The garbage strewn across many streets and sidewalks in Harare and most other towns in Zimbabwe reflects the inefficiency of a waste collection system that has become increasingly costly for most local authorities.
The garbage crisis in Harare and most other towns is a result of the saturation of the city's landfills and open spaces due to increased levels of consumption over the last decade and substandard collection service.
With poor service delivery, residents have had little option but to dump piles of trash and residue in open spaces close to their homes. Environmentalist say the generation of solid waste, such as plastics, textiles, glass, metals and food has been rising over the years.
Solid waste management has emerged as one of the major challenges confronting almost all urban local authorities in Zimbabwe. A 2007 Practical Action report suggest that Zimbabwe produces an average of 2,5 million tones of solid waste (household and industrial combined) and that waste collection by local authorities had dropped from 80 percent of total waste across different authorities in the mid 1990s to as a low as 30 percent in some large and small towns in 2006.
Areas that were reported to be the worst affected were low-income residential areas and informal settlements. Environmentalists say even though there are no up-to-date statistics on solid waste, they estimate that the country could now be producing in excess of 3 million tons of solid waste per year.
But mourning over the garbage crisis and the attendant depressing reports over recurring cholera and typhoid cases will not help solve the problems. Instead environmentalists are now calling for a whole new way of thinking and action that will help promote the separation of waste at source, boost the small recycling industry and help generate employment for many people in various communities.
Mukundi Mutasa of Environment Africa said encouraging residents to separate and recycle household waste at source will promote job creation through facilitating the exchange of money for recyclable waste.
"Collection and separation of waste at source is quite important and can help reduce the burden of waste collection on local authorities. We need triple Ps and C -- Public Private Partnerships and Community to work together to find lasting solutions to the garbage crisis we are facing," he said.
The BIN-it Zimbabwe programme -- a partnership of government, private sector, NGOs and community-based organisation was launched recently to promote efforts to separate waste at source and the anti-littering campaign across the country.
"Separating waste at source using many different marked bins for different products will impact positively on the recyclability of a product. When you separate waste at source you will realise that people can actually end up throwing less litter than is happening at present," said Mutasa.
Says Ondine Francis, an environmentalist and recycling enthusiast: "Collection and separation-at-source initiatives are quite important for us in the recycling industry. A focus on collecting waste directly from households rather than landfill reduces health risks and costs when a material needs to be cleaned before it can be recycled."
She says separation of waste at source can help to enhance the quality of recycled products and encourage residents to see value in recycling waste. Francis works with a number of artists in various high density suburbs who are involved in recycling activities that have led to the production of a range of ornaments and products from recycled plastics, bottles, cans, scrap metals and numerous other waste materials.
Prominent conservation campaigner and director of Environment Africa Charlene Hewat says waste reduction initiatives can bear significant opportunities for entrepreneurs and communities through income generating activities.
"Recycling at source can have positive spin-offs. It can generate jobs and income opportunities. As soon as there is monetary value in something, it leads to action," she said.
Environmentalists say the growing interest in municipal solid waste recovery is driven by a maturation of regulations and of markets for post-consumer materials.
The global market for scrap metal and paper is at least US$30 billion per year, according to the World Bank. The UN Environment Programme estimates the market for waste management, from collection through recycling, to be some US$400 billion worldwide.
Local environmentalist say if Zimbabwe moves to "green" the waste sector it could certainly make inroads into tapping into this US$400 billion waste management market. Source separation is a separation of the types of household waste for the purposes of recycling.
The BIN-it programme is promoting the use of colour-coded bin liners for different kinds of garbage -- plastic, glass, cans, bottle tops, kaylites, paper and many others. The programme is helping to improve recycling awareness among Zimbabweans and all stakeholders agree that finger-pointing will not help much.
"Today it pays to understand recycling and this can bring significant benefits to all the stakeholders involved. Separation itself reduces the amount of trash that goes to landfills and garbage collection cost for local authorities. Municipalities and companies need to embrace this approach as part of the country's efforts to deal with the garbage crisis," said Mutasa.
South Africa has highly developed recycling industry which is generating income and creating jobs for thousands of people. The country has various garbage separation and recycling centres for plastic, glass, e-waste, paper, can and paper boards.
Improving household solid waste management through active community participation and institutional support can give communities ownership of the system. When there is buy in from communities, local authorities and the private sector, people can embrace separation of waste at source as a way to recover recyclable waste, minimise the volume of waste sent to landfills, job creation, promote compost production from organic waste and to encourage residents to reduce, reuse and recycle.
Large companies such as Delta Beverages, Econet and many others should follow the Retailers Association of Zimbabwe which has taken an active interest to promote the anti-littering campaign in the country.
"If Delta can buy used cans and bottles, this can have a significant impact on the livelihoods of many unemployed people in various parts of the country," said a woman from Mabvuku who collects cans and bottles to make beads and other ornaments.
"Some recyclers are collecting cans and export them to South Africa at their own cost. We need big companies like Delta to come in and support our efforts to recycle used products. Using many different materials on one product will impact the recyclability of a product. We need to keep this in mind when we design a product to make it easier to recycle."
But getting municipalities to recognise the benefit and value of implementing responsible waste management initiatives is one of the biggest challenges facing environmentalists.
"Not all municipalities recognise the benefit -- they see it rather as a cost," said one Harare-based environmentalist.
"The BIN-it campaign, at least is opening the way for us to come up with various strategies to deal with waste. Everyone is upbeat about the future of Zimbabwe's small but growing recycling industry."
Other environmentalists say poor waste collection levels in recent years has been associated with illegal open dumping and backyard incineration, leading to environmental and health hazards for residents.
Smoke from the burning of waste increases the risk of respiratory health problems while the breeding of flies at dump sites increases the risk of food contamination and fly borne disease. Public health experts also say uncontrolled dumping also increases the risk of contamination of water sources.
Separation of waste at source, though a small step, can help to effectively address challenges facing the country when it comes to managing its solid waste.
The Worldwatch Institute in its 2012 report says growing prosperity and urbanisation could double the volume of municipal solid waste annually by 2025.
The Institute says although some of this waste is eventually recycled, the doubling of waste that current projections indicate would bring the volume of municipal solid waste from today's 1,3 billion tons per year to 2,6 billion tons.
About 34 industrialised nations, lead the world in municipal solid waste generation, at nearly 1,6 million tons per day while by contrast, sub-Saharan Africa produces less than one eighth as much, some 200,000 tons per day. And, the biggest culprits are Western industrialised countries followed by Brazil, China, India, and Mexico.