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Solid waste management in Matale, Sri Lanka: a key to unlocking sustainable urban development

As the world rapidly urbanizes, city governments are preparing to manage the increasing volumes of solid waste generated by inhabitants. Ten years ago, cities were collectively managing around 0.7 billion tons of waste each year – a figure projected to grow to 2.2 billion tons by 2025 as the urban population and per capita waste generation rate increase.

Effective management of urban waste is essential for building healthy, resource-efficient and climate-friendly cities while contributing to broader global development objectives.

Solid waste management connects to many facets of the new global development agenda laid out through frameworks ranging from the Sustainable Development Goals to the Paris Agreement and the New Urban Agenda.

Through these frameworks, the world is looking to effective solid waste management as a means to reduce the environmental impact of cities and to build sustainable patterns of production and consumption – all while aiming to provide universal access to sustainable urban waste management systems and engage local communities in improving sanitation practices.

Globally, the waste sector contributes a relatively small percentage of greenhouse gas emissions – estimated to be around 3 to 5 percent of the total. However, effective management can also help mitigate emissions from other sectors and contribute substantially to global emissions reductions targets – for instance by reducing the volume of virgin materials that need to be extracted and processed or by capturing landfill gas for energy.

For sustainability-minded local leaders, solid waste management is indeed a vital issue. Mohamed Hilmy, Mayor of ICLEI Member city Matale, Sri Lanka, describes solid waste as one of the single most critical issues in his city.

Situated in the central hills of Sri Lanka, Matale has a population of just over 50,000 and a 1.5 percent annual population growth rate. This growth, along with urban expansion, is a key challenge that the city is tackling – one that has also contributed to solid waste management challenges that Mayor Hilmy cites as a priority. Around 30 to 32 tons of waste are generated in Matale each day, and generation rates are rising.

Matale has embraced the spirit of Sustainable Development Goal 6 on water and sanitation by engaging the local community in their waste management strategy. The city recognizes the residents themselves as a vital part of the waste management system, and has sought ways to ensure they are core assets in the transformation.

They created a city-wide awareness program targeting students, teachers and government officials, and launched an intensive school level effort to teach at-source waste separate practices and the three essential Rs: reduce, recycle and reuse. This initiative began as part of part of the European Union-funded SUNYA Project Towards Zero Waste in South Asia, with support from the Municipal Association of Nepal, ICLEI South Asia, the Non-State Actors Association for Waste Prevention, ARGE Müllvermeidung and the Association of Flemish Municipalities. Through this project, Matale trained over 50 teachers and 4,000 students.

Mayor Hilmy is now also setting his sights on working closely with the Central Environment Authority to continue solid waste efforts in Matale. This includes landfill improvements to avoid open dumping and prevent associated health and environmental issues.

For him, support from and coordination with the national government is vital, as is gathering new and innovative ideas from his fellow local leaders. He has been active at key global events in the past year, including Habitat III, the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development in Quito, as well as COP22, the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Marrakech. As a globally-minded mayor, he is helping to advance not only his local objectives, but also the common goals established by the global community.

Feature photo: Waste segregation bins installed put in place under the SUNYA project.