This article was published in Waste Management World, the publication of the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) in September

by Zoë Lenkiewicz, Head of Communications at WasteAid and a freelance waste communications consultant

When outgoing ISWA President David Newman was at the United Nations Environment Assembly meeting in Nairobi, he observed that waste was, at last, high on the agenda. Governments and communities faced with soaring mountains of unmanaged waste are paying the price of inaction, while recognising the potential value of these wasted resources.

According to the World Health Organisation, each year approximately 9 million people die of diseases linked to mismanagement of waste and pollutants, 20 times more than die from malaria.

A universal truth about waste is that its value can be recovered as material or energy. That stands whether you are in the most technologically advanced city or a remote desert village. Especially in lower-income countries, interest is growing in techniques for recovering value to meet a local need while avoiding significant capital investment.

Biofuels from organic waste, in particular, are one way of adding value and incentivising local source-separation and collection.

As Newman says: “I think we are seeing something of a revolution happening. It is in its early stages but the trend seems clear: where there is growing demand for energy at a local level, waste can provide small, incremental value chains that can answer that market demand.

“We think of Africa as a hot continent, but actually in the higher areas, like Nairobi, very cool night temperatures create demand for heat. So does communal cooking and the need to sterilise water by boiling it.”

In lower income parts of the world, it is not unusual for people to dump waste in pits and open spaces, where it is either burned or left to rot. Meanwhile, those same people need an affordable source of energy. Charcoal briquettes made from organic waste can help meet that specific demand.

Global charcoal production increased by 9 per cent between 2004 and 2009, (World Atlas), representing a huge opportunity for low-tech energy-from-waste solutions.

In 2006 the United Nations estimated that energy from traditional biomass fuel accounted for nearly one-tenth of all human energy demand (more than hydro and nuclear power together) with wood-based fuels probably make up some two-thirds of household use.

In Kenya for example, some 70 per cent of total energy used is from wood fuel, with 82 per cent of urban households and 34 per cent in rural areas using charcoal as the primary source of fuel. A city like Nairobi consumes 700 tonnes/day of charcoal (Njenga, 2012).

The continued reliance on wood-based charcoal has led to deforestation at an alarming rate, while organic waste is still discarded in open dumps where its value is lost. Likewise in India, some 90 per cent of the country’s organic waste is not being managed at all (Annepu, 2012).

Waste composition analyses in lower-income countries frequently show the organic content of municipal solid waste to be around 80 per cent, compared to as low as 20 per cent in higher-income countries.

Making charcoal from organic waste has many advantages: charcoal is far more efficient, less smoky, easier to ignite, and easier to carry and collect than raw timber, and when made from waste avoids the ecologically devastating consequences of excessive deforestation.

WasteAid UK’s experience working with partners in lower-income countries has highlighted this need for affordable and sustainable fuel. Its partner in The Gambia is working full-time developing training and support for a number of organisations throughout The Gambia and Senegal on the production of fuel briquettes from carbon-rich organic waste.

WasteAid UK Director, Mike Webster, said: “We have been overwhelmed and delighted by local interest. WasteAid has been providing some support so that the poorest communities can bring trainers and mentors in. Yet most of the interest and finance has come from local organisations and communities, pooling their resources to get our partners in to help develop local reprocessing stations – true self-starting development.”

“It is the need for cooking fuels that has really driven this demand for reprocessing skills. Cheap, readily-available fuel substitutes increasingly expensive and scarce lumpwood charcoal cut from local trees, thereby also reducing the pressure on forests that people otherwise depend upon.”

Deforestation has been a major cause of the ongoing war between The Gambia and surrounding Senegal, and so solutions like this have an impact on entire (human and natural) ecosystems.

Checklist for a successful charcoal from waste project

  1. Focus on areas where accumulating waste has been identified locally as a problem.
  2. Establish partnerships and communicate the aims of cleaning up the neighbourhood, creating employment and earning income.
  3. Identify carbon-rich waste streams suitable for charcoal production, such as leaf matter, sawmills, agro-based industries, schools and food kiosks.
  4. Adapt briquette-making technology to local conditions, paying attention to gender needs.
  5. Establish the route to market – who in the household typically buys charcoal and do they buy it from charcoal dealers or supermarkets? Do customers prefer small daily portions or larger bags?


This approach ties in well with the principles of sustainability and self-sufficiency. By observing the current system – the abundances (waste) and the need (energy) – it is logical that waste can be used to heat homes, cook food and sterilise water. Waste management in this context is exciting because it is (mostly) only limited by the imagination.

WasteAid and other similar organisations share skills to not only produce charcoal, but also flooring tiles, compost and fishmeal for aquaculture. Dreamcatcher in South Africa has been working with the University of Brighton to develop ever-more creative uses for the wastes that occur in abundance in low-income communities (major announcement due in late 2016).

By using waste as a useful raw material that serves multiple purposes, communities can build value chains from what is currently a threat to public health. These transferable approaches to community-level waste management contribute to all of the Sustainable Development Goals, and provide vital livelihood opportunities where there are few. With a global waste crisis looming, it’s time to get creative!