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GTZ Waste management projects: Experience and prospects

by Dieter Mutz *

One hundred years ago, Germany's refuse disposal problems resembled those of many of today's developing countries. It is only in the last few years that refuse avoidance has taken on paramount significance, although it has to be said that this principle is still not given sufficient attention. Since the end of the 1970s, the Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) has been supporting waste management projects. In this article, Dieter Mutz summarizes the experience gained from these projects.

"Today, 99 per cent of our household rubbish is collected in specially large pits where it remains for weeks and months, begins to rot as a result of mixture with damp kitchen waste and thus provides the best pure culture for bacteria of all kinds: better than any bacteriological institute could prepare". This description, by Klinner and Welzel, characterizes the refuse problems in Germany at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. The situation they describe is comparable with that of many of today's developing countries. Today, as in Germany a century ago, countless illegal refuse tips in conurbations lead to intolerable hygienic conditions which, for example, give rise to cholera epidemics - in Peru three years ago, in Hamburg in 1892.

Furthermore, the situation of Germany's refuse collectors (rag and bone men) at the beginning of this century is comparable with that of refuse processors in Asia or Latin America in our present decade. H describes the situation at the turn of the century as follows: "Unlicensed refuse sorting and unlicensed scavenging were quite common on European refuse tips at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. Once the refuse carts had unloaded on the remote refuse tips, women would move in and carefully comb the refuse for useable articles, filling the material they had found into baskets and sacks. This work would be carried out from 6 a.m to 6 p.m, with a short break at midday. As a rule, the women would be accompanied by pigs grubbing through the refuse for food. The material they found had either to be delivered to the municipal authorities or to entrepreneurs who had a monopoly on the sorted material. At the beginning of the twentieth century, for example, a Cologne businessman paid 6000 marks annually for the right to sort through refuse. The scavengers themselves received only starvation wages for their hard work."

In Germany, the regulated collection and transport of refuse began after 1920. In the spirit of technological progress, experts concentrated first on developing improved systems for the collection and emptying of refuse bins and on the construction of refuse vehicles. In spite of continued warnings from public health experts as regards the health risk connected with the uncontrolled dumping of waste, this method of "refuse disposal" remained unchanged in the Federal Republic of Germany until the beginning of the According to 1961 statistics, of the refuse that was collected, 2.2% was burned, 0.82% was composted and 97% dumped in exhausted gravel pits, clay pits, abandoned quarriers or swamps and marshes, most of it without any form of control.

It was only after first successful trials in 1961/62 that the technique of "systematic dumping" or the "controlled landfill" became known and was gradually introduced. Nevertheless, there were still approx. 50,000 illegal refuse tips in the Federal Republic of Germany in 1970. None of these could claim to provide controlled permanent disposal and none provided any protection for natural resources (water, flora, fauna, etc.).

In Germany, it was not until 1975 that the final transition was made from the traditional form of refuse disposal to waste manage meet. In that year, the Federal Government introduced its waste management programme, while in 1986 it passed the law governing the avoidance and disposal of refuse. The main aim of this programme was to reduce the quantity of refuse, to explore in depth recycling and processing methods and to dispose of refuse in a systematic way. The uppermost aim of the refuse law is the avoidance of refuse. Polluting substances should not be produced in the first place. The second best solution is the processing of waste material. Dumping is only mentioned as the third alternative. This was the foundation stone for the introduction of a future-oriented waste management concept, which has been further developed in the first draft of the "recycling management law" (Kreislaufwirtschafts-Gesetz) of November 1992.

Until well into the 1960s, refuse disposal was organized privately in most Third World cities. The waste, which was almost completely organic, was used as animal feed and for the production of compost. Because there was still very little industrialization, any problems with hazardous waste were negligible. There are four reasons why this traditional system of waste management eventually broke down:

Refuse problems in developing countries

- As a result of rural exodus and improved medical care coupled with a high birth rate, the urban population soared. The infrastructure could not keep pace with population growth, and with the increase in refuse volume that went with it. The result was more and more illegal refuse tips in built-up areas and dumps on river banks.

- The tradition of self-help that had worked well in the manageable, socially controlled village community was not readopted by the new urban inhabitants. What they now expected was help from the anonymous authorities. The refuse producer increasingly lost his sense of responsibility for keeping residential areas clean.

- The city's ability to guarantee sufficient supplies and disposal within a short period of time failed, mainly because of a shortage of finance.

- Incipient industrialization and increased imports of Western consumer goods lead to the appearance on refuse tips of number of substances which led to further pollution and by-products that could not be decomposed. There can be no doubt that the conflict between industrial development without environmental controls and an economic development with ecological conditions was resolved in favor of exclusively economic development.

The experience gained and mistakes made in Europe during the past century can provide important hints when advising about and introducing efficient and effective waste management in developing countries. However, it must be remembered that the technologies of waste disposal and treatment that have meanwhile been tried and tested here cannot be immediately transposed to most developing countries.

Rather, a technology must be developed and applied that is appropriate to the economic and social potential of each particular country. Furthermore, it must be emphasized that waste management is not solely a technical task. The problems of public acceptance, of the responsibility and role of the individual, of the willingness of industry and private households to finance nonpolluting systems and of the implementation of regulations must be given increasingly more attention.

GTZ experience

In 1976, only one year after the above-mentioned federal waste management programme had been passed, Prof. Dr. Tabasaran completed a survey on the reorganization of waste disposal in the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal. This was the foundation stone for GTZ's first independent "waste management project". This report contains very progressive ideas for its time, as well as concrete suggestions about waste comporting, reclamation of reusable substances and the minimum ecological requirements for a landfill site.

