Hesperian Health Guides

A Community Solid Waste Program

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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 18: Solid Waste: Turning a Health Risk into a Resource > A Community Solid Waste Program

A man speaks.
Not all communities will be able to take all of these steps, especially at the beginning.

Once a community has a shared understanding of the problems caused by waste, it can take steps to solve these problems, starting with projects that best meet the community’s needs and abilities.

A complete community solid waste program would include all of these steps (find more about each step on the next few pages):

  • Reduce the amount of waste created, especially toxic products and products that cannot be recycled.
  • Separate wastes where they are made to make them easier and safer to handle.
A woman speaks.
Consider people’s needs and abilities, and begin with what you can achieve together in the short term.
  • Compost food scraps and other organic wastes.
  • Reuse materials whenever possible.
  • Recycle materials and organize for government and industry to develop community recycling programs.
  • Collect, transport, and store wastes safely. Respect and pay fair wages to the people who do this work.
  • Safely dispose of all wastes that cannot be reused or recycled.

Reducing waste

Waste that ends up in our streets, homes, and fields begins with the industrial manufacturing of products that cannot be reused or recycled. One goal of a community waste program is to reduce waste over the long term by helping people use less of the materials that become waste in the first place. Some ways to reduce waste are:

  • not buying products wrapped in a lot of packaging materials.
  • choosing glass and cardboard over plastic and metal.
  • using your own shopping bag or basket, and refusing plastic bags at the store.
  • buying food in larger quantities to reduce the amount of packaging you bring home.
  • repairing or reusing what you can and buying second hand products when possible.

A woman holds her head in dismay as she unpacks a fan from a box filled with packaging material.

Communities can work with shop owners and local governments to prevent materials that cause disposal or health problems from entering the community in the first place. Community organizing can pressure governments to make laws that force businesses to reduce their waste and to take responsibility for the wastes they create.

Banning plastic bags

Outside the village of Emmonak in Alaska, plastic shopping bags often escaped from the town landfill and were carried by the wind. In the nearby town of Galena, they got stuck in trees or drifted into the nearby Yukon River. By Kotlik, where the river runs into the sea, plastic bags were found wrapped around dead seals and salmon.

Since the 3 villages banned plastic bags in 1998, this no longer happens. Following these villages, 30 other communities around the state of Alaska banned plastic bags, and the ban is growing. In towns and villages, people are encouraged to use paper bags or to carry cloth bags that can be used over and over, for years.

People work with used plastic bags as a youth shows them his backpack.

As part of the campaign against plastic waste in Alaska, the State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Yukon River Inter-tribal Watershed Council began a program to teach people how to reuse the plastic bags by making them into other things. Now people cut the bags in strips and weave them into backpacks, handbags, doormats, baskets, and other useful items. They even sell them, making money from things that once clogged the sewers and littered the roads.

Separate wastes at the source

Keeping food wastes from mixing with paper wastes or glass, and so on, makes it easier to reuse, recycle, and get rid of materials, and helps prevent the health problems caused by mixed waste. Separating waste is the first step in better waste management, though it only solves the problem if there is a good way to deal with waste after it has been separated. Waste separation is part of a system that includes reuse, composting, regular collection, recycling, and safe disposal.

Ways to separate wastes

The biggest part of the waste produced in both urban and rural areas is organic or wet waste (food scraps and garden wastes such as dead plants and leaves). Organic waste is broken down by sunlight and water, or eaten by living things (worms, insects, and bacteria), and turned into compost.

There is usually a lot of paper, glass, metals, and plastics in waste. A large part of this waste is discarded packaging. Household waste may also include toxic materials such as paint, batteries, plastic diapers (nappies), motor oil, and old pesticides and cleaning product containers.

Separation into 2 types of waste

Wet waste
Organic waste in a trashcan.
Bottles and newspapers.
Dry wastes are sorted
and reused, recycled,
or sent to a landfill
Separation into 3 or more types of waste
A box with worms in it.
Bottles, cans and paper.
Containers labelled with a skull and crossbones and an X.
Wet waste becomes compost Dry, reusable, and recyclable materials are sorted and reused, recycled, or sent to a landfill Toxic waste needs special handling and disposal

Who is responsible for separating waste?

Waste can be separated by the households and businesses that produce it, or by the people who collect it. Whatever system your community uses to separate and collect waste for reuse, recycling, or disposal, it is important for those who do the work to be respected and paid for their efforts.

Collectors may earn money by separating out and selling the more valuable items and by bringing the rest of the separated waste to a recycling center. Some collectors pay householders a small amount for separated waste, or charge a small fee for collecting waste that is not separated.

If waste is separated at home, dry material may be kept in containers indoors until they are collected. Containers for wet waste can be kept outside and made into garden compost at home, or can be collected by a neighborhood compost project.

