector participation (see Fig. 3) (Wilson,
2007). While most of these focus areas are indeed crucial to properly functioning solid waste systems, the approaches used by IFIs
are not always appropriate for the particular context of their clientele. The World Bank had several unsuccessful SWM projects in the
1990s (e.g. Philippines, Mexico, Sri Lanka) due in part to weak institutions and governance issues, but also due to a lack of nancial
capacity in the receiving country to sustain the expensive facilities
when Bank funding ran out (Wilson, 2007). Indeed, while loans may
be obtained for infrastructure (CAPEX), in most cases none are
available for operational expenditures (OPEX). This often leads to
operational failures as the IFIs focus their attention solely on the
acquisition and building of infrastructure, not on its operation.
Unequal funding opportunities within regions and pressure to
meet the same high environmental standards creates affordability
issues (Wilson, 2007). Investments in the social sectors are often
made in areas of global concern over local environmental health
problems (Hardoy et al., 2001; Konteh, 2009; McGranahan,
2001). At the global arena, preoccupation with the green agenda,
which focuses on reducing human impacts on ecosystems and
their natural resources, is thought to be at the expense of the
brown agenda, which focuses on environmental threats to health
in poor regions, and is therefore undermining SWM efforts in lowincome countries (Konteh, 2009). Konteh (2009, p. 72) points out
that when sanitation and communicable diseases were a serious
problem in Europe and North America, the public health focus
was exclusively on those same issues which today fail to receive
adequate attention in the developing world in spite of being a major threat to public health; green environmental issues were not on
the agenda then.
The rising urgency of urban environmental problems and need
for capacity building at the municipal level has directed the attention of numerous bilateral and multilateral development agencies
to SWM in recent years (Schbeler, 1996; Zarate et al., 2008).
However, these donors may be motivated by bureaucratic procedures or goals of their home ofces rather than an understanding

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of the local situation. van de Klundert (1995) makes several observations about this: donor biases exist towards certain technical approaches or insistence on the use of equipment that supports their
own export industries; the scale at which donors work is often
inappropriate for local conditions; either too small, without sufcient consideration for various larger contexts, or too large for a
particular situation; coordination issues arise between donors
from different countries, which may be competing for contracts,
and within countries as development agencies work at cross-purposes; and donors without the time or political will to produce locally appropriate results opt for large, technical interventions
rather than small-scale, context appropriate approaches, since they
are easier to understand, nance, and monitor.
Coffey and Coad (2010) report that the objective of many foreign aid programs for SWM in developing countries is to capture
markets for supplying sophisticated machinery and related spare
parts, which are more often than not completely inappropriate
for local conditions. Additionally, municipal SWM is often a component within a wider development program aimed at improving
urban environmental projection and/or urban management capacity, meaning many bilateral and multilateral development agencies
lack the considerable expertise needed to implement successful
SWM programs (Schbeler, 1996).
Such issues have a detrimental effect on the evolution of SWM
practices in many developing countries. Zarate et al. (2008, p.
2543) point out that in spite of the million-dollar loans and grants
that developing countries have received to improve the basic services sector, including SWM, the lack of suitable qualied human
resources contributed to the inability of municipalities and communities to implement new projects. Grants or loans for sanitary
landll construction do not always result in the actual use of this
method of disposal; well-trained personnel and sufcient nancial
support for a reasonable standard of operation are also necessary
(Zurbruegg, 2003). Many SWM projects initially funded through
grants or loans have had problems obtaining continued external
funding to operate and maintain SWM systems (Coffey and Coad,
2010). Overseas consultants often recommend techniques and
equipment developed in counties with extremely different social
and economic conditions, and entirely different waste characteristics (Coffey and Coad, 2010). For example, numerous cases have
been documented in which expensive, sophisticated composting
and recycling plants have failed for a wide range of reasons: the
use of imported, inappropriate technology that is too expensive or
difcult to maintain; limited development of a market for recyclable materials; absence of technical personnel to with operational or
management capacity; failure to complete the necessary nancial
and economic appraisals; and failure to adequately consult signicant stakeholders and the public (Yousif and Scott, 2007).
Researchers are calling for multifaceted SWM methods that are
considered on a case-to-case basis and tailored to each communitys individual needs (Jha et al., 2011; Yousif and Scott, 2007).
Schbeler (1996, p. 19) aptly summarizes the need for a different
approach: The essential condition of sustainability implies that
waste management systems must be absorbed and carried by the
society and its local communities. These systems must, in other
words, be appropriate to the particular circumstances and problems of the city and locality, employing and developing the capacities of all stakeholders, including the households and communities
requiring service, private sector enterprises and workers (both formal and informal), and government agencies at the local, regional
and national levels [original emphasis].
4. The need for a systems approach
Managing waste is a complex task that requires appropriate
technical solutions, sufcient organizational capacity, and co-oper-


ation between a wide range of stakeholders (Zarate et al., 2008).

