Sustainable waste management initiatives have a critical role to play in post COVID-19 West Asia

Sami Dimassi

Regional Director and Representative of the United Nations Environment Programme for West Asia (UNEP).

If someone proposed that you could create new business opportunities worth US$10 billion per year and achieve the primary sustainable development goal targets of 100 per cent municipal solid waste collection, phasing out dumpsites and implementing the 3Rs‒ “reduce,” “reuse” and “recycle”, what would you do? Act of course. Waste is a resource, do not waste it!

The countries of West Asia have been beset directly by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Among others, the unprecedented health crisis is generating additional medical waste and potentially contaminated waste such as personal protective equipement which, if not managed properly, will pose a critical threat to human health and the environment. The COVID-19 pandemic is manifesting the need for  resilient and environmentally sound waste management systems. The international community is likely to respond to the post COVID-19 opportunities that incorporates the future development of waste management in a way which encourages regional growth and development by addressing the objectives set out in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the United Nations blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.

The detrimental impact of waste on the environment is manifold. Poor management of waste contributes to biodiversity loss, and the accelerated destruction of our ecosystems on which we depend on for food, water, energy and livelihoods.

In a recently UNEP published waste management outlook, it estimated that West Asia region generates more than 60 million tons of municipal solid waste every year. Although waste generation rate vary between countries, it averages nearly 1 Kg per person per day, which is higher than the global average.  The waste treatment level is only about 11 per cent, with sanitary landfills accounted for roughly two-thirds of the treated waste. The overall deficiency in waste treatment capacity is more than 46 million tons, which includes uncollected municipal solid waste. These wastes can be turned into resources. Across the region, there is an estimated potential of US$10 billion or more in added value from new manufacturing industries that will potentially use recyclables as raw materials.

There is a need to create favourable environment for attracting investments.

The authorities often view waste management as a budget-driven service where cost savings can be made during economic downturns and increased funding provided during economic growth periods. Efforts are needed to be made to internalize the cost of waste management development within the supply chain and raise money
through utility, household, commercial and industrial waste tariffs, permitting
and licensing income.

To achieve this, waste management planners must take a truly holistic approach that not only involves the authorities and waste management businesses, but also works with a wide range of stakeholders. This requires strengthening the legal and legislative framework for waste management systems that incorporates a profound shift from the current “linear” economic model to a circular economy development model that reduces waste prior to its generation, reuses it or recycles it, returning it to the supply chain to deliver social, economic and environmental benefits.  

There is a general movement by West Asian countries in the adoption of integrated waste management practices towards a circular economic model.  The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council can afford to establish high-value integrated waste management options. However, middle income countries of West Asia such as Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria will require international assistance to establish the infrastructure, capacity and necessary capability to create opportunities that will foster further economic growth through a circular economy model.

There is an urgent need for the West Asian countries and international funders to act now and to capture this opportunity that uniquely unites the interests of the countries and the investors and above all the interests and future prospects for sustainable development and a healthy environment in West Asia and beyond. 2020 is the super year for nature and biodiversity. Indeed, World Environment Day which is celebrated annually on 5 June, sends a loud and clear message: it is time to act for nature.

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