Amman's Garbage Problem
Urban Crossroads #98

                                                                             Communal garbage containers in Amman, Jordan.

There are numerous parallels between how managing traffic and managing garbage collection have developed in Amman. Up to the late 1970s, when Amman had a relatively-small population of a few hundred thousand people, these two aspects of urban life functioned reasonably well, but as the city’s population increased to its present level of almost three million inhabitants, they have come under considerable stress and consequently need to be thoroughly reconfigured. The amount of traffic and the amount of garbage that Amman now generates are both beyond its existing handling capacity.

In the case of traffic, public transportation was an integral component of movement in Amman until the 1970s, but since then, the city gave way to the domination of the private automobile, and the city’s expanding street system has developed in a manner that emphasized accommodating the primacy of the automobile, while the quality of public transportation deteriorated. As the city grew, the number of automobiles in it grew at an even faster rate, partly as a result of increasing affluence and partly because of a lack of suitable alternative transportation options, and the city’s street system eventually reached its present condition of over-saturation. Only very recently has a consensus emerged that developing a well-functioning, efficient, and comprehensive public transportation system for Amman is an absolute and urgent necessity.

In the case of garbage collection, or what is referred to more elegantly as “solid waste management,” a parallel, though not necessarily synchronic, process of evolution has taken place. A reasonably efficient, well-working system that depended on collecting garbage from individual properties had been put in place in Amman in the 1970s, and that system continued to function rather well into the 1990s.

As the city’s population grew, a new but far less adequate system of garbage collection was introduced. Instead of collecting garbage from individual properties, the Greater Amman Municipality (GAM) placed large communal garbage containers in each neighborhood. Residents would place their garbage in those communal containers and GAM would empty them on a regular basis. Initially, when Amman had an abundance of empty plots, these communal containers ended up being placed in those empty plots, which in any case are usually littered with waste and building debris, so one simply blocked them out, both visually and mentally.

As many of Amman’s empty plots began to be built up over the past decade or so, the communal garbage containers migrated to the city’s sidewalks, where they have become an overwhelming source of visual blight. Residents continuously move them away from their properties and place them next to their neighbors’ properties, as if engaging in an unpleasant and never-ending game of musical chairs.

To give an indication of how dire the situation has become, I didn’t even have to look hard to take the photograph accompanying this article. It is a view of the sidewalk along our family house. We had painstakingly built the sidewalk as well as planted and tended its trees, but it is now occupied by an open communal dumping area. Interestingly enough, we don’t even use these garbage containers placed along our sidewalk. We still use the sturdy plastic container that GAM made available to individual households back in the 1970s, and GAM’s cleaning crew continues to empty it from our property on a regular basis.

Before venturing to suggest possible solutions to the increasing challenges facing solid waste management in Amman, let me provide a few relevant statistics. According to a report that the World Bank published last year (the report may be downloaded from the World Bank’s web site), 731,500 tons of solid waste were collected in Amman in 2007. The collection costs for GAM amount to 30 JD per ton, which translates to a total of about 22 million JD per year. This sum includes items such as salaries; buying, maintaining, and replacing machinery and trucks; and fuel. It is estimated that GAM retrieves about % 63 of this total cost through a special garbage collection tax that is added to electricity bills, but subsidizes the remaining 8 million JD from its other revenues.

The report estimates that each of Amman’s residents generates about 0.9 kilograms of solid waste each day. This is slightly less than half of the per capita amount of about 2 kilograms produced in the United States, which is the highest in the world; but it is still sizable, particularly within the context of a middle-income country. The good news is that so much of that solid waste is recyclable. Paper and cardboard products, which are among the easiest and economically most feasible waste items to recycle, alone take up about one third of the volume of the solid waste produced. In fact, as a result of recycling, garbage is increasingly being viewed as a resource that can generate income rather than merely being a financial, hygienic, and environmental liability that requires considerable resources for collection and disposal.

Over the years, I have lived in cities where residents are required to separate their solid waste for recycling, and in cities where they are not. It has been my experience that the amount of solid waste that a household produces when no recycling takes place is more than three times the amount produced when a recycling policy is implemented, and items such as paper, cardboard, glass, metal, plastics, and garden clippings are separated and placed in different containers. In some cities, residents are even asked to separate food scraps, which are composted for use as fertilizer for public green areas, thus leaving almost nothing that goes into the “garbage.”

It is impressive to what extent waste generation can be controlled when necessity arises. One example is the small affluent island town of Nantucket in the state of Massachusetts in the northeastern United States. The popular summer resort town, which is separated from the Massachusetts coast by about 50 kilometers of water, has very little space to use for landfills, and its existing landfills are quickly reaching full capacity. Shipping solid waste across the water to the mainland is a very expensive option. The town therefore has instituted a strict recycling policy according to which most of the solid waste generated has to be sent to a recycling center rather than going to landfills. As a result, only 8% of Nantucket’s solid waste ends up in landfills, and the rest is recycled. In contrast, 66% of solid waste in the other parts of Massachusetts is sent to landfills.

To return to Amman, the issue of solid waste management should become as important a subject of debate in the city as is its traffic congestion problems. Solid waste management is no less critical to the city’s well-being than its traffic, but it is easier to resolve. It unfortunately has been somewhat neglected in recent years, but is beginning to attract some attention as more and more people are faced with large piles of garbage next to their properties, providing for very unpleasant and potentially unhygienic conditions.

Any solution to Amman’s solid waste management problems will depend on two components. The first is to return to Amman’s previous system of only collecting solid waste from individual residential or commercial properties rather than from the large garbage containers that basically function as open dumping grounds. This will bring about a dramatic improvement to the cleanliness of Amman’s streets as each household or commercial property will be responsible for storing its own solid waste until it is collected. Admittedly, this will require the city’s garbage collection fleets to make more stops along their routes, but it also will result in considerable savings on fuel, since rather than having to collect garbage from locations throughout the city on a daily basis (which is proving to not even be enough) garbage will only need to be collected from most locations once a week.

The second component is recycling. This will greatly reduce the amount of “dirty” garbage being produced; it will have tremendous environmental benefits, particularly in terms of relieving pressure on landfills; and it will transform garbage collection from an expense to an income-generating activity that should more than adequately cover GAM’s garbage collection deficit. Furthermore, the option of privatizing solid waste management should be seriously considered as the private sector has generally proven to be more suitable as a service provider than the public sector, which should ideally concentrate on the role of regulator.

The first component is somewhat easier to accomplish. It does require a rethinking of the logistics of how solid waste is collected, but this is primarily an administrative issue. The second component is more difficult to accomplish as it not only requires changes in logistics, but also requires a complete shift in the attitudes of the city’s residents concerning garbage. Households will no longer be able to simply place their garbage in plastic bags and toss them in (or near) their neighborhood’s communal garbage containers. They instead will need to separate the garbage they produce into categories and put each category in a separate container. This will require them to exercise a higher level of civic responsibility, one that no healthy city can do without.

Mohammad al-Asad

November 05, 2009