According to Seadon (2010), the interdisciplinary and multi-sectoral considerations needed for the proper management of solid
waste manufacturing, transportation, urban growth and development, land use patterns, public health, etc. highlights the interaction and complexity between the physical components of the
system and the conceptual components that include the social
and environmental spheres. When waste is seen as part of a ... system, the relationship of waste to other parts of the system is revealed and thus the potential for greater sustainability of the
operation increases. Conceptually, this broader view increases
the difculty of managing waste requiring an approach that handles complexity (Seadon, 2010, p. 1641). However, the conventional SWM approach is reductionist, not tailored to handle
complexity; interacting systems and their elements are divided
into ever-smaller parts. System processes, such as waste generation, collection, and disposal operations, are considered independently, though each is interlinked and inuenced by the others
(Seadon, 2010). This reductionist approach is even applied to
waste, as it is not a single entity that can be easily managed
(Dijkema et al., 2000). It is typically separated into many primary
and many more secondary classications, and waste streams from
different sectors, such as residential and commercial, are often
considered separately (Seadon, 2010). Techniques therefore tend
to focus on dealing with one type of waste at a time, leading to a
focus on single technologies instead of waste management systems. Consequentially, one waste problem can be solved, but other
waste problems are often generated with each compartmentalized
solution (Dijkema et al., 2000). This tendency to analyze things in
small, understandable pieces, to trace straight paths from cause to
effect, and to problem solve by attempting to control the system of
concern is increasingly being recognized as problematic (Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1993; Meadows, 2008). This is evidenced in
the SWM sector by the growing demand for SWM approaches that
recognize the social, cultural, political, and environmental spheres;
that engage with a broad community of stakeholders; and that
consider the larger system through holistic, integrating
(Carabias et al., 1999; Dijkema et al., 2000; Henry et al., 2006;
McDougall et al., 2001; Morrissey and Browne, 2004; Petts, 2000;
Seadon, 2006, 2010; Turner and Powell, 1991; Wilson, 2007; Zarate
et al., 2008).
4.1. Integrated solid waste management The current paradigm
Integrated solid waste management (ISWM), the current SWM
paradigm that has been widely accepted throughout the developed
world, emerged from the policy shift away from landlling and the
push for a broader perspective that began in the 1990s. While the
modern SWM practices that began in the 1970s were dened in
engineering terms technical problems with technical solutions
(van de Klundert and Anschutz, 2001), the concept of ISWM strives
to strike a balance between three dimensions of waste management: environmental effectiveness, social acceptability, and economic affordability (see Fig. 2). (McDougall et al., 2001;
Morrissey and Browne, 2004; Petts, 2000; Thomas and McDougall,
2005; van de Klundert and Anschutz, 2001). ISWM also focuses on
the integration of the many inter-related processes and entities that
make up a waste management system (McDougall et al., 2001). To
reduce environmental impacts and drive costs down, a system
should be integrated (in waste materials, sources of waste, and
treatment methods), market oriented (i.e. energy and materials
have end uses), and exible, allowing for continual improvement
(McDougall et al., 2001). ISWM systems are tailored to specic
community goals by incorporating stakeholders perspectives and
needs; the local context (from the technical, such as waste


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Fig. 2. Integrated solid waste management.

characteristics, to the cultural, political, social, environmental, economic and institutional); and the optimal combination of available,
appropriate methods of prevention, reduction, recovery and disposal (Kollikkathara et al., 2009; McDougall et al., 2001; van de
Klundert and Anschutz, 2001).
It has been widely recognized that waste management systems
that ignore social components and priorities are doomed to failure
(Carabias et al., 1999; Dijkema et al., 2000; Henry et al., 2006;
Morrissey and Browne, 2004; Petts, 2000). The issues of public
acceptance, changing value systems, public participation in planning and implementation stages, and consumer behaviour are
equally as important as the technical and economic aspects of
waste management (Carabias et al., 1999). Effective waste management must be fully embraced by local authorities and the public
sphere, and go beyond traditional consultative methods that require the expert to outline a solution prior to public involvement
(Henry et al., 2006; Morrissey and Browne, 2004). Key elements to
the success of these programs are public participation and empowerment, decision transparency, networking, co-operation and collective action, communication, and accessibility of information
(Carabias et al., 1999; Zarate et al., 2008). However, it has been difcult to fully integrate stakeholders and ensure public involvement (Morrissey and Browne, 2004); this is in large part due to
the fact that citizens did not shape the SWM systems they depend
upon. These systems were shaped by technically minded experts
who dened and designed the system in engineering terms.

