The Solid Waste Institute for Sustainability is aiming to reduce disease and disaster in sub-Saharan Africa by studying the best ways to help countries implement new waste management systems.
Sahadat Hossain, civil engineering professor and institute director, said he and his research team are working with seven countries in sub-Saharan Africa that have minimal or no waste collection systems.
In these countries, about 30-40 percent of waste is collected and the rest is openly dumped wherever is convenient, Hossain said.
When waste isn’t properly disposed of, it can contaminate local bodies of water used for swimming, bathing and drinking. The contaminated water can lead to adverse health effects and further the spread of disease in the region, he said.
In the U.S., sanitary landfills are designed to prevent runoff from polluting groundwater and contain harmful greenhouse gases from escaping into the atmosphere, Hossain said.
Naima Rahman, geotechnical engineering graduate student and research assistant, said the U.S. uses large amounts of manufactured paper and plastic products that end up in landfills when disposed. Africa has a large amount of organic waste that breaks down faster than inorganic materials like plastic.
Because African countries’ waste differs from the U.S., their waste management system needs to be unique to them. The systems used in the U.S. would not work there, Rahman said.
“One solution does not fit all,” said Asif Ahmed, civil engineering graduate student.
He sees potential in combining composting with sanitary landfills to reduce the amount of food waste filling landfills.
In order to determine what waste management would work best for different sub-Saharan countries, Hossain and his research assistants are simulating landfill conditions in their lab, Rahman said.
The simulations being performed are trying to find the best way to maximize space by speeding up the decomposition process. As trash decomposes, it falls in on itself, freeing up room to put waste on top, Ahmed said.
With the waste in African landfills breaking down faster, sub-Saharan countries are at higher risk for landslides and landfill collapses at dump sites, as well, Rahman said.
A landfill collapse in Ethiopia in March resulted in the deaths of about 113 people. Rahman said she suspects improper waste management could have been the cause.
Ahmed said the institute sees sustainability as passing on a happier, healthier world to future generations.
“Our definition of sustainability is if you look at a picture, say a dad and his kid both smiling, that smile is passing from generation to generation,” he said.