Rosaria Chifari

In the third Millennium, because of the global phenomenon of urbanization, Municipal Solid Waste Management is becoming an important issue for all the governments of the world in developed and developing countries.

The choice of a specific urban waste management system directly affects the metabolic pattern of a city and, as a consequence, the surrounding environment and the quality of life of its inhabitants. The risk of failures in the proper management of wastes can lead to the emergence of ecological, economic and health problems provoking social unrest.

But, why is it so difficult dealing with municipal solid waste management systems? Are policy decisions based on a real understanding of the relevant issues? …relevant to whom? Are the existing methods and tools able to deal with the complexity in defining which is the performance of a specific waste management system?

The definition of the performance of a Municipal Solid Waste Management System (MSWMS) is complex since it refers to different dimensions (ecological, economic, technical, socio-cultural and political) and different scales of analysis (spatial: household, urban zone, municipal, regional, national, and global; temporal: short-term versus long-term concerns).

Each MSWMS is operating within a specific ecological and socio-economic context that makes it special and will change in time both in terms of physical process and cultural values. Moreover, the urban waste sector involves several stakeholders having different legitimate but contrasting views.

The approaches generally used to base the choices of policies in the waste management field simplify the complexity of a real problem adopting a finite set of quantitative indicators of performance “one size fits all”. These “evidence-based policy” approaches are not appropriate for analyzing evolving socio-ecological systems and have the risk of omitting relevant aspects.

The decisions about what is relevant and what should be considered as an improvement in the performance of a MSWMS are taken in the pre-analytical phase of the assessment. This phase is required to guarantee the quality of the issue definition and the usefulness of the analysis in relation to goals, criteria, indicators and policy options considered as relevant by society. For this reason, these pre-analytical choices should not be carried out by consultants or officers alone, but they should be co-produced with those that will use the results of the analysis. An effective governance of MSWMS would require the ability of carrying out participatory processes in which experts can help the local communities and their administrators to make informed choices about robust policies in this field.

A proper understanding of the broader cultural, historic, socio-economic, institutional and ecological context in which the MSWMS is operating should be required before starting any quantitative assessment. This contextualization is needed to: (i) identify the main stakeholders and the narratives they endorse; (ii) recognize conflicting narratives; and (iii) define the criteria/attributes of performance required to be included in an integrated package of indicators in order to reflect the different perceptions of performance of a MSWMS found in its socio-ecological context.

In participatory processes, stakeholders should be involved first to define and validate the relevant issues framing the problem (phase of production of quantitative information) and then to check the quality of the quantitative representation and deliberate over chosen performance criteria and different alternatives (phase of the use of quantitative information).

Unfortunately, stakeholders’ engagements are generally consultative instead of deliberative. The use of deliberative participation is still considered “new” so, often end-users do not recognize its relevance.

The adoption of new approaches based on the engagement of a greater variety of social actors should be incentivised establishing appropriate stable platforms making an effective co-production possible and the use of quantitative information to be used in decision making processes.

It is important to underline that the use of the stakeholders’ engagement for decision-making process in the field of waste management is not aimed at generating the “best” policy or the “best combination of technologies”.

As a matter of fact, stakeholders involved in assessing the performance of a MSWMS have different visions, conflicting values, interests and requirements. As an example, a waste management system can be seen as costs for the administration or as an opportunity for local development in terms of jobs for citizens.

The social actors can define different legitimate objectives for each dimension (ecological, social, economic, environmental, and technical) and choose “à la carte” a set of performance indicators tailored to specific local situations.

If we accept that there are different visions and sets of performance indicators for the different stakeholders, we need to accept that it is improbable (or hardly possible) to individuate the “best strategy or solution” that simultaneously maximizes all objectives. Then, when policies are made, there will be winners and losers amongst the social actors, no matter the choice.

The real added value of the social actors’ involvement in decision making processes is producing “robust” and “fair” policies by generating “useful” inputs of information (relevant and robust) to the process of governance and by increasing the transparency and the quality of the process of evaluation and decision making reflecting the individual interests of the different social actors involved.

In territories where the quality of the decision making of the local policy makers has been seriously questioned and the principal concern of the general public is the mistrust in organizations in charge of  municipal waste management, this kind of transparency is mostly needed because it can rebuild the damaged trust between local inhabitants and the government.

Policies aimed at improving the performance of a local waste management system should acknowledge the central role of the social actors, whose perceptions, narratives and values must play a key role in the choice.