Municipal Solid Waste Management Practices

Municipal solid waste management practices can be generally said to comprise of storage and collection practices (including practices of collection for reuse, recycle, and recovery), transportation practices (sometimes including practices of transferring waste from one form of transport to the other), and disposal practices. All, or some of the above, may occur through formal practices designed and implemented by the municipal authority or through informal voluntary initiatives organized individually or in community groups.

Storage and collection practices include various types of storage receptacles designed for waste production units such as households/commercial establishments and community storage receptacles for storage of collected waste. Organization of proper storage of waste is essential as in its absence waste can be dumped in public spaces/drains. Storage units may also be custom made to suit particular waste management technologies such as the use of receptacles of particular design to suit waste transportation vehicles. Further, storage systems may include practices to encourage reuse/recycle/recovery by using specific color-coded waste receptacles that enable the streamlining of various streams.

Transportation practices consist of the movement of collected waste to disposal sites or transfer sites (where waste is collected and then transferred to vehicles suitable for transporting to more distant final disposal sites). Collection and transportation practices may also include managerial contracts forged with the private sector or voluntary sector for the collection and transportation of waste produced in dispersed locations.

Disposal practices include the many options through which waste is disposed, such as incineration plants, compost plants, landfills sites, and anaerobic biogasification plants, for the end disposal of wastes that are not reused and recycled. Disposal options can include material recovery options (such as composting) or energy recovery options (such as anaerobic biogasification plants or energy recovery from landfill sites). Disposal options may also aim to just get the waste out of sight by either dumping it in waterways, quarries, and other similar areas, or by transporting it afar (often to less developed areas). Further, disposal practices need not always be organized by municipal authorities, but can also be found at individual, household/establishment, or community level.

The above SWM practices are typically organized in accordance with generally acknowledged principles. Some of the principles that are widely adopted in SWM practices today are reviewed below.

Normative Principles in SWM

The “waste hierarchy” is a normative principle that has had a significant impact on practices of SWM in recent times (for instance, the principle has been very influential in the formulation of European waste management practices).181 A diagrammatic representation of this is given in Figure 1.

The waste hierarchy advocates a waste management system oriented toward a hierarchy of managerial options that target waste reduction, reuse, recycling, and recovery, in that order of preference, thus reducing the amount of waste that needs to be finally disposed in a landfill. Strategic aims such as “zero waste” initiatives’ aimed at minimizing waste toward zero by reducing consumption, arranging for reuse by repair or modification, and maximizing recycling, thereby bringing materials back into nature or the marketplace, are based on the normative principle promoted by the “waste hierarchy”.

Waste hierarchy

FIGURE 1 Waste hierarchy.

Source: Chettiparamb et al. (p. 327).171

Such initiatives are typically aimed toward instilling a re-valuation of waste as a resource rather than as something to be disposed off.191

Life cycle assessment (LCA) in waste has influenced waste reduction practices since around the 1990s.1101 It focuses on the environmental burdens associated with a product, a process, or an activity. LCA encompasses the entire life cycle of the system studied, including material and energy flows in raw materials, their acquisition, manufacturing processes, usage, and waste disposal/treatment, leading to what is known as a “cradle to grave approach.” Thus, LCA helps expand the framework of analysis to beyond the relatively limited confines of the actual SWM system, thereby bringing in wider environmental impacts, some of which may have a greater impact on the environment than just the analysis of the SWM system itself. The LCA can thus lead to an improvement analysis that suggests ways in which the impacts on the environment can be reduced.191 In practice, however, the LCA, although normatively influential, has been difficult to implement mainly because of the enormity of data demanded, problems in the reliability of the data, and other pragmatic difficulties in employing the technique.1111

Integrated solid waste management (ISWM) is yet another principle that has been influential in organizing whole SWM systems. ISWM is based on the idea that any one method of SWM may not be adequate in addressing the challenges that the various streams of waste present. Instead of viewing the many streams of solid waste as distinct and separate, ISWM proposes that the most appropriate method must be adopted for each stream in a way that the sum total of the environmental impact is kept to a minimum. Thus, paper and other recyclable material must be recycled, while compostable material must be composted or digested anaerobically, and so on. The overall key aim is to minimize landfill while maximizing recycling and recovery.