People pick through trash at a dump.
Separating wastes after they go to a dump is dangerous and less effective than sorting them at the household or business.
A woman empties a bucket into a compost container.
Good, finished compost smells good and feels soft like dark, rich forest soil.

Making compost: Changing organic waste to fertilizer

Because organic matter is usually the largest part of most waste, separating and composting food scraps helps reduce waste a great deal. Adding compost to the soil is a way of adding crop nutrients back to the earth.

The best way to make compost depends on the amount of space available. Small amounts of compost can be made in containers in each household or business. Larger composting sites can be set up in towns and cities and on farms where there is space for larger waste piles. (See “Compost can be used in many ways.”)

How to compost with earthworms

EHB Ch18 Page 400-2.png
A worm box can be
very simple…
EHB Ch18 Page 400-3.png
…or more complicated.

Earthworms are one of nature’s best composters. A small box with healthy earthworms will eat household food wastes and turn the waste into rich soil for your garden. A worm box provides a way to compost food scraps when you have no land for a compost pile.

  1. Make holes in the bottom of a wooden or plastic box to let air in, and water and soil out.
  2. Place a second box or tray under the box with holes. This will collect the rich soil the worms make.
  3. Fill the top box with shredded paper, straw, and food scraps. Get a good shovelful of worms from a gardening center or a farmer, and put them in this box.
  4. Add food scraps often and keep the box damp but not too wet. Cover the top to protect the worms from sunlight.

    As the worms eat what you put in the box, they make rich soil, and the worm colony grows. Some worms may drop down into the lower box or tray. Just put them back into the top, or add them to your garden with the new soil.

Community composting and recycling

Porto Novo, the capital of Benin, once had heaps of trash as tall as 4-story buildings rotting in the streets. As you can imagine, this caused many health problems. And the terrible smell made it an unpleasant place to live. Some people decided to start a composting center to change the waste into useful fertilizer.

With funding from a social service organization, they found a large site to set up a recycling and compost plant. A French organization provided the Porto Novo group with a tractor and 2 trailers. They parked the trailers near the train station and a football stadium, and encouraged people to put their trash in them. Now, every evening the tractor tows the trailers full of waste to the recycling center where young people sort the trash.

Organic waste is thrown in pits and covered with palm leaves to make compost. The compost “cooks” check the humidity, air flow, and heat regularly to make sure the waste decays quickly. After 2 months, the compost is ready for use.

Some young people from the project began to use the compost for market gardening. With funds from the United Nations Development Programme, the center bought seeds and land to grow crops. In this region of Benin, the soil has never been rich and has become poorer due to overuse. But with their compost to enrich the soil, the young gardeners are able to grow nutritious, fresh vegetables. Villagers also buy the compost to fertilize their own gardens.

The money the compost center earns from selling vegetables and compost is used to buy more equipment and hire more unemployed youth to work as waste sorters and market gardeners. In this way, the project supports itself and continues to grow.

How to make slow compost

This way of making compost requires little space and little work, and produces compost in about 6 months.

  1. Dig a hole in the ground 60 cm by 60 cm wide and 1 meter deep.
  2. Put a mix of dry and wet organic waste in the hole.
  3. Cover every 20 cm depth of organic material with 3 cm soil and add water to keep it damp (just moist, not soaked).
  4. Cover the hole to keep the rain out. After a week, the compost should start to break down. The pile of waste will heat up and shrink as it breaks down.

How to make fast compost

This is a way to produce a lot of compost in 1 to 4 months, if you have a large open space.

EHB Ch18 Page 402-1.png

  1. Choose a flat area 1½ meters wide by 4 meters long. Mark the area with stakes. Loosen the soil to a depth of 30 cm. This will help the compost pile drain, and help worms enter the pile and break down wastes. If the soil is very dry, water it.
  2. EHB Ch18 Page 402-2.png

  3. Find 2 big sticks about as tall as a tall man. Put them upright in the middle of the loosened earth. Do not sink them too far down, because later you will take them out.

  4. EHB Ch18 Page 402-3.png

  5. Mark lines on the posts at 20 cm from the ground, then 5 cm above that, then 2 cm above that. Repeat these marks 7 or 8 times until the whole post is marked with measuring lines.

