In 2012, the World Bank reported that 1.3 billion tons of urban solid waste is generated annually, with solid waste management costing US $205 billion. Even more alarming are projections that urban solid waste will grow to 2.2 billions tons by 2025, costing cities a total of US $375 billion.

Some cities have found innovative ways to deal with their waste and waste collection. From Mexico City’s barter market to Singapore’s Waste-to-Energy incinerators, these are just a few ways that cities are dealing with their garbage.

Mexico City’s Mercado de Trueque


Photo by CCTV-America.

A barter market that allows urbanites to trade in trash for fresh food, Mexico City’s Mercado de Trueque was established four years ago as part of the city’s Garbage For Food Program. The monthly market allows people to exchange trash for vouchers, which they can then exchange vegetables, fruit, organic food and plants at the local farmer’s market. In addition to reducing the city’s volume of waste, the initiative helps raise awareness about the importance of recycling in the community.

Mercado de Trueque was established after the 2011 closure of the city’s Bordo Poniente landfill – which received over 12,000 tons of waste daily. Held on the second Sunday of the month, it attracts more than 4,000 people and results in the recycling of 15 tons of waste monthly; the collected waste is sorted by government employees and volunteers and sent to treatment facilities.

While the market incentivizes people to separate their waste at source as well as to buy fresh and local and has a positive affect on the community, its impact on the total volume of waste recycled is still limited. One official even noted that the program was more about educating the public and that is should not be considered a substitute to waste management systems. Last year, Mexico City reported that it recycled 1,400 pounds (635 kilograms) of garbage – a negligible amount compared to the 86 tons of trash generated by the city daily. If nothing else, the market’s popularity is an indicator of how cities need more innovative solutions like the Mercado de Trueque that address local needs.

Buenos Aires’ E-Waste Recycling Program

By Curtis Palmer -, CC BY 2.0,

Photo by Curtis Palmer via Flickr CC.

In an attempt to reduce the city’s electronic waste, the city of Buenos Aires began collaborating with local NGO Recycling Work and Dignity to recycle the city’s electronic waste late last month. Buenos Aires, which produces 14.5 tons of waste per day, ships the majority of its waste to China.

According to deputy manager for solid urban waste and green spaces at Buenos Aires’ environmental protection agency, the campaign was launched to receive electronic waste monthly, with collection spots placed around the city.

The Argentinian capital launched their first e-waste recycling program in 2013, which has since resulted in the collection of over 51,000 pieces of scrapped electronics. Allen notes that, while the campaign is generally well-received, the logistics of collecting items like cell phones, keyboards and printers still aren’t perfect. Recycling Work and Dignity will fix items that are salvageable, and is licensed to sell the rest of the materials.

This is not the first policy that the city has recently adopted in an attempt to address its garbage collection woes. Buenos Aires recently embraced its cartoneros – or informal “litter pickers” – who picked through trash for reusables that they resold to dealers; under the recently-adopted Green City plan, 5,000 people are employed to empty recycling bins across the city.

San Francisco’s Zero-Waste Scheme

Composting is now mandatory in San Francisco. Photo by Philip Cohen via Flickr CC.

When San Francisco’s Zero Waste scheme was first introduced in 2002, it promised to eliminate landfills and incinerators by 2020. In an effort to produce zero waste, the City vowed to rely on composting and recycling and banned the sale and distribution of small plastic water bottles on public property, committing to building public drinking fountains instead.

After a study found that 90% of the waste that was being dumped in landfills could be recycled, and that the biggest single amount of waste being thrown away was food, the City began working with Recology – an employee-owned waste management company – to collect organic waste from hotels and restaurants. When a pilot project with one of the City’s hotels proved that the hotel could make savings, they extended the plan to the catering industry, as well as to voluntary residents, increasing the percentage of recycled waste from 42% to 60% in just four years.

In 2006, then-mayor Gavin Newsom made it mandatory for construction companies to recycle at minimum two-thirds of the debris produced in construction at a registered facility. In 2007, legislation prevented supermarkets from handing out plastic bags for free, and by 2009, recycling and even composting had become compulsory for all urbanites in San Fran. Residents who do not comply are warned, and then fined.

Today, San Francisco has an 80% diversion rate, recovering 600 tons of organic waste, which are sent to the Vacaville Facility to be composted.

Singapore’s Waste-to-Energy Plants

Photo by Reuters / Vivek Prakash.

Singapore’s waste-to-energy (WTE) or incineration plants are just one more way that the tiny city-state continues to find innovative ways to deal with its shortage of space. After years of relying on landfills, in 1979, Singapore adopted WTE systems, reducing their waste volume by 90%.

WTE – the process by which energy (electricity or heat) is generated from the burning of waste – produces electricity directly through combustion. At Singapore’s WTE plants, refuse-carrying vehicles are weighed before the garbage is discharged into the refuse bunkers. The refuse is then run through high-capacity rotary crushers, which break down bulky waste; next, the waste is fed into an incinerator which operates at temperatures that range between 850 and 1,000°C (1,562-1,832°F), before reducing the waste to ash – about 10% of its original volume.

The air in the refuse bunkers is kept below atmospheric pressure in order to prevent the odors from escaping into the air. Scrap metal is recovered from the ash and recycled, while the ash is disposed of at a local landfill.

Singapore is hardly alone in its efforts. The world’s largest WTE plant announced in Shenzhen, China earlier this year, and which is expected to incinerate 5,000 tons of trash daily, which amounts to almost one-third of the city’s daily waste produced.

Sweden’s Recycling Efficiency

Värmekraftverket Uppsala Vattenfall.

Photo by Vattenfall via Flickr CC.

The cities of Sweden have such an efficient solid waste management system that the country has to import garbage from countries like the UK, Norway, Italy and Ireland to power its WTE facilities. But Sweden’s accomplishment in waste management is not in how it disposes of its garbage, but rather in how little waste it produces: today, less than one percent of the household garbage produced in Sweden ends up in landfills.

Sweden incinerates upwards of two million tons of trash annually at its 32 incineration plants, converting half of the country’s trash into energy (Sweden has the largest number of incineration plants of any country in the world). The waste is used to power 20% of the country’s district heating, and produces electricity for 250,000 homes.

The country’s longstanding policy of reducing, reusing and recycling means that separation of waste at source is deep rooted in the culture by now. Swedes return 1.5 billion bottles and cans each year, and what is not recycled or reused is sent to a WTE plant. Today, the country imports 800,000 tons of trash from other European countries each year.