Approaching Urban Waste Management Through a Resilience Lens

Written by Resilient Cities Network
Thursday, 19 August 2021


Cities are home to over half of the global population and account for nearly three quarters of global greenhouse gas emissions, which means no climate target can be met without a deep transformation of urban centers across the globe towards a more inclusive, sustainable and, ultimately, resilient path. Accordingly, the recently published IPCC Report on Climate Change 2021: the Physical Sciences Basis has described unprecedented changes all over the world regarding the whole climate system, and how cities can intensify human induced warming, increasing the risks of rising water levels, droughts, and other disasters. It is estimated that without urgent action, particularly in cities, these climate impacts could push an additional 100 million people into poverty by 2030, according to the World Bank. It is clear that rapid urbanization, climate change and globalization have helped unfold and shape vulnerabilities globally, shedding light on the interrelated challenges of environmental, social, and economic inequalities.  

To break down the complexity of these interconnected challenges, we take a deep dive on urban waste management systems. Historically, waste management has been a key concern for local authorities, particularly because of its health and environmental implications. Today, there is an understanding that waste management is a systemic challenge with numerous implications, including economic development, social and economic inequalities, community engagement, marine pollution, and many other aspects that shape the urban ecosystem. These implications are constantly evolving, according to the World Bank report What a Waste 2.0: A Global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050, cities have limited adequate and suitable systems to cope with changes in the waste disposed. Therefore, Resilient Cities Network, as part of the Urban Ocean Program, has selected case studies from the participating cities that highlight the diversity of city solutions to waste management that incorporates a resilience perspective and yields multiple benefits to the urban system as a whole. 

Why Chose a Resilience Lens

Approaching waste management from a resilience perspective – understood as the capacity of a city’s systems, businesses, institutions, communities, and individuals to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience – can support decision-makers in balancing the negative and the positive impacts of their waste management system. City stakeholders often underestimate the negative impact of mismanaged waste. For instance, plastic waste blocking waterways increases the intensity of flooding, which, in turn, may spread waterborne diseases and/or lead to landslides in already disaster-prone areas. Another example is the harmful toxins coming from waste incineration that can increase air pollution and decrease health prospects for the population. These negative consequences are usually not taken into consideration when developing waste management programs. 

It demonstrates how, at the same time, an inadequate waste management system can contribute to deepening inequalities and vulnerabilities of urban communities and economies while exacerbating the risks from shocks and stresses the city faces.  Building systems that integrate flexibility and inclusiveness can strengthen the city’s response when facing a disruption. For instance, recently, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated plastic pollution mostly because of delivery packaging and personal protective equipment, such as masks and plastic gloves. However, some cities have prompted their citizens, businesses, and governments to find alternative materials, increased recycling capacity, etc. It demonstrates the limitations and possibilities of interconnected systems. The pandemic has also reinforced the necessity to leverage resources and investments to produce multiple benefits, enhancing the city’s capacity to face risks and overcome long-lasting challenges. 

How to Bring a Resilience Lens

The Resilient Cities Network, as part of the Urban Ocean Program, has selected seven case studies that demonstrate how waste management solutions can support cities in building resilience. These case studies show the breadth of drivers of a resilient waste management system: from bolstering the rights of informal waste workers, educating youth on the 3R concept and community waste banks to optimizing collection systems, reducing food waste, and promoting eco-friendly packaging materials. While none of these initiatives should be seen as a standalone, silver bullet solution to resilient waste management, each makes an important contribution to the broader system. Addressing waste management not only solves pollution or plastic leakage issues but also creates valuable co-benefits for cities in terms of climate, health, jobs, and many other aspects. Therefore, we have documented three preliminary best practices for building resilience through local waste management actions:

Leveraging local knowledge 

Recognizing the importance of the local context and knowledge is key for building resilience. For instance, Con Son has understood its identity and potential as an ecotourism destination and developed a program to reintroduce natural local products as packaging material. Building on citizens’ engagement and understanding of the local possibilities, the program provided a platform for them to test ideas and businesses that used local products as alternatives to plastic. Market penetration and product acceptance have higher chances of success when citizens are engaged, and local knowledge is leveraged. At the same time, in Semarang, the waste banks are community-driven solutions for enhancing 3R practices and increasing the financial value of recycling. Building on a very local scale, these banks are rooted in community engagement and understanding local needs. 

Leveraging partnerships

The waste management system is complex; therefore, solutions are also complex and require multiple stakeholders. For instance, Toyama has developed an 18-hectare Eco-Town, an industrial park that includes seven waste-to-useable private companies, with the support of the national government. The Eco-Town program helps to create a more recycling-oriented society and showcase new recycling technologies. This was only possible with the support of the national government and engagement with the private sector. At the same time, Milan has developed a Food Policy in which it aims to improve the food system while reducing waste, tackling climate change, and supporting its planning capacity. One of the key pilots was developed together with academic partners, supermarkets, businesses, and company canteens to collect and redistribute food waste at the community level. Finally, the innovative pro-poor public-private partnership in Pune, the SWaCH, has strengthened the position of informal workers and integrated them into the cooperative, creating a more sustainable and efficient solid waste management system.

Leveraging infrastructure

Adequate infrastructure is key to any waste management system, but it can also promote benefits beyond quality and efficiency. For instance, in Panamá City, an NGO called Marea Verde has deployed a trash trap in one of the most contaminated rivers while addressing gender and technological gaps in the communities living along the river. The City of Rotterdam has developed an underground container system serving as a temporary waste storage facility until collection to improve the health conditions of the waste workers and enhance the quality of the city’s public spaces. 

For more information on the Urban Ocean Program, as well as these seven select case studies visit our webpage

Popular Topics

Related Articles

Climate Emergency: Cities Must Take The Lead 

Climate Emergency: Cities Must Take The Lead 

There is no time to wait, and cities must show that they can tackle the worsening impacts of climate change, argue the mayors of Glasgow, Susan Aitken, and Rio de Janeiro, Eduardo Paes, convened by the Resilient Cities Network to write this opinion piece.  The...

Press Contacts


Lynette Lim

New York City

Thomas Halaczinsky

Mexico City

Fabiola Guillen


Isabel Parra

You may also be interested in

Subscribe to our newsletter

Stat updated on last news and events from us