The need for effective waste management strategies in Liberia

by Contributing Writer
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By: Gardawheh Gad Boe

Solid waste management has moved to the forefront of the environmental agenda. Actions to reduce the environmental risks of solid waste treatment and disposal operations have reached unprecedented levels. Nations are considering restrictions on packaging and controls on products in order to reduce solid waste generation rates. Local and regional governments are requiring wastes to be separated for recycling, and some have even established mandatory recycling targets. Incinerators and waste-to-energy plants have been equipped with state-of-the-art air pollution controls. Landfills are being designed with liners, impervious caps and liquid collection systems, and gas and groundwater are being routinely monitored. Previously considered a local issue, it is now clear that solid waste management has international and global implications. Concern about transboundary shipment of hazardous waste has led to the adoption of the Basel Convention by the United Nations. Recognizing the inter-relationship between solid waste standards and economic development, the European Community is moving forward to harmonize waste disposal requirements in member countries. Solid waste management in countries with developing economies poses a special set of problems. In these countries quite often, financing is not available for the construction of waste treatment facilities, and there is a lack of trained personnel to operate waste management systems. Also, there are generally no regulations or control systems, no administrative body responsible for solid waste control and no obligation for industry to dispose of wastes properly. More than ever before, solid waste management policy makers worldwide need sound and reliable information on the technical performance, environmental impact and costs of solid waste collection, recycling, treatment and disposal systems. (John H. Skinner, in Waste Management Series, 2004)

The constitutional Provisions of Liberia’s environmental laws have a constitutional basis as per article 71 of the Constitution (1986), which advocates for the maximum feasible participation of all Liberians in the management of their natural resources, and as per article 20 (a)2 promulgating the right to life which, by extension, provides for a right to a clean and healthy environment. This constitutional reference grants to the environment a particularly high status among the values defended by the Liberian people. Further, it binds the state organs in particular the legislative and executive – to adopt an active environmental policy and to formulate national development plans that are environmentally sustainable.

Solid waste management is arguably one of the greatest public health threats in Liberia. There is virtually not much has been done to manage wastes due to low budgetary support to the waste management sector. The lack of proper toilets, means household trash, human feces, and hazardous medical waste are randomly disposed throughout the cities, in some areas swelling to piles large enough to block roads. Children walk barefoot through trash heaps, picking through piles that can contain used syringes and bloodied bandages.

Proper waste collection and disposal systems in overcrowded urban areas are lacking. And people are not fully educated on the danger of [uncontrolled] waste disposal.
According to UNICEF,  at least 20 percent of deaths of children under five in Liberia are caused by diarrhea, which is in turn caused primarily by poor hygiene and lack of sanitation.

In terms of figures, the World Bank Technical Paper No 426, Solid Waste Landfalls in Middle- and Low-Income Countries, gives a waste generation rate of 0.5kg/day/cap, plus a further 0.1kg/day/cap for commercial waste, which gives an overall figure of 0.7kg/day/cap4. Thus, for Montserrado, with an estimated population of 1.2 million, the average generation rate is of some 780/tones/day.

According to UNICEF-DFID, August 2004  report on Liberia, Waste composition in Monrovia constitutes:


Component % by weight
Paper 10.0
Glass, Ceramics 1.2
Metals 2.0
Plastics 13.0
Leather, Rubber 0.2
Wood, Bones, Straw 4.6
Textiles 6.0
Vegetable /Putrescible 43.0
Miscellaneous Items 20.0
Total 100
Density 250 kg/m3

The UN humanitarian office in a 2006 report said cholera and diarrhea outbreaks in Liberia are due principally to poor hygiene practices and the indiscriminate human waste.

The report says less than 25 percent of the population of Liberia has access to safe sanitation, with six of the country’s 15 counties having less than 29 percent coverage.

Solid waste management policies for the future of Liberia must refer to Agenda 21, adopted at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992. Agenda 21 addresses the pressing environmental problems of today and aims at preparing the world for the environmental challenges of the 21st century. Agenda 21 deals explicitly with solid waste management in two chapters: Chapter 20 on the environmentally sound management of hazardous waste, and Chapter 21 on the environmentally sound management of solid wastes. Agenda 21 holds out the hope that sustainable development, that integrates environmental protection and economic development, will lead to the fulfillment of basic needs, improved living standards for all, better protected and managed ecosystems and a safer, more prosperous future.