Traditionally, the term waste has assumed a negative connotation, but it is a subjective concept a label applied to something
unwanted by the person discarding it (Dijkema et al., 2000; van
de Klundert and Anschutz, 2001). In the context of ISWM, waste
bears a negative connotation only if it cannot be regarded as a resource that that has not been used to its full potential and can subsequently be processed to produce useful energy or goods
(Dijkema et al., 2000; van de Klundert and Anschutz, 2001). In this
sense, ISWM incorporates elements of the waste hierarchy by
considering direct impacts (transportation, collection, treatment
and disposal of waste) and indirect impacts (use of waste materials
and energy outside the waste management system) (Seadon,
2006, p. 1328). However, unlike the hierarchy, ISWM does not
dene the best system, as there is no universal best system
(McDougall et al., 2001). In reality, ISWM is a theoretical, optimal
outcome a framework from which new systems can be designed
and implemented and existing ones can be optimized (UNEP,
1996). However, the integrated nature of ISWM creates a host of
variables that may pull a system in different directions. Clearly, it
is difcult to optimize more than one variable, and for this reason
there will always be trade-offs (McDougall et al., 2001). No ISWM
system design will achieve either environmental or economic sustainability because [t]his is a total quality objective ... it can never
be reached, since it will always be possible to reduce environmental impacts further, but it will lead to continual improvements
(McDougall et al., 2001, p. 19).

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Fig. 3. Developing country SWM context.

Despite the fact that ISWM is a holistic ideal, it has become somewhat of a buzzword with a different meaning in practice. Often
much of what is termed integrated waste management simply
incorporates the waste hierarchy and may attempt to engage with
stakeholders early on, but lacks actual integration. Thornloe et al.
(1997), for example, observed that in the United States many ISWM
programs focused on individual components making up the system
instead of the system as a whole. This kind of compartmentalization
is prevalent throughout all aspects of municipal waste management.
Collection and disposal may be the duty of separate local authorities,
and may be contracted out to different private waste management
companies. Likewise, different operating companies may control
recycling, incineration, composting, and landll operations (McDougall et al., 2001). Therefore, no one has control over the whole system, making it difcult to manage on a more holistic level.
Consequentially, the bulk of the effort remains focused on lower-level priorities such as recycling, which are important, but not sufcient (Gertsakis and Lewis, 2003; UNEP, 2010).
Managing waste on a systemic level is particularly difcult in
the absence of regulation (Gertsakis and Lewis, 2003). This has
been recognized by many governments and other entities, and
has sparked a move towards programs and regulations that
encourage closing the loop; moving from the concept of end-ofpipe waste management towards a more holistic resource management (Wilson, 2007, p. 205). Examples of this shift in focus include
the push for more sustainable consumption and production initiatives and regulations like the European Ecolabel and the Eco-Management and Audit Scheme, and eco-innovation and national
waste prevention programs (BIO Intelligence Service, 2011; European Commission, 2010).
Shifting focus upstream to product design and to decoupling
waste growth from economic growth are a step in the right

direction, but waste management systems in high-income countries are still far from integrated (Wilson, 2007). Progress is still
slowed by barriers to policy and program implementation, such
as a lack of infrastructure and/or capacity to comply; unequal market development (costs, levies, incentives, etc.) between countries;
administrative competency and capacity; enforcement measures;
knowledge barriers (gaps, knowledge-sharing, awareness-raising);
lack of quantitative targets; and economic ability to comply with
targets (BIO Intelligence Service, 2011).
It is clear that although considerable efforts are being made by
many governments and entities to confront waste-related problems head-on, major gaps still exist in SWM practices in high-income countries. A lack of systems thinking has been pinpointed
as a major contributor to the inadequacy of these approaches
(McDougall et al., 2001; Seadon, 2010; Turner and Powell, 1991).
Despite the fact that some types of systems analyses have been applied to SWM issues since the 1960s (Chang et al., 2011), the sector
struggles to handle the growing complexities that arise at the
nexus of social and ecological systems. This is particularly true in
the context of rapidly developing areas where poor SWM practices
are impacting the most vulnerable populations. Two schools of
thought of particular relevance to the challenges faced in the
SWM sector in such regions are those of post-normal science,
and complex, adaptive, eco-social systems. The following sections
will explore these areas and their relevance to future SWM
4.2. Post-normal science
In the mid-1980s, there was a growing community of scientists
and social scientists interested in major social and environmental
concerns characterized by complexity, uncertainty, and high


