Disasters come in many forms – natural, man-made, sudden onset like earthquakes, fire, flood, tsunami hurricane, and volcanic eruption, or ‘prolonged onset’ like droughts and conflict.
The destruction resulting from these disasters can bring enormous amounts of debris and waste that can be hazardous to human health and the environment if not collected and disposed of properly.
Climate change is projected to make extreme weather events like coastal storms, droughts, hurricanes, and wildfires more frequent and severe.
As population and infrastructure increase, so is the vulnerability of people, especially those living in densely populated areas.
Every year we witness natural disasters that happen worldwide. According to The Zebra’s article, “Natural Disaster Statistics in 2021,” an average of 6800 natural disasters occurs annually.
IPWEA Insite’s article, “How to better sort and reuse post-disaster waste,” gives examples of disasters that created large volumes of debris and waste.
Australia’s Black Summer bushfires between 2019 to 2020 have killed 34 people, burned down 18 million hectares, 9000 buildings, and 3500 homes, and cost more than $103 billion in damages.
The extensive flooding in Sydney and the Mid North Coast in March 2021 has damaged many homes, businesses, local councils and resulted in weeks of clean-up after the floods had subsided.
The 8-magnitude earthquake in China in 2008, known as the Great Sichuan earthquake, collapsed 6,945,000 rooms and severely destroyed 5,932,500 rooms. Building damage generated approximately 381 million tonnes of waste.
Lastly, Hurricane Michael that hit Florida in October 2018 has also left behind 12.8 million tonnes of debris.
According to the article, the vast amounts of waste can be overwhelming to local waste managers, and often the trash and debris are left untouched for days or even months. While disaster resilience is the subject of much research, handling post-disaster waste is understudied.
With natural disasters occurring more frequently and more impactful than ever, society would need a better system to handle the post-disaster waste. The article suggests the following strategies:
- Analyze the composition of the waste.
- Find better approaches to recycling and reuse.
- Design new technologies to identify hazardous components and sort the different types of waste.
- Identify new and existing markets to promote reuse and recycling.
The nature of debris and waste is also highly heterogeneous, which would need the help of new technologies and artificial intelligence to sort and separate waste. Which can bolster recycling and reuse of waste and help reduce waste.
The study “Post-Disaster Construction Waste Management Strategies: Case Study Canterbury Earthquake” provides helpful insights.
The Christchurch earthquake in 2010 and 2011 has generated around 4 million tons of debris and another 1 million from repairs. The government has appointed the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) to manage the post-disaster waste and the city’s recovery effort.
The study’s findings show that CERAs “pick and go” strategy effectively directed debris straight into the end-use market. However, the study has also pointed to some limitations in the post-disaster construction and recovery waste management during the Christchurch earthquake recovery effort.
These limitations include lack of pre-event planning, poor coordination between local authorities and contractors during the recovery, incomplete policies and acts, and insufficient capacity in construction and demolition facilities to process waste.
According to the study, improving post-disaster waste management for future disasters entails “developing a robust construction and demolition waste management plan, covering both pre-and post-disaster stages, and a more powerful organization than CERA to handle emergencies more effectively and efficiently, by taking timely decisions.”
Disasters will continue to happen, and losses will only increase due to climate change, urbanization, population growth, environmental degradation, and aging infrastructures.
As part of infrastructure management and disaster-resilience panning, society and governments need better strategies to deal with the waste and debris that disaster leaves behind.