WASH: Solid Waste Management

Solid Waste Management (SWM) is a crucial element of the humanitarian WASH response to help prevent the spread of disease, protect public health, and restore basic services. It involves the planning, coordination, and implementation of strategies to effectively manage the generated domestic solid waste. 

Key Actions
  • Standards: Respect and observe the regulatory environment, including national SWM related policy, standards held by ministries and local government regulations. Where no specific national SWM standards exist the Sphere standards should be adhered to. The WASH chapter includes three distinct SWM standards including recommended key actions, indicators and guidance notes.
  • Coordination: SWM services must be planned and implemented in coordination with service users, relevant agencies and authorities, and potential or existing service providers. This should happen before a solid waste problem becomes a major health risk to the affected population.
  • Sanitation linkages: Solid waste can create a range of challenges in other branches of sanitation. Litter can clog stormwater channels, creating standing water and overflows leading to flooding of streets and houses. Solid waste thrown into pit latrines can make it very difficult to empty these latrines and to further treat, process and reuse/dispose of the faecal  sludge collected in the pits. These links should be considered, especially for awareness raising campaigns.
  • Assessment: The basis of all planning and implementation is to measure how much (kg) and know what type (organic, plastic etc.) of waste is generated. Besides household waste, waste streams with high-risk potential (e.g. healthcare waste) must be carefully evaluated.
  • Menstrual products: Menstrual hygiene products which are not disposed of correctly can create challenges, e.g. by clogging toilets or due to their infectious nature. Menstrual hygiene product waste is usually produced within the toilet. Therefore, solid waste bins with a lid and lining should be provided and operated and managed within all public toilets and people should be educated on the correct and safe disposal of menstrual hygiene products.
  • Avoiding and reducing waste: Not using materials that are not essential, are hazardous or difficult to handle (e.g. disposable plastic water sachets, multicomponent materials, solvents or aerosol cans) is a way to structurally avoid waste. Furthermore, measures at the service-user level can incentivise behavior change to lessen waste generation.
  • Enhancing recovery, recycling and ensuring treatment: Waste should be seen as a resource. Enhancing recycling on-site (at household level) or off-site (neighbourhood or central level) not only reduces need (and costs) for residual waste management, but can also provide employment opportunities to the local population and reduce dependency on external resources. To boost recycling, implementing waste segregation (as early as possible) is a key activity. This augments the value of different waste fractions and eases further processing. Typical examples are the processing of organic waste by composting for fertiliser, or anaerobic digestion for energy, recycling of waste paper for briquettes and fuel, or recycling of other waste streams (rubber, plastic, metal) to produce secondary low-cost products. Mixed waste incineration is usually not a favourable option as such waste typically has a high moisture content and the technology requires high capital expenditure, highly skilled and costly operation and management, and results in severe respiratory health hazards and environmental contamination.
  • Collection and transport: Removing waste from residential areas avoids its accumulation in the neighbourhood. Regular collection avoids contact and exposure of residents to waste and eliminates attraction and proliferation of disease transmitting animal vectors. It also decreases the risk of waste burning, a measure often used to eliminate waste, which results in severe respiratory health hazards. The potential for small scale business development should be considered. Often an informal sector is active and can be professionalised.
  • Ensuring safe disposal: It comprises selection of a location that avoids contamination of surface and  groundwater with waste leachate. Disposal sites should be fenced off to prevent access by people and animals. Furthermore, drainage around the site should avoid water flowing into the waste. The waste tipping face at the site should be covered daily or at least weekly with a thin layer of earth to prevent attracting vectors such as flies and rodents.
  • Clean-up campaigns: In consultation with the population and responsible local authorities it will be necessary to organise periodic cleaning of public spaces to ensure a hygienic environment but also remind and reactivate the necessity of public participation in neighbourhood cleanliness as a civil duty and citizen responsibility.
  • Safe healthcare waste management: Healthcare waste may expose the population, healthcare workers and waste handlers to the risk of infections, toxic effects and injuries. In a disaster situation, the most hazardous types of waste are likely to be chemicals or infectious wastes (wound dressings, blood-stained cloths, syringes and other sharps, etc.). Such waste should be separated at source from non-infectious waste (paper, plastic wrappings, food waste, etc.) for special treatment (incineration or controlled containment).
  • Safeguarding staff welfare: All staff involved in waste management must be provided with protective clothing and equipment to safeguard against exposure to the hazards in waste. When necessary, immunisation against tetanus and hepatitis B should be provided.
  • Operation and maintenance: A plan for sustainable operation of waste management services must consider social acceptance, financial sustainability, workers’ skills and capacities as well as a suitable legal and institutional setup. Some key questions that need to be resolved are: What participation is required from the service users and how can this be ensured? Who provides what kind of service? How is the service monitored and evaluated? How are the costs of this service covered long-term?

Appropriate Solid Waste Management (SWM) is critical for public health. This is particularly true in emergencies and situations of humanitarian crisis as existing services, such as collection, treatment or disposal, may be disrupted. In addition to domestic solid waste, disasters and conflicts can result in large amounts of other waste types, in particular relief waste, medical waste, debris and remains from building and other wreckage.

Unmanaged solid waste attracts insects and animals that can act as disease transmitting vectors, such as flies, rats, or other animals scavenging the garbage. Solid waste littered into drainage channels will cause blockages, flooding or stagnant ponds. This can propagate the breeding of mosquitoes that transmit malaria, dengue and yellow fever.