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socio-ecological risks, such as acid rain, ozone depletion, and climate change (Turnpenny et al., 2011). Frustrations were growing
with the normal science of Kuhn (1962), described by Funtowicz
and Ravetz (1993, p. 740) to be the unexciting, indeed anti-intellectual routine puzzle solving by which science advances steadily
between its conceptual revolutions. In response to the increasing
challenges at the intersection of policy, risk, and environment, Funtowicz and Ravetz (1993) developed a problem-solving framework
called post-normal science based on the assumptions of incomplete control, unpredictability, and multiple legitimate perspectives. The post-normal science paradigm recognizes the relevance
of both process and location, in place and time, and is issue-driven
as opposed to the curiosity-motivated, mission-oriented, or client-serving goals of core science, applied science, and professional
consultancy, respectively (Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1993). The
authors viewed this emerging science as a platform from which issues that traditional scientic methodologies fail to handle can be
approached. Such issues have either high uncertainties (i.e. the scientic, technical, and managerial complexities of the system being
considered, and the array of potential results) or high decisionmaking stakes (possible costs, benets, and value commitments
for stakeholders) (Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1991, 1993; Turnpenny
et al., 2011).
Post-normal science explicitly challenges traditional approaches to science, recognizing its limitations and the need for
unconventional approaches when uncertainties are either of the
epistemological or the ethical kind, or when decision stakes reect
conicting purposes among stakeholders (Funtowicz and Ravetz,
1993, p. 750). It calls for the inclusion of extended peer communities groups of legitimate participants in the processes of quality
assurance, policy debate, and research. The extension of legitimate
peers is not only founded on ethical or political reasons; it also enriches the practice of scientic investigation (Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1993). Post-normal science also recognizes the value of
history and context as essential elements of the scientic process.
SWM systems could benet from a post-normal science perspective; highly complex technical, scientic, and especially managerial aspects (and therefore high uncertainties), and conicting,
often immense costs, benets, and value commitments for various
stakeholders (i.e. high decision stakes) make SWM systems ideal
for alternative, post-normal problem-solving approaches. Indeed,
any of the problems of major technological hazards or large-scale
pollution belongs to this class (Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1993, p.
750). While many SWM systems analyses have considered the
importance of uncertainty to decision-making since the 1990s
(Chang et al., 2011), most have failed to include multiple, legitimate perspectives, and therefore to consider the high decision
stakes associated with SWM processes. Most, especially in developing country contexts, have also failed to develop solutions that
truly consider the specic context of the SWM system in question
a critical aspect for developing functional, integrated, and appropriate SWM policies and processes. This is largely due to the lack of
real stakeholder involvement; involving all relevant stakeholders
in decision making and planning processes can bring together
powerful, historical narratives that richly dene the particulars of
a given context. Such narratives are often implicit, and are inuential on how we frame problems and manage for perceived
improvements (Waltner-Toews et al., 2005, p. 161). This includes
the perspectives of so-called objective scientists and engineers,
who design SWM systems according to their own historical
narratives, developed in their own contexts. Creating what
Waltner-Toews et al. (2005) call a meta-narrative, composed of
the perspectives of all relevant stakeholders, is particularly important for understanding the constantly changing relationships
among governance, decision-making power, and eco-social system
dynamics (Waltner-Toews et al., 2005). Revealing this kind of

