Also known as “open dumps,” dumpsites are land disposal sites that collect indiscriminate deposits of solid waste of many kinds and from many sources. Unlike landfills, which are carefully controlled and have health and environmental measures in place, dumpsites involve little or no governance and protection measures. Incoming waste is not controlled or recorded, deposited waste is not covered or compacted, and the exposed waste which fills the dumpsite is a significant hazard due to leached chemicals and toxic gases that are released through the common dumpsite practice of open burning.
As a result of all these factors, it is clear that dumpsites pose a significant threat to human and environmental health, and when the prevalence of dumpsites is considered—they receive about 40% of the world’s waste and serve 3 to 4 billion people—it is no exaggeration to call them, as the International Solid Waste Association does, a “global emergency”
In order to address this state of emergency, the ISWA recently released its “Roadmap for Closing Waste Dumpsites,” a comprehensive report that serves as a vital first step toward creating a global movement for closing down scores of dumpsites in some of the world’s most polluted places. While recognizing that closing down a dumpsite is a difficult task that has many barriers, the report nevertheless emphasizes the importance of doing so and highlights the many benefits that can result from dumpsite closures. Specifically, the report makes the connection between closing dumpsites and contributing to the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were created in early 2016 and which will serve as guiding principles for the activities of the United Nations Development Program over the next 15 years.
The main links between dumpsite closures and the SDGs include:
Over the years, poverty has been closely associated with environmental degradation and waste dumpsites, which are often located in urban settings near poor residential areas.
Ensuring good health and well-being
According to the World Health Organization, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, and the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution, 8.9 million deaths occurred in 2012 as a result of exposure to polluted air, water, and soil. Of these deaths, 8.4 million occurred in low- and middle-income countries, where dumpsites are all too prevalent. Furthermore, the slums where many dumpsites are located are home to one-third of the world’s urban population, meaning that the reach of dumpsites and the health hazards they bring are extensive.
Ensuring quality education
The toxins found in and around dumpsites are not only a health hazard, but they can also result in long-term learning difficulties due to mental and physical impairment. Lead exposure, for example, which is a common effect of prolonged proximity to a dumpsite, contributes to serious neurological difficulties in children.
Ensuring clean water and sanitation
Pollution from dumpsites can seriously compromise groundwater in the area. Hazardous pollutants such as lead and mercury, cadmium, pesticides such as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), and certain industrial chemicals can all find their way into groundwater, and consequently into an area’s water supply, from dumpsites.
Promoting decent work and economic growth
Millions of informal recyclers are working in precarious and dangerous conditions in dumpsites all over the world. If dumpsites are closed and replaced by better regulated and managed alternatives, these recyclers will have the opportunity to become involved in a more inclusive and supportive employment system.
Building resilient infrastructure and promoting sustainable industrialization
Frequently located on or near the coast, many of the developing world’s dumpsites are particularly vulnerable to the effects of rising sea levels that are expected to occur as a result of climate change. In addition, fires frequently occur in and around dumpsites with often catastrophic consequences. Replacing these dumpsites with a sound waste management system will greatly improve this infrastructure and contribute to the increased resilience of urban areas.
Reducing inequality among and within countries
A key reason why dumpsites are so prevalent is that many countries lack the necessary resources and structures to close and replace them with alternatives that protect human and environmental health. A strong effort from the international community to aid with these closures will go a long way toward diminishing inequalities between developed and developing nations.
Promoting responsible production and consumption
Dumpsites are the very picture of our current unsustainable cycle of consumption and production. Currently estimated at 1.3 billion tons per year, urban waste generation is expected to increase to 2.2 billion tons per year by 2025. If we continue to allow this waste to be casually disposed of in open dumps, it is clear that capacity will quickly be overwhelmed and that environmental degradation will become dangerously accelerated.
Promote conservation and the sustainability of oceans, seas, and marine resources
Plastic pollution is a significant problem for our oceans, and dumpsites are a major contributor given that so many of them are located near coasts or other waterways.