Large piles of unmanaged solid waste are often set on fire and smoke can be a health hazard if the burning waste contains items such as plastics or chemicals. Exposure to unmanaged hazardous waste, such as excreta (from the lack of sanitation facilities), infectious medical waste, sharp items (needles, glass) or toxic chemicals may be a further direct threat to people’s health.

Soil and water, in contact with waste, become rapidly contaminated threatening soil quality, food safety, as well as surface and groundwater resource quality.

Finally, yet importantly, indiscriminately dumped solid waste in a settlement area is unappealing and lowers the pride of communities.


Solid waste can be broadly defined as any unwanted solid product or material generated by people or industrial processes that has no value for the one who discards it. Other terms for solid waste are “garbage”, “trash”, “refuse” and “rubbish”. With denser settlement patterns, solid waste challenges become more acute. Domestic solid waste refers to solid wastes deriving from households and settlements (houses, shops, offices, streets and public places). Integrated sustainable waste management incorporates considerations of all physical elements of the waste management service chain, starting from waste generation through storage, collection and transport, treatment and recycling, to final disposal or use. It furthermore includes governance and strategic considerations including economic and financial sustainability, political/legal and institutional aspects, and the involvement of all stakeholders (various waste generators and service users, informal and formal waste service providers and waste users, international agencies, local, regional and national governments, civil society and non-governmental organisations among others).

Immediately after an emergency/disaster, hygiene and waste disposal are usually poor, so vermin and other pests, including rodents, can spread and breed rapidly. SWM is a crucial element during the acute response. It usually starts with a rapid assessment of the type and volume of waste generated, existing SWM practices, the identification of potential (temporary) storage, containment and disposal sites, available means for waste collection and transportation and to determine the immediate needs for waste management equipment and personnel. Based on the initial assessment and depending on the local context SWM interventions during this phase may include the provision of adequately sized and covered waste collection containers at household level (or for clusters of households), establishment of clearly marked and fenced collection points (with waste segregation options where possible) and the set-up of a system for the regular removal and transport of waste from the community collection points as well as treatment, recycling and safe disposal or use options. Temporary, and if possible, final disposal sites need to be rapidly identified and prepared. Coordination with local authorities, NGOs, and other relevant stakeholders (intersectoral and cross sector) is also important to ensure a coordinated response to waste management challenges. Active engagement with affected communities is crucial and it needs to be ensured that there is equitable participation of men, women, children and marginalised and vulnerable groups in planning, decision-making and local management of SWM solutions. In addition, awareness raising about proper waste management practices or encouraging participation in clean-up efforts may be required as well as the provision of targeted information on waste separation, disposal, and potential health risks. Management of disaster waste will depend on the types of waste and debris generated. During the rapid response phase, any hazardous and medical waste and human or animal remains should be separated from other waste streams wherever possible.

During the stabilisation phase, relevant pre-emptive resilience and DRR measures should be implemented, particularly if another disaster is likely. The equitable participation of men, women, children, marginalised and vulnerable groups in planning, decision-making and local management remains as important as in the acute phase. Participation helps to ensure that the entire affected population has safe and adequate access to SWM services and practises corresponding behaviours. Additional in-depth assessments of the factors underpinning behaviour may be needed to respond adequately within a given local context and increase the longer-term acceptance of the planned interventions. The effectiveness of initial interventions and the environmental impact of SWM activities (to prevent pollution and ensure compliance with regulatory standards) need to be monitored and should also lead to adaptations and improvements in the response where required. SWM interventions may include the establishment of additional community-supported structures and, where possible, the increasing involvement of development actors. The scope for using Market-Based Programming (MBP) should also be examined.

Recovery and rehabilitation programmes are characterised by the active participation of local partners and authorities in planning and decision making, strengthening local capacity and promoting the sustainability of interventions. The scope for using MBP approaches should be further assessed here. SWM recovery interventions vary; they continue to depend on local conditions as well as the affected population’s immediate and structural needs. Beyond the technical implementation of relevant SWM infrastructure, these interventions include significant efforts to strengthen SWM service structures and systems as a whole. Routines should be rapidly developed and implemented for waste storage, collection and disposal. This is particularly important in high-density sites such as refugee camps. In urban and out-of-camp settings, national systems should be used and strengthened. Such plans should also integrate a long-term development vision that enhances recycling and recovery options, technical skills and capacity, financial self-sufficiency and various other elements of a sustainable SWM system. A camp can be treated like an urban area, however here SWM is a joint responsibility of camp coordination and camp management that ensures coordination and collaboration with the WASH and health sectors.

Recovery interventions also include longer-term capacity strengthening and training, including working with relevant local authorities and development partners. Stronger collaboration with utilities, civil society, private sector and the handing over of responsibilities is important and requires the increasing participation of stakeholders in planning and decision-making early on. Where possible, recovery interventions should provide a foundation for further development of SWM facilities and services and include relevant resilience and DRR measures. Effective recovery plans have clear transition or exit strategies, including hand-over to local governments, communities or service providers to ensure that the intervention’s service levels can be maintained.

Where no specific national SWM standards exist the Sphere standards should be adhered to. The WASH chapter includes three distinct SWM standards including recommended key actions, indicators and guidance notes.

Author(s) (1)
Rob Gensch
German Toilet Organization (GTO)

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