context, in turn, can provide a rich, holistic perspective of the

SWM system, its sub-systems, and the larger systems of which it
is a part addressing the criticism that most SWM systems analyses to date have been narrow-minded and focused on a single
A 10-year study conducted by Waltner-Toews et al. (2005) concretely demonstrates the applicability and strength of post-normal
approaches to SWM. The study was originally designed to prevent
the transmission of a parasitic disease of people associated with a
tapeworm of dogs in Kathmandu, Nepal. However, the study eventually shifted away from this single-problem focus; the community
became part of the research team, participatory methods were
introduced, and through community participation, it became clear
that several large-scale issues had to become part of the research
focus, including SWM (Waltner-Toews et al., 2005). A new model
that did not assume a single, correct perspective was created
from the narratives of a wide range of community members. This
collective narrative brought to light the fact that solid waste generation (which attracted dogs) and management was part of a
complex set of political, caste, and gender hierarchies which had
resisted the technological solutions proposed and transiently
implemented (Waltner-Toews et al., 2005, p. 157). The resulting
system model enabled the community to identify a range of interactions, strongly divergent perspectives, potential areas of conict
among stakeholder groups, and where negotiation of tradeoffs, visions, and future actions were needed (Waltner-Toews et al.,
While this is but one example of the applicability of post-normal science to SWM and the particular tools and methods used
by Waltner-Toews et al. (2005) may not be universally effective,
the fundamental principles behind their research approach are extremely relevant for SWM decision making, planning, monitoring
and optimization. This kind of publicly engaged science that requires and creates uniquely tailored, context specic, locally
owned approaches will be crucial for the future of SWM in developing country contexts.
4.3. Systems thinking: The foundations of systems approaches
Systems thinking, a term in good currency in research across
many elds, has only been explicitly recognized since the 1950s.
The concept was borne out of von Bertalanffys mathematical eld
of a general theory of systems, which was rst presented in Chicago in 1937 and published in a German journal in 1949 (Drack
and Schwarz, 2010). Von Bertalanffys General System Theory
(GST) aimed to promote the Unity of Science by providing a language and theory for systemic problem solving in many different
disciplines, which were independently stumbling upon general
system characteristics and principles (von Bertalanffy, 1950). GST
struck a strong chord with researchers ready to part with reductionism across the disciplines, as it was originally intended to do.
While interest in GST peaked during the two decades before von
Bertalanffys death in 1972 and the quest for a general theory of
systems subsequently subsided (Drack and Schwarz, 2010), it
spawned a plethora of derivatives and sparked a widespread interest in systemic approaches. New systems concepts have emerged,
and previously existing ones have since been applied in many subject areas (everything from health care, organizational development, and family research to international development, physical
geography, policy, economic analysis, and management science
(Chai and Yeo, 2012; Checkland, 2000; Patton, 2002)).
According to Checkland (1981), systems thinking is an attempt
to escape the reductionism of normal science. Indeed, a holistic
perspective is crucial to systems thinking (Patton, 2002). The function and meaning of both a system and its parts are lost when it is
taken apart; any system is dependent on its own internal

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interdependencies. Therefore, systems thinking is intrinsically focused on relationships (Checkland, 2000), along with patterns, processes, and context (Capra, 2005). It also ensures in any given
situation (at least) three levels are considered: the system (what?),
the sub-system (how?), and the wider system (why?) (Checkland,
Several perspectives on the meaning of a systems approach exist among researchers. While a vast literature about systems theory and applied systems research has developed since von
Bertalanffys original publication, much of it has been highly technical and quantitative, involving computer simulations of specically dened, engineered systems whose goals and objectives
have been made explicit by external experts (Checkland, 2000;
Patton, 2002). However, according to Patton (2002, p. 120), (1) a
systems perspective is becoming increasingly important in dealing
with and understanding real-world complexities, viewing things as
whole entities embedded in context and still larger wholes; (2)
some approaches to systems research lead directly to and depend
heavily on qualitative inquiry; and (3) a systems orientation can be
very helpful in framing questions and, later, making sense out of
qualitative data. While systems thinking originated from the
hard science of mathematics, many researchers felt that a hard
systems approach was insufcient to handle complex, messy, real
world problems (i.e. not the technical problems for which it was
developed), and a soft systems methodology quickly emerged
(Checkland, 2000). This initiated a debate between hard and soft
systems methodologies. Essentially, hard systems thinking assumes the world is a set of systems that can be engineered to reach
easy-to-dene goals and objectives, and performance can be measured quantitatively (Chai and Yeo, 2012; Checkland, 2000). On the
other hand, soft systems thinking uses systems not as representations of the real world but as intellectual devices, based on declared world-views, to explore problematic situations and
desirable changes to them; the entire approach is used as an organized learning system (Checkland, 2000). Therefore, hard systems thinking is ideal for well-dened, technical problems, and
soft systems thinking is appropriate for poorly dened, messy situations involving social and cultural considerations (Chai and Yeo,
2012; Checkland, 2000).
Systems approaches to SWM have been largely of the hard
variety narrowly focused, tightly dened, and compartmentalized the systems in question being (predominantly technical)
subsystems of a larger messy, ill-dened, eco-social system. The
problematic surprises that arise in relation to these tightly dened
systems are a result of poorly chosen (i.e. too narrowly drawn) system boundaries. System boundaries mental models about where
a system ends and the rest of the world begins must be dened in
order to simplify the system enough to begin understanding it. Yet
these boundaries are almost always articial, as systems seldom
have real boundaries. As Meadows (2008, p. 97) describes, there
is no single, legitimate boundary to draw around a system. We
have to invent boundaries for clarity and sanity; and boundaries
can produce problems when we forget that weve articially created them. SWM practitioners and systems analysts alike are
challenged to dene suitable system boundaries that are neither
too narrow nor too wide. When too narrowly drawn, larger, more
complicated problems are often created. For example, if waste is
thrown into a river that ows beyond municipal boundaries, human health and ecological wellbeing will be impacted downstream, and the resulting damage will be even more difcult to
address. If system boundaries are too broadly drawn, as many system analysts tend to do, enormously complicated analyses are produced that often only obscure the solutions to an already complex
problem (Meadows, 2008). Choosing a system boundary that best
ts the situation at hand demands mental exibility and context
specicity; boundaries should be re-dened for each new project,


