Tragedy in Ethiopia: zero waste could have saved recyclers´ lives

GAIA, March 15th, 2017. More than 70 recyclers were killed and others are still missing after the collapse of tons of waste at the Koshe landfill of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, last Saturday. The landfill has been receiving waste from the Ethiopian capital for more than 50 years — though for more than 7 years they have been aware about the inability of the landfill to continue operating.
This tragedy is the latest in a long list of accidents caused by the operation of landfills and incinerators, and a clear signal that something drastic needs to change. Currently, construction is underway for a waste burning incinerator. Yet like landfills, incinerators are highly prone to fires, accidents, and pollution that is hazardous to human health.  If authorities proceed with the construction of an incinerator or any other technology that tries to handle an ever-increasing amount of waste, they have missed an important lesson from this tragedy when it comes to waste: the only way to protect life and health is to reduce the waste we generate and invest in zero waste strategies.

In the Global South, recyclers are working to expand their materials recovery activities, and there are hundreds of successful collaborative stories between recyclers’ cooperatives and local institutions. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Addis Ababa.
Since identifying the problem of waste in the city, valuable years were lost during which zero waste systems could have been implemented, as well as programs that would have dignified and improved safety for recyclers. The pressure of local authorities to close the 50 year old landfill and build a multi-million waste-to-energy facility came at the expense of the living-wage of waste pickers, who lost their only income source when the incinerator began construction.

Negotiations that ended in the approval of an incinerator that has taken years to be built, which is not yet in operation, and aims to burn 80% of waste, at an investment cost of millions of dollars. Instead of these technologies — plagued by failures around the world — the city could be investing in education and diffusion programs for recycling and composting with the incorporation of recyclers who, left to their fate, today are buried under the waste the city tried to hide.

While the operation of advanced systems of material recovery managed by municipalities is common in industrialized countries, in the Global South most recyclers are self-employed, mainly in the informal economy, and recover reusable and recyclable items. In this way, recycling provides livelihoods to 15 million people worldwide – 1% of the population in the Global South.

Spanish version – Versión en Español