Humans generate millions of tons of solid and liquid waste every day. This waste is rich in water, nutrients and organic compounds. But, waste is not being managed in a way that supports reuse and permits us to derive value from its resources – value that could benefit millions of poor farmers and households who continue to struggle with depleted soils, lack of good quality water or access to energy.
Resource recovery and reuse could create livelihood opportunities, enhance food security and contribute to cost recovery in the sanitation chain; however, most waste ends in landfills or pollutes the environment. This is creating problems that usually impact more on poor households than the wealthy because of their dependence on natural resources and the location of their homes.
Solutions Within Reach
Hopeful signs of viable commercial approaches to resource recovery and reuse are emerging around the globe including low-income countries. Many of these new commercial pathways are being charted in the informal sector, delivering innovative approaches for cost-recovery through fecal sludge reuse; wastewater irrigation and aquaculture; co-composting of waste sources; and waste-based energy systems to meet electric, thermal and shaft power loads.
These enterprises or projects are tapping into entrepreneurial initiatives and public-private partnerships and leveraging private capital to help realize commercial value in waste, shifting the focus from treatment for waste disposal to treatment of waste as a resource for reuse.
We see business based approaches as the most viable way forward to make use of an otherwise lost resource, in a safe and sustainable way. However, it must be managed carefully to ensure that livelihoods are not compromised. For example, where farmers currently use untreated wastewater the introduction of a treatment plant should not result in them losing that resource. The needs of the poor must be balanced with public and environmental health and sanitation sustainability.
Our objective is to find enterprises and business models that have potential for replication, within the same and in different settings and regions, and that can be widely adopted to result in large scale productive and safe use of waste. To achieve this we have to understand their technical, economic, commercial, regulatory, cultural, and institutional conditions, as well as possible environmental and health impacts.
This analysis is the core objective of the new Resource Recovery & Reuse (RRR) research program of the CGIAR on Water, Land & Ecosystems. It is being undertaken bya multi-disciplinary team of entrepreneurs, engineers, business model developers, environmental and health experts, and social scientists operating in low– and middle-income countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America.