discussion, question, or purpose (Meadows, 2008). When boundaries are chosen, it is imperative to keep in mind that the bounded
system description is always a simplication of the real interconnectedness of issues; a system boundary denes what is included
in an analysis and what is not, and accepting this simplication
can come with consequences.
4.4. Complex, adaptive, eco-social systems
Systems theory has provided a baseline from which other innovative perspectives of the world have drawn upon, including
cybernetics, catastrophe theory, chaos theory, non-equilibrium
thermodynamics, self-organization, and complexity theory (Kay
et al., 1999). Complexity can be dened as the domain between linearly determined order and indeterminate chaos (Byrne, 1998).
Complexity theory, technically known as nonlinear dynamics, is
concerned with modeling and describing complex, non-linear systems and developing a unied view of life by integrating lifes biological, cognitive and social dimensions (Capra, 2005, p. 33).
Reality is understood to be composed of complex open systems
with emergent properties and transformational potential (Byrne,
2005). These characteristics are typical of complex, adaptive systems (CAS), of which eco-social systems are a part. Crucial to these
systems is the concept of multiple scales, both spatially and temporally (see Fig. 4).
While systems are composed of elements, these elements are
themselves wholes, composed of units at a smaller scale. Arthur
Koestler (1978) dened this abstract concept of an entity which
is both a whole and a part as a holon, which exists in a nested network of other holons called a holarchy. Holling (2001) described
these hierarchical structures as semi-autonomous levels of similar
variables that communicate information or material to the next
higher, slower, and coarser level. Each level serves two functions:
(1) preserving and stabilizing conditions for the quicker, smaller
levels; and (2) functioning as an adaptive cycle by producing
and testing innovations (Holling, 2001). Hollings representation
of an adaptive cycle demonstrates a gure-eight movement between four system functions: from exploitation to conservation,
release, and nally reorganization. There are potentially multiple
connections between nested sets of adaptive cycles. The connection Holling labelled revolt occurs when a smaller, faster level
causes a larger, slower level to collapse, demonstrating that
changes in quicker, smaller cycles have the ability to inuence
the behaviour of slower, larger ones. Holling (2001) labelled another key connection remember, which demonstrates that slower,
larger levels can buffer smaller, faster ones from disturbances.
Many such relationships can be observed in SWM systems. For
example, the rapidly increasing processes of urbanization and consumption overwhelm slower processes, such as institutional
capacity building, which can completely overload the SWM system
and result in negative SWM practices (e.g. open dumping on land
or in water, backyard burning, etc.). After this type of collapse,
Holling (2001) describes how the release of accumulated potential, high levels of uncertainty, and weak controls can result in
surges of innovation and novel recombinations. Hence, waste picking and other informal sector activities emerge as a means to make
a living, acting as innovative, reorganized contributions to the system that can no longer serve its community as it did in the past.
Self-organization is another key attribute of CAS (Kay et al.,
1999; Patton, 2002). Such systems contain a web of positive and
negative feedback loops operating over a range of spatial and temporal scales that lead both to stable states of self-organization
and, in some instances, to surprising outcomes from apparently
straightforward interventions (Waltner-Toews et al., 2003, p.
25). Kay et al. (1999) describe self-organization as a dissipative
process that CAS undergo when high quality energy, known as