In order to be consistent with sustainable development, solid waste management systems must meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. This involves efficient management of today’s wastes in Liberia while conserving resources and protecting the environment for current and future generations. Using Agenda 21 as a starting point, ten (10) principles or strategies for future solid waste management programs can be suggested for implementation in Liberia.


  • Waste prevention and toxic reduction as strategies of choice

 Traditional waste management strategies have relied primarily on collection of wastes followed by treatment and disposal. A waste prevention strategy emphasizes not creating the waste in the first place, and reducing the use of toxic materials so that the wastes that are generated are less toxic or less hazardous. Waste prevention not only enhances environmental protection, it often involves economic benefits. Waste prevention is a very powerful concept that has significant potential for reconciling both environmental and economic goals. Waste prevention should be the cornerstone of sustainable waste management policies.

  • Economically sound recycling and recovery

 Recycling and recovery of materials and energy from solid waste not only reduces the volume of waste for disposal but also conserves natural resources. However, in order for recycling to be consistent with sustainable development it must be economically feasible. Otherwise, resources are wasted not conserved. In order to effectively carry out successful recycling programs, solid waste managers must operate in a business-like manner as raw material suppliers. They must treat the users of their materials as customers. This means they must produce recyclable materials meeting the customer’s material quality requirements, and offer recyclable materials at a price competitive with other material supplies. They must operate their separation, collection and processing systems to produce competitively priced, quality materials at the lowest possible costs. The elements of success of a recycling operation are the same as for any successful business; staying close to the customer, understanding and meeting their quality needs and operating in a cost-effective manner to produce a competitively priced product.

  • Product stewardship

It is important to understand that wastes are simply discarded products and the design and use of a product can have a significant impact on the nature of the waste that is produced. For example, waste prevention and toxic reduction can be accomplished by substituting raw materials, changing product designs, increasing process efficiencies, and extending product lifetimes. Recycling and reuse can be enhanced by designing products so that components and materials can be easily separated, by eliminating contaminating materials that inhibit recycling, and by using more recycled materials in the original product. Eliminating certain materials from products can also reduce the release of toxic materials to the environment during waste treatment and disposal. Product stewardship involves taking responsibility for a product throughout its entire life cycle including responsibility of management of wastes after the product is discarded. While persons responsible for waste management can identify desirable changes in products from a solid waste management perspective, the responsibility for making such changes lies with product manufacturers. Product stewardship will be encouraged when the full costs of managing the product as a waste, including all environmental costs, are reflected in the economic decisions of product manufacturers and consumers.

  • Establishment of environmentally sound treatment and disposal facilities

 Even with maximum feasible rates of waste reduction and recycling, there will still be a need for waste treatment and disposal facilities. The state-of-the-art waste treatment and disposal has advanced rapidly in recent years, primarily due to requirements of environmental regulatory programs. Today, technologies are available to effectively treat and dispose of wastes in an environmentally sound manner. It is important that new facilities employing these new technologies capable of meeting stringent regulatory standards are established and issued operating permits in Liberia. Otherwise, older, less environmentally sound facilities will continue to be used resulting in adverse environmental impacts and higher long-term costs.

  • Rigorous enforcement of environmental laws and standards

 The establishment of a national regulatory control program with appropriate legislation, regulations, ordinances and licenses is an extremely important step in protecting human health and the environment from the mismanagement of solid wastes. Furthermore, in the absence of regulatory controls, adequate treatment and disposal facilities are not developed. Environmental standards in Liberia must be rigorously enforced in order to assure the public that our solid waste systems are operated in ways that protect human health and the environment. Enforcement must create an incentive for compliance with environmental standards. It must level the playing field so that violators are not at a competitive economic advantage to the good citizens that comply.