  6. EHB Ch18 Page 402-4.png

  7. Make a pile of food and plant wastes (a mix of dry and wet materials is best) up to the 20 cm mark on the sticks. The pile should cover the entire area of loosened earth and be of an even height. If it is very dry add water until it is moist, but not soaked.
  8. EHB Ch18 Page 402-5.png
  9. Put a layer of animal manure up to the next line (5 cm). Fresh manure is best because it is hot and will help the compost break down quickly. On top of the manure, add a layer of soil up to the next mark (2 cm). Continue building up layers in this order as organic material becomes available. Add a little water to each layer so the entire pile will be damp. Over time you can build the pile up to a height of 2 meters or so. Then cover the entire pile with a layer of soil, and wet it more.
  10. EHB Ch18 Page 402-6.png

  11. After 2 days, remove the sticks. This will leave wide holes for air to enter the pile and help it break down. After 3 weeks, turn and mix the pile with a shovel. Do this again every week or so. The more you turn it, the faster it will break down. The pile will heat up and shrink as it breaks down. After 1 to 4 months, the pile should turn into sweet smelling, dark, fertile soil.

To know if the compost is working

No matter which method you use, there are ways to know if your waste is becoming good compost and not just a big, stinky mess.

  • To break down, compost needs both wet waste like food scraps and dry waste like straw, brown leaves, husks, or shredded paper. If the pile remains a pile of rotting food rather than heating up and turning to soil, it may need more dry, brown plant matter.
Heat rises from a compost pile.
A working compost pile heats up as the waste breaks down.
  • If the pile smells bad or does not shrink, it needs more air. Turn the pile with a shovel or open holes by poking sticks into it.
  • If the pile does not heat up, it could be from too much or too little water. Turn the pile with a shovel. If it is very dry, add more water. If it is very wet, add less water. Covering the pile with a black plastic sheet will also help it stay warm.
  • If the compost has ants, add water.
  • If it attracts flies, it needs to be covered better with soil.

After a while the compost should turn into sweet smelling, rich black soil. (To learn how to use compost on plants, see “Compost can be used in many ways.”)

What cannot go into the compost?

Batteries, a bone, cans and bottles with a line drawn through them.
Do not put these things in the compost.

People have different ideas about what makes good compost and what does not. For example, some people keep meat scraps or paper out. Many people agree that manure from horses and cattle is good for compost, but feces from dogs and cats are not.

Large branches or very thick leaves will break down too slowly. If paper or cardboard are added, it is best if they are shredded and kept damp so they break down more easily. Meat, bones, and greasy kitchen waste attract pests and break down very slowly.

Some things are never good for compost. Plastic, metal, glass, and anything else that is not directly from the earth will not break down. Plants that poison people or other plants, like castor bean and eucalyptus, will not make good fertilizer.

Reuse what you can

One person’s trash is often useful to someone else. All over the world, people save money and protect the environment by inventing methods to safely reuse discarded materials.

From tires, make sandals, buckets, and planters.

From tin cans, make lamps, planters, and candle holders.

From waxed food containers, make shopping bags.

From coconut shells, make cups, forks, and spoons.

From banana tree leaves, make plates and bowls.

EHB Ch18 Page 404-1.png
Many new products are easily made by reusing discarded wastes.

From scrap metal, make stoves, lamps, and art.

Paper can be shredded and compacted for home insulation or to make briquettes for burning.

Sawdust can be used in composting, in dry toilets, or pressed into briquettes with manure and other dry organic matter and burned as fuel.

Recycling turns waste into a resource

An arrow points from aluminum cans to a TV.
Recycling just one 6-pack of aluminum cans saves enough energy to power a TV for 18 hours!

Recycling takes products that are no longer useful and turns them into source materials to make new, useful products. Recycling some materials (such as metals and rubber) must be done in factories. Other materials, such as paper and glass, require less equipment and space and can be recycled in small workshops or people’s homes.

Recycling is an important way to reduce waste. But recycling requires support from government and industry, as well as a commitment by communities and people. If there is no market for recycled products, or if they are not recycled safely, recycling is no solution at all.

Recycling reduces waste by changing it into new products, and also saves energy used in manufacturing. For example, it takes ⅔ less energy to recycle paper than to make new paper, or to make steel from scrap metal rather than raw ore. Making aluminum from scrap takes a tiny amount of the energy it takes to make aluminum from raw bauxite ore.

A chirping bird speaks.
Recycling preserves resources you and I need to live!


  • reduces the amount of solid waste polluting our environment.
  • reduces the amount of solid waste in need of disposal, saving space and money.
  • reduces resource use by using the resources more than once.
  • helps the local and national economy because fewer raw materials need to be imported.
  • provides jobs.

What materials can be recycled?

The materials that can be recycled depend on the local recycling industry.