R.E. Marshall, K. Farahbakhsh / Waste Management 33 (2013) 9881003

Fig. 4. Complex adaptive systems: nested sets of four phase adaptive cycles (adapted from Holling (2001)).

exergy, attempts to push the system beyond a critical distance

from equilibrium. CAS resist the push away from equilibrium
through the spontaneous emergence of dissipative structures and
new behaviour, which uses the exergy to organize and maintain
the systems new structure (see Fig. 5).
A systems movement away from equilibrium is often triggered
by disturbances such as increased material and energy ow (both
can be considered as forms of exergy), or ow of disruptive information. A complex adaptive systems response to disturbances
relates to the magnitude of the disturbances. Therefore, as the

Fig. 5. Conceptual model of the dissipative nature of a self-organizing system

(adapted from Kay et al. (1999)).

magnitude or potential impact of disturbances increase, CAS resort

to more efcient mechanisms (dissipative structures) to dissipate
the disturbance and return to equilibrium. Over time this process
results in more complex dynamic systems with greater diversity
and increased ability to withstand movement away from equilibrium. The particular manifestation of the dissipative structures is
dependent upon the context (i.e. the history and environment in
which the system is embedded), the available exergy and other disturbances. Newly emerging structures provide a new context, in
which new processes manifest, in which new structures emerge
yet again (Kay et al., 1999). Therefore, the contents of the system
are the product of the history of the system itself (Checkland,
2000). Kay et al. (1999) dene these systems as self-organizing holarchic open (SOHO) systems: a nested constellation of self-organizing dissipative process/structures, organized about a particular
set of sources of exergy, materials, and information, embedded in
a physical environment, that give rise to coherent self-perpetuating behaviours (Kay et al., 1999, p. 724). The tendency to selforganize into hierarchical (holarchic) structures is also apparent
in SWM systems. For example, as waste generation levels skyrocked in the rst half of the 20th century, land availability became
an issue of importance, particularly in small European countries.
Increased solid waste quantities acted as increased material ow
in and out of the system, and land availability acted as disruptive
information ows. These two ows formed disturbances sufcient
enough to push the waste generation system away from its equilibrium (in this case the paradigm of consumption and waste generation). However, to maintain the status quo (equilibrium), new
technologies and practices (dissipative structures) were born, such
as incineration, to allow business as usual. New structures were
created as new workers were hired and departments were formed

R.E. Marshall, K. Farahbakhsh / Waste Management 33 (2013) 9881003

to manage the inward and outward ow of materials and information. A second example of this kind of self-organization emerged in
the 1970s, when the environmental movement pushed for the protection of ecosystems from poor waste management practices. In
this case, environmental issues acted as information ows that,
in combination with increased waste material ows, disturbed
the systems equilibrium. Instead of moving to a new equilibrium
where waste generation levels would be dramatically reduced,
recycling facilities began to spring up. As recycling evolved due
to sustained pressure to protect the environment, a few recycling
streams differentiated into tens and even hundreds of specialized
streams, and again, new departments and systemic relationships
were generated to manage the ow, pay the workers, and coordinate the selling of raw materials. The waste management system,
meanwhile, remained near the original equilibrium of waste generation, though disposal methods had proliferated into a host of
hierarchical structures. Many more examples of this kind of adaptation and self-organization in SWM systems exist. In both of these
instances, the SWM system resisted a complete ip to a new equilibrium state where waste generation would have dramatically decreased, (more) environmental systems would have collapsed, or a
host of other surprises would have occurred. This was accomplished by creating elaborate hierarchies of structure and relationships to reduce disturbances to the system (i.e., consume excess
material, or exergy). However, the maintenance of the current
state of equilibrium has required signicant input of energy and resources and is pushing waste management systems to their limits
of viability in many jurisdictions.
The self-organizing tendencies of CAS highlight the challenges
humans face in attempting to manage them (or our outright
inability to do so). It also highlights the potential for surprising
outcomes due to time lags, cross-scale effects, and what might
have been left out [of a system model]. These types of feedback
mean that prediction of individual outcomes is limited; prediction
of overall system behaviour is only possible in broad outline, and
then only if we have historical data to suggest the canon of states
available to that system... Such data are rarely available (WaltnerToews et al., 2003, p. 25). Both ecological and human systems
exhibit strongly developed self-organized patterns, meaning that
linear policies are more likely to produce temporary solutions
and many worsening problems in the future (Holling, 2001). Waltner-Toews et al. (2005) hold the view that ecological and social
systems are intertwined, and the separation of these systems is
both articial and arbitrary. The term eco-social systems
acknowledges these connections. Limits for the possible alternative states of such systems are set by the accumulated social, cultural, ecological, and economic capital, in addition to chance
innovations (Holling, 2001). SWM systems are certainly eco-social
systems, and thus their evolution is shaped by these factors.
Central to a CAS approach is the essential need to include multiple perspectives. Kay et al. (1999) consider human values and a
diversity of views to be crucial to the process of identifying appropriate methods of investigation necessary to deal with issues in a
systemic context. Issues of social reality, which are continuously
socially constructed and reconstructed by individuals and groups
(Checkland, 2000, p. S24), are relevant, as are issues of inclusiveness, mutual trust in the investigation process, and relative power
among stakeholders (Kay et al., 1999). Any action taken must be
feasible in the context of the local history, relationships, culture,
and aspirations of all concerned parties (Checkland, 2000). Cultural
context and historical narratives are strongly inuential on how
public decisions about environment and health are both framed
and managed (Waltner-Toews et al., 2005). Ensuring real stakeholder participation in SWM processes everything from determining what problems are most important to solution
implementation will greatly help to identify system structures,


