Where Should All the Garbage Go?
Urban Crossroads #63

The motor vehicle dominates Amman's transportation network. (Siba al-Shouli)

The motor vehicle dominates Amman's transportation network. (Siba al-Shouli)

Although garbage does not make for a glamorous topic of discussion, it should never be underestimated. Definitely, no municipal official would take lightly the collection and disposal of garbage, or what is referred to as solid waste management. If properly implemented, it is a feather in his or her cap. If not, it can be a disaster of monumental proportions.

This should not be surprising. Solid waste management crosses a wide spectrum of issues that include aesthetics, hygiene, and environmental concerns. A beautiful city first and foremost has to be a clean city, and any attempts to beautify a city should begin with cleaning it up. Also, a clean city is a more hygienic city. An inadequate collection and disposal of garbage will attract rodents and insects, and very well may lead to the outbreak of disease. And, of course, the improper disposal of garbage will have disastrous environmental effects. If not disposed of properly, chemical pollutants in solid waste, such as batteries, will pollute our soils and contaminate the underground water reservoirs from which we drink. No matter how one views it, very few matters have as strong an effect on the appearance and health of the city as solid waste management.

Solid waste management is a logistically complex endeavor. It requires a sophisticated system of collection with regular schedules and carefully worked out routes, as well as a system of garbage disposal that is environmentally and economically feasible. There also is the issue of recycling. The principle behind recycling is a very simple one: garbage is conceived as a resource rather than a burden. A good part of the garbage collected can be separated into different components and sold for reasonable sums. For example, the Canadian capital of Ottawa, which has a population of about 860,000 people, earns almost eight million Canadian Dollars (over five million JD) a year from selling the recyclable garbage it collects. The city estimates that the amount easily may be increased by an additional one million if residents are more diligent about separating their garbage.

It takes two to tango, and both residents and municipal authorities have obligations to fulfill in order to improve the recycling of solid waste management. The residents of the city, who generate the garbage, need to have a sense of civic responsibility and to make every effort to separate as much as possible of their garbage.

As for the duties of municipalities, they have to put in place a recycling requirement, and to make sure it is enforced. In some countries (Switzerland and Japan are two that come to mind), if the municipal authorities suspect that a household is not separating its garbage, they would go through the garbage and punish the household with a hefty fine if it turns out to be at fault! Municipalities also need to make sure to only put the garbage that cannot be recycled in landfills. Scandals have emerged when it was discovered that while residents were required to separate their garbage, their municipalities simply dumped all the garbage back together into landfills!

What about Amman, and the other cities of Jordan? The condition of solid waste management there is far from ideal. My heart totally goes out for the ‘men in orange’ from the Amman municipality who work around the clock collecting garbage and cleaning the streets of the city. They unfortunately seem to be fighting a losing battle. As always, there is enough blame to go around. Not enough residents show an acceptable level of civic responsibility when it comes to dealing with garbage. Littering by drivers and pedestrians unfortunately is a common daily occurrence in Amman. Another very common and ugly site is the household garbage that is placed in loosely wrapped plastic shopping bags and simply left out for collection on the sidewalk, where cats claw their way into them and youths kick them open. As for recycling, this probably remains a totally alien concept to many residents of the city.

At the same time, the logistics of solid waste management in Amman leave a lot to be desired. Strict anti-littering regulations need to be put in place and to be effectively implemented. It also is unacceptable that no serious attempt has been made to develop a city-wide recycling program. And then there are the communal garbage containers found all over Amman in which residents are expected to put their garbage. These have proven to be a disaster. They are a form of visual blight and function as mini-garbage dumps littering the neighborhoods of the city. They are ugly, they smell horribly, and seem to always be filled beyond capacity.

As is the case with a number of phenomena about the urban evolution of Amman, we seem to have regressed from where we were about a quarter of a century ago, when Amman was a much smaller and more manageable city. During the late 1970s, the Amman municipality initiated an experiment of having each household place a special garbage container next to their house or apartment building. The municipality’s garbage collection crew would pick up the garbage from that container at regular intervals. This system worked far better than gathering garbage at the unsightly communal garbage containers that have overtaken Amman today.

Some would argue that the communal garbage containers mean fewer trips for garbage trucks in comparison to house-to-house pickups. However, the amount of garbage to be collected is the same in both cases. Also, rather than having to make daily pickups from the communal containers, as presently is the case, the trucks only would need to make a weekly pickup if they served each residence. In the interval, the residents should be responsible for keeping their garbage out of sight, and at the eve of the pickup day, they would place their garbage (in separate containers for recyclable and non-recyclable items) out at the edge of the sidewalk. Such a system works perfectly well in many cities around the world. A variant of it worked well in Amman before, and there is no reason for it not to work this time around. There will be a lot of experimenting, and there will be successes and failures. There will be residents who will try to abuse the system or to get around it, but every problem has as solution, and that solution will be reached through trial and error, and through examining the experiences of others.

Finally, one important step towards improving the state of solid waste management in Jordan would be to privatize the process. The private sector in Jordan on more than one occasion (the telecommunications sector is one example) has proven that it is much more capable of carrying out a number of service-oriented tasks than the public sector. A private-sector solid waste management company will know that every ton of garbage that goes into a landfill, rather than being separated for recycling, is a lost economic opportunity. Clear performance standards for private-sector solid waste management companies should be set, and certain details will need to be worked out. For example, the concession for garbage collection may be given to one company to allow it to benefit from the economies of scale, or it may be given to more than one company to create competition between them. Whatever solution is reached, private garbage collection undoubtedly will be an improvement over the present situation. It also will relieve pressure off the country’s overburdened municipalities. Privatizing solid waste management in Jordan provides one of those few instances where the goal of making profit and the public good do coincide. We might as well give it a try.

Mohammad al-Asad

December 7, 2006