Further local projects followed in Lima in 1984 and in Accra in 1985. Based on initial experience in Nepal, the project concepts were further developed in these programmes and development requirements continually adapted and taken into consideration when planning and organizing new projects. Figure 1 provides a survey of current and planned GTZ projects in the area of waste management.

The following is a summary of the experience gained up to now in certain crucial areas.

Institutional and legal framework

No waste management system can be implemented successfully unless there is an institutional and legal framework providing guidelines for all those involved in it. A further necessary supporting measure is the preparation and periodic updating of waste management plans. These disposal plans must show the various strategies, tasks and levels of responsibility. Expenditure on operation, maintenance and new investments should also be included in these plans. A waste disposal levy should be charged to finance this work. As far as possible, polluters should pay the costs of waste disposal. To motivate trade and industry, economic instruments that promote increased waste reduction and recycling should be developed and put into practice.

Refuse collection

In many Third World cities, "refuse collection" has become the biggest source of public-sector employment. Disposing of waste is often the largest item in the municipal budget. However, it is almost always the case that the number of employees and the budget are in converse relationship to the efficiency of the local government enterprise. As a result of insufficient institutional linkage and non-existent planning, the communes' restricted funds are spend inefficiently.

Refuse collection is the largest item of cost in local waste disposal. One of the most important tasks is therefore to optimize this part of the service and to reduce unit costs as possible. Here, one important principle - and one that is unfortunately all too often ignored is that waste should be handled once only.

Not every city can afford to carry out a house-to-house service. The service provided must be appropriate to the social and, above all, financial means of the inhabitants. Further, refuse collection must not be confined to isolated urban districts but must also include those districts where the socially more disadvantaged members of society live. Making "beneficiaries" aware of the problem and actively including the "polluters" is an important task in waste management.

It is particularly important to consider the possibility of privatizing collection and transport. It should be considered whether private businesses are not able to provide a better quality and/or less costly service.

Recycling, treatment and sanitary disposal

In many developing countries, the recycling of reuseable substances is actively performed by the "informal sector" (see the article by M. Oepen). However, only in a few countries are local and central government offices prepared to support and promote this sector, which usually operates very efficiently. This support could take the form of legalizing private recycling, of including possibilities of sorting out reuseable substances in waste management concepts or of creating improved markets for secondary raw materials.

The contribution of informal recycling to the national Economy should not be underestimated: it creates jobs, saves foreign exchange when importing raw materials, reduces the amount of energy used to manufacture products (as much as 50% energy saving in the case of glass production), reduces the costs of waste treatment and, in the long term, reduces pressure for tip space and thus reduces the environmental risks that might be connected with that pressure.

Apart from the recycling of reuseable substances, composting plays an important role. However, experience in the past few years has shown that compost production cannot be carried out at a profit. Above all, composting has to be regarded as a contribution to the protection of the environment. On the one hand, compost is an important means of improving many tropical soils and, on the other, the unwanted pollution caused by the dumping of organic material (which persists over several decades) is reduced.

Systematic dumping is still the exception in most developing countries and is scarcely considered by those in charge. This is above all due to ignorance of the long-term risks and problems of illegal refuse tips and to the fear of large-scale financial investment. Contacts thus have to be shown that a systematic choice of sites and systematic operation of tips can considerably reduce pollution, and that this can be done at a price that even cities in developing countries can afford.

Hazardous waste

Today, hazardous waste (infectious waste from hospitals, toxic industrial waste) is produced in nearly every developing country. Some of this waste is potentially very harmful to health. As a rule, this waste is dumped illegally, discharged into sewers or buried in landfill sites. Apart from setting up appropriate treatment plants, efforts must particularly concentrate on constructively advice when introducing nonpolluting and less waste-producing production processes.

The local population must be informed of the risks of the illegal disposal of hazardous waste, so that they can act as a pressure group in their dealings with industrial enterprises.


Waste management in developing countries must be practically oriented. Merely publishing surveys, studies and the like will not do justice to the pending problems. This illustrates a basic principle in developing countries: it is better to do something now than to investigate for too long.


Klinner and Wenzel, quoted in G. H, Unser Abfa// aller Zeiten - Eine Kulturgeschichte der Stadtereinigung (Jehle Verlag, Munich 1990)


Waste management is more than merely a technical problem. It must begin with each individual's contribution and promote awareness among decision-makers in industry and government. The author compares the situation in the developing countries with that in Germany a century ago, and summarizes the lessons learned in GTZ projects. An inadequate base in municipal institutions and the absence of private enterprise in refuse collection and transport services reduce the efficiency of waste management. Among other things, the informal sector should be promoted more vigorously.


La gestion des dets est plus qu'un travail technique. Elle doit commencer par la contribution de chaque individu et sensibiliser les responsables industriels et politiques. L'auteur compare la situation des pays en vole de dloppement et celle de l'Allemagne d'il y a cent ans, et un des enseignements tires des projets de la GTZ. Un ancrage institutionnel insuffisant au niveau communal ainsi que l'absence de privatisation de l'enlment et du transport des dets risent l'efficacite la gestion des dets. II faudrait, entre autres, promouvoir davantage le secteur dit informer.


La gestie desechos no es suna cuestiica. Antes bien, debe basarse en la contribucie cada uno y sensibilizar a los encargados de tomar decisiones en la industria y la polca. El autor describe la situacin los pas en v de desarrollo y la compare con la de Alemania trace 100 anos, resumiendo las experiencias hechas en los proyectos de la GTZ. El insuficiente arraigamiento institucional en la polca comunal y la falta de privatizacin lo que se refiere a la recolecci al transporte de basuras, aminoran la eficiencia de la gestie desechos. Entre otros, trace falta fomentar mas el llamado sector informal.