behavioural tendencies, precious historical information, and potential future system states. Developing this kind of shared understanding of the eco-social SWM systems in developing countries
can lay the groundwork for much needed innovation and improvement in the sector.
5. Conclusion
While the need for a systems approach to SWM has been both
explicitly recognized (e.g. see Seadon (2010)) and inexplicitly recognized through the many calls for integrated methodologies, there is
a lack of literature exploring the actual application of post-normal
approaches and complex, adaptive systems thinking to SWM systems in many developing country contexts. While not a cure-all
solution, this kind of publicly engaged systems thinking can provide some understanding and create approaches for coping with
complexity (Waltner-Toews et al., 2008). Collaborating with a host
of legitimate peers can also help to create rich meta-narratives
that enable stakeholders to frame their particular context, and take
the next appropriate SWM steps. The need for this kind of context
specicity is critical for the future of SWM. It has been widely recognized that it is counterproductive for developing countries to use
strategies and policies developed for high-income countries; approaches should be locally sensitive, critical, creative, and owned
by the community of concern (Coffey and Coad, 2010; Henry et al.,
2006; Konteh, 2009; Schbeler, 1996; UN-HABITAT, 2010). Holling
suggests beginning an analysis with a historical reconstruction of
the events that have occurred, focusing on the surprises and crises
that have arisen as a result of both external inuences and internal
instabilities, in the ecological, social, political, and economic systems, and the management institutions (Holling, 2001, p. 402).
It should be noted that while systems thinking is concerned with
how patterns of relationships translate into emergent behaviours
(Waltner-Toews et al., 2008), these translations take time and so
will any system alterations; delays are inherent in complex systems
(Meadows, 2008). It has taken decades for the management, efciency, and reliability of SWM systems in high-income countries
to evolve to the far from ideal states they are currently in (Coffey
and Coad, 2010). Wilson (2007) describes the impracticality of current expectations for developing country SWM systems: If there is
one key lesson that I have learned from 30 years in waste management, it is that there are no quick xes. All developed countries
have evolved their current systems in a series of steps; developing
countries can benet from that experience, but to expect to move
from uncontrolled dumping to a modern waste management system in one great leap is just not realistic (Wilson, 2007, p. 205).
Approaches developed to handle the complexity of specic
developing country contexts, particularly at the nexus of eco-social
systems, could contribute substantially to solid waste management research and decision-making in developing country contexts. Thus, there is a need for new approaches emerging from
the interface of SWM, post-normal science, and complex-adaptive
systems research as the bleak state of SWM systems in many
developing regions continues to threaten and degrade the health
of the most vulnerable human populations and the ecosystems
they are a part of. While systems thinking has played a role in technically-focused SWM research, predominantly in developed countries, solid waste researchers and decision-makers will need to
adopt a strongly participatory, contextually grounded complex,
adaptive systems perspective if any real progress is to be made
in the SWM practices of the developing world.
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