  • Control of transboundary waste shipments and elimination of illegal international traffic

Agenda 21 points out that illegal traffic of hazardous wastes may cause serious threats to human health and the environment and impose a special burden on the countries that receive such shipments. The prevention of illegal traffic in hazardous waste will benefit the environment and public health in all countries, especially developing countries. The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste and their Disposal controls transboundary movements of hazardous wastes through a system of prior notification and written consent. Recognizing that simple elimination of transport of wastes is not sufficient for environmental protection, the Basel Convention also encourages efforts to reduce waste generation, develop national self-sufficiency in hazardous waste disposal, and ensure environmentally sound treatment and disposal systems. Wide-scale ratification and implementation of the Basel Convention are essential to control international shipments of hazardous waste and assure their proper treatment and disposal.

  • Building institutions and capacity development

Liberia lacks the national capacity to handle and manage solid wastes, primarily due to inadequate infrastructure. This includes inadequate facilities, lack of trained personnel, lack of information and monitoring systems, inadequate regulatory programs and insufficient financing. Therefore, establishment of an effective waste management system involves building institutions, training, developing human resources and, in general, building the capacity to control and manage wastes. Developing the capacity to carry out research and development programs is important to improve understanding of the environmental impacts of solid waste management systems and develop solutions. Research into the social and economic aspects of solid waste management is necessary to understand and better design economic incentives and information and education programs. The results of research programs must be transferred into the field as new and improved solid waste management systems are developed. Therefore, outreach efforts to apply the results of research are essential.

  • Full cost accounting consistent with the polluter pays principle

 Often the true economic costs of solid waste management are hidden and far removed from producer and consumer decisions. For example, some solid waste management costs are paid out of general tax revenues and are not apparent to the tax-payer. Obviously, this does not produce any incentive to reduce wastes. Improper disposal of wastes often requires future clean-up actions that are borne by other parties. Uncontrolled releases from solid waste management units can result in environmental damages with economic implications. All of these costs must be fully accounted for and paid for by the responsible parties. Economic and environmental efficiency depends upon the polluter paying for the costs of pollution and not subsidizing these costs in an indirect way through other parties. While discussions of such issues tend to dote on economic theory, there are a number of practical approaches that begin to account for these costs and incorporate them into production, consumption and waste management decisions. Pay-as-you-throw programs, which charge waste generators for the amounts of waste discarded is one example that produces an economic incentive to reduce and recycle wastes. Liability standards for waste generators produce a very strong economic incentive for waste reduction and on-site waste treatment. Product labeling programs attempt to influence consumer purchases by identifying recyclable products or products made from recycled materials.

  • Public participation and education

 Providing data and information to those who make or influence decisions can lead to voluntary actions with significant environmental benefits. A good example is when various production facilities are required to inform the public of the release of certain toxic wastes to the environment. This can result in public demand for a reduction of such releases and encourage voluntary industry programs to reduce these wastes. Public information is a powerful tool that can stimulate real results and an informed public can be an effective force in environmental protection. However, it is important to provide the public with accurate and scientifically sound information. Environmental education is very important and there is a need for: (1) support for curriculum development on solid waste management and environmental issues; (2) assistance for teacher training; (3) scholarships and fellowships for educational programs; and (4) incorporating environmental and solid waste management issues into curriculum for students of engineering, law, science, business, economics and other disciplines. It is very important to increase environmental literacy to build public support for programs to train future generations of solid waste management and environmental professionals.

  • Integration of waste policies with other international and national policies

 Many national and international policies can have a strong influence on solid waste management practices. Consider the effect of: (1) energy policy on the incentives for waste-to-energy facilities; (2) transportation policy on freight charges for recycled materials; and (3) agricultural policy on the uses of sludge as fertilizers or soil conditioners. Other examples include the effect of financial policy on investment into environmental technologies and military policy’s effect on clean-up of defense installations. Solid waste management professionals must play a role assuring the solid waste management implications of these policies are assessed in national and international forum.

Waste management generally refers to the efforts aimed at ensuring that the environment is free from the contaminating effects of waste materials. In order to achieve these  effective waste management Principles or Strategies, a robust monitoring and evaluation system needs to be put into place to evaluate the efficiency of these principles or strategies and a strong budgetary support needs to be allocated to the waste management sector.

About the Author:

Gardawheh Gad Boe is a Geologist (B.Sc.) and an Environmentalist ( M.Sc.) currently occupying the position as an environmental intern at Environment, Health and Safety Lab in Casablanca, Morocco. You can contact me via email:

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