The above account suggests that there is relative stability surrounding understandings of ideal ways of managing MSW. Studies of the governance of MSW, however, show wide variations, including shifting relative emphasis on these normative principles occurring both historically and within and across particular contexts. These variations are reviewed in the next section.

Policy Drivers, Policy Regimes, and Modes of Governance in SWM

The nature of the “political economy” of a region has been identified as a key determinant of MSW. The term “political economy” is defined by O’Brien1121 (p. 270) as “a regulated social framework for transacting values, comprising an arrangement of practices, relationships and institutions.” He argues that industrialized societies are primarily “rubbish societies” in that these societies are infused with a relationship to waste and wasting that allows their social, political, and cultural systems and their own self-understanding to develop and change. If the centrality of wasting processes in industrialized societies is acknowledged, a political economy around wasting needs to develop, what O’Brien terms as “rubbish relationships’1121 (p. 287). Further, it then becomes necessary to valorize and promote particular institutional relations that organize and stabilize rubbish flows in ways that allow the reproduction and survival of society. This valorization and promotion reconfigures SWM practices, thus lending more credibility to particular normative principles resulting in patterns in what has been termed as “drivers,”1131 “policy regimes,”1141 or “modes of governance”1151 in SWM. These then give rise to new terminologies such as “waste citizenship” (how waste is accessed),1161 waste networks and waste flows (how waste is distributed),1171 and “waste commons” (hard rubbish meant for scavenging),1181 to name a few.

The study by Wilson1131 sought to identify key drivers that have led to the adoption of particular mechanisms or strategies in SWM both historically and around the world. A survey conducted by Wilson1131 among “colleagues” identified six key drivers for the organization of SWM practices: 1) public health; 2) environmental protection; 3) resource value of waste; 4) closing the loop; 5) institutional and responsibility issues; and 6) public awareness. The relative emphasis among these varies over time and differs with local circumstances. Wilson1131 argues that public health emerged as a key driver in the 19th century and has been more or less taken for granted in developed countries. It, however, still persists as a key driver in emerging and developing countries with hot climates. The environmental protection driver came to the fore in the 1970s and still remains a key driver in the developed world. Energy/climate change has now become central to this agenda. In developing countries, on the other hand, the focus remains on initial steps such as the phasing out of uncontrolled disposal and the promotion of clean development mechanisms. The resource value of waste was a driver until the early 20th century underpinning major industrial economies in 19th century London, and 20th century China, Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe. In developed countries, however, this driver was soon replaced by a more holistic approach to waste management. The resource value of waste remains a key driver in developing countries as large numbers of the poor survive on reuse, recycling, and recovery practices. Further, the import of waste as an industrial raw material continues in some developing countries, thus making waste integral to those economies. The waste hierarchy came to be advocated in the late 1970s and triggered a more holistic approach to resource management. Wilson1131 argues that this now means that waste prevention and recycling are key priorities in the developed world with sustainable production and consumption, integrated production policies, and zero waste policies emerging as key drivers. Notions of institutional responsibility emerged as a key driver when municipalities were charged with waste collection responsibilities in the late 19th century. While in the developed world, this responsibility is more or less taken for granted, with even an extended notion involving the private sector emerging, in developing countries, the ability to discharge this function is still limited with notions of capacity building and good governance emerging as key drivers. Finally, Wilson1131 argues that public awareness has become a key driver with waste management moving up in people’s priorities as living standards increase. The environment, climate change, and resource management is informing this increase in public awareness in the developed world. In the developing world, however, public awareness remains focused on food, shelter, security, and livelihoods, with waste drawing attention only when these are threatened. The study concludes that

“There is no one, single driver that can be seen as ‘dominant’; rather, all of the six groups of drivers are important, and the balance between them will vary between countries depending on local circumstances, and indeed between stakeholder groups depending on their particular perspective”—Wilson (pp. 205-206).1131

The “development drivers” described above therefore have a key role in organizing practices and selecting particular normative orientations and stabilizing these within institutional relations and a variety of governing instruments.