Glass is made from sand, soda ash, and lime. When disposed of, it wears down but does not break down into its source materials again. To recycle glass, it is sorted by color, melted into a liquid, and shaped into new containers. Some glass is also recycled into materials used in roads or buildings. Many glass products such as bottles can be washed and reused without being recycled.
Aluminum is made from a metal ore called bauxite that is mined from the earth. It does not break down to its original ore, but gets worn down like glass. Aluminum is recycled by melting and reshaping it into new cans and other things.
Tin coated steel cans, such as soup and fruit cans, are recycled by separating the tin from the steel. The steel and tin are then washed and sold to make more cans or other products.
Rubber is made from natural tree resin and petroleum. Rubber is sometimes recycled by melting or chipping it and remolding it into new things.
Paper is made from wood, cotton, and other plants with strong fibers. Paper is one of the few materials that can be recycled into itself again. Commercial paper is often recycled in industrial plants. Paper can also be recycled by hand to produce beautiful paper products for the home and for sale.
Products that contain toxic materials, such as computers, batteries, electronics, paints, solvents and pesticides, and the containers that store them, need careful handling so recycling workers are not exposed to toxic chemicals. Some of these products cannot be recycled at all, which is why it is better to produce fewer of them in the first place.

A 3 arrow recycling symbol where one arrow is misdirected by a plastic bottle.

The problem with recycling plastics

When plastic is recycled, its quality decreases. A plastic bottle is not recycled to make another plastic bottle, but something of lesser quality. Plastic can be recycled only a few times before it can no longer be used.

Recycling some plastics releases toxic gas that is harmful to workers and communities. And a lot of plastic intended for recycling ends up being dumped in landfills. This is why it is best to use as little plastic as possible.

Waste collection, transport, and storage

If your community does not have a reliable waste collection service, you can organize one with the help of local government and businesses. As you make plans, keep in mind what will be collected and whether it will be taken for resale to larger recycling businesses or to a community recycling program.

The less distance your waste travels the better. But many communities are not able to recycle waste locally, so other solutions must be found.

Ways to prepare waste

The way waste is prepared for collection, transport, and storage depends on how much space you have, who will do the work, who will buy the discards, and what they will be used for. To prevent bad smells and spreading germs, materials should be cleaned, dried, and flattened or stacked to take up as little space as possible and to reduce the possibility of accidents.

Computers, radios, and televisions contain many sellable and recyclable parts, but much of what they contain is toxic. These materials are best taken apart after receiving training for each product, and using protective safety gear and good ventilation. All toxic materials’ containers need special handling.

Health and safety for waste collectors

Waste collectors are at risk for all the health problems that come with waste. To prevent harm, waste collectors need training in how to prevent health problems and where to go for treatment if problems do arise.

If waste collectors organize into cooperatives or small businesses, it may be easier to pool resources, provide training, and gain government or other community support to purchase safety equipment and make the work as safe as possible.

Illustration of the below: A woman loads a bag into a tricycle cart which a man pedals.
Waste cart
Face masks
Closed shoes
A man speaks by a wheelbarrow full of objects.
Some of this trash is useful… but I don’t know who could use it!

Starting a community resource recovery center

A resource recovery center is a place where reusable and recyclable materials are collected for sale or reuse. It can also be a place to start a community composting project and market garden, make new products from old materials, and exchange goods such as clothing, curtains, appliances, furniture, shoes, glass bottles, pots, utensils, building materials, and so forth.

People sort trash and recyclables into areas marked "for exchange' "Free materials" "Paper" and "Glass and metal."
People working together make a community a beautiful place to live.
Resource recovery centers

Several communities in the Philippines have resource recovery centers set up by local governments and an organization called Mother Earth Foundation. These resource recovery centers have inspired community solid waste programs throughout the country, and have helped change the entire system of waste management.

Households are encouraged to separate their wastes and to clean the materials that can be reused and recycled. Some communities passed a law to reduce bad smells by preventing people from piling wastes outside.

People keep organic wastes in closed containers in the house or carry them to compost bins set up throughout the community. Every day, workers from the resource recovery center travel through the communities on 3-wheeled carts to collect organic wastes, recyclables, and wastes to be discarded. Sometimes people are paid for their recyclables. Everything is brought to the resource recovery center, which has 2 main parts:

  • an ecology garden, where organic matter is composted and used to grow vegetables for sale to the community.
  • an eco-shed or warehouse, where clean recyclables are stored before being sold to junk shops, recycling companies, or factories.
Bags made of labels.

Some centers also provide work areas where people make new products out of old materials. Juice cartons are flattened and sewn together to make carrying bags. Glass bottles are shaped into drinking glasses. Old newspapers are shredded and woven together to make baskets and bags that are covered with clear glue or resin to make them stiff and durable. These things are sold to provide income for the people who made them and to pay for the costs of running the resource recovery centers.

The centers have dramatically reduced the amount of trash in their communities. Rather than living with smelly piles of waste, people now earn extra income from reused and recycled materials, and produce more vegetables using composted food waste.