Gille1141 extends Young’s1191 concept of “resource regimes” to waste. He defines it as follows:

At their [resource regime’s] core is a structure of rights and rules, which implies a certain distribution of advantages and disadvantages. Social institutions determine what wastes, and not just what resources are considered valuable by society, and these institutions regulate the production and distribution of waste in empirically tangible ways (p. 1056).

Gille explores the history of waste management in Hungary and identifies three distinct regimes in the history. He calls these “the metallic regime (1948-1974), the efficiency regime (1975-1984), and the chemical regime (1985-present)” (p. 1056). In the metallic regime, Gille argues that waste was seen as a particular kind of material—something that was like metal scrap and thus discrete, non-toxic, and infinitely recyclable and reusable. Under this benevolent perception of waste, the key actors were classconscious workers and citizens who would collect and find new uses for all sorts of wastes. The efficiency regime was marked by a “monetized concept of waste: [where] waste was seen as a cost of production, and waste reduction and reuse were seen as steps to increase efficiency” (p. 1057). Policy tools thus included financial incentives and professionals with economic and technical expertise came to be valued. In the chemical regime, waste came to be seen as useless and even harmful. Waste liquidation came to be very important, and scientists, engineers, and the chemical industry became key players. The waste regime concept thus traces the broad patterns that structure certain normative values in particular periods and locations. Table 2 Modes of governing MSW.

TABLE 2 Modes of Governing MSW




Governmental rationality (policies and programmes) Economic efficiency Public health Environmental efficiency



Local authorities Regulator









Weekly collections Landfill sites Contracts Best Practicable Environmental Option assessment

Governed entities

Municipal waste Ratepayers


Reducing the (global) environmental impact of landfill (EU Landfill Directive

1999 Waste Strategy WOO)

European Union DEFRA

Local authorities




Performance targets and auditing

New policy instruments Funding mechanisms and criteria Education campaigns





Individuals as passive citizens Differentiated waste streams



Reducing the environmental impacts of waste; recovering value (waste hierarchy; meeting targets)

Local authorities, waste







Kerbside collections

New technologies

Reuse and reduction practices (e.g., nappies, compost)

Individuals as active citizens Differentiated waste streams

Waste as resource

Reducing the environmental impacts of waste; social and economic benefits

Nongovernmental organizations and networks



Provision of alternative infrastructures and collections

Individuals as community members

Waste as a resource

Source: Data from Bulkeley and Watson (p. 2740).

Bulkeley and Watson1151 develop the notion of “modes of governance” in waste in order to capture both structures and processes of governing while also recognizing the plurality of modes through which governance is established. They define a mode of governing as

A set of governmental technologies deployed through particular institutional relations through which agents seek to act on the world/other people in order to attain distinctive objectives in line with particular kinds of governmental rationality (p. 2739).

The authors analyze SWM in the United Kingdom and identify four distinctive, but coexisting, modes of governance. These are the disposal mode, the diversion mode, the ecoefficiency mode, and the waste as resource mode. The various components of waste management associated with these different modes are reproduced in Table 2 above.

The three examples of development drivers, regimes, and modes of governance reviewed above illustrate how the management of solid waste can be very different across geographical regions even if the fundamental building blocks of managing waste—those that emanate from its intrinsic qualities—remain the same.


This entry has provided a broad overview of the nature of MSW and the management of it. It has highlighted that the definition of what waste is, will depend on particular contexts as the attribution of value and non-value takes place subjectively and contingently. Further, the history of waste management practices shows that the nature of municipal waste has varied with the level of industrialization and climatic conditions of a location. This variation can also be seen today in the difference in waste characteristics of developed and developing countries.

The dispersed nature of production sites of MSW and the potential environmental nuisance value of MSW can, however, be said to be intrinsic to waste. Fairly consistent management practices have arisen from these intrinsic attributes. Further, certain normative principles have also arisen to guide the organization of these managerial practices. The selection and mobilization of the normative principles, however, take place within broader governance frameworks that have been variously termed as development drivers, waste regimes, or modes of governance in waste. These have also been reviewed. In conclusion, this entry has shown that while the intrinsic nature of SWM has led to selective widely stabilized managerial practices, the organization of these practices and the governance of the same may be embedded in very different governance frameworks, thereby giving rise to a myriad of permutations in the actual practices of SWM.


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