Some happy, others sad: Exploring environmental justice in solid waste management

Nzalalemba Serge Kubanza, of the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, examined environmental justice in the context of solid waste management in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Nzalalemba Serge Kubanza

Nzalalemba Serge Kubanza


The idea of “some happy, others sad” can be articulated in environmental justice discourse as the reaction to perceived inequities in service delivery, and the undue placement of environmental burdens on the poor. Environmental injustice occurs in many poor cities, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. This paper explores the concept of environmental justice in the context of solid waste management in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It evaluates the extent to which environmental injustice occurs in solid waste management in Kinshasa and discusses the critical factors accounting for this state of affairs. Furthermore, the paper examines the relevant theoretical framework(s) and mechanisms that would facilitate environmental justice in the DRC.


The paper engages in a critical review of literature and appraisal of two comparative case studies, as well as in-depth analysis of archival information and stakeholders’ discussion conducted through a pilot study. After initial filtration and evaluations of literature on solid waste and environmental justice related issues, a total number of 110 peer reviewed articles and documents were comprehensively reviewed and analyzed. To compliment literature review, participant observations were conducted in Kinshasa between 4 November 2013 and 15 September 2014. In addition to this, informal discussions were conducted in a reflexive manner with city officials such as the councillor city planners and solid waste managers over the same period. In total, 10 local government officials were interviewed. The cultural theory framework was adopted, as it is particularly suited to both the analysis of material flows and to contending ideas of fairness.


The findings suggest that solid waste management in Kinshasa, like in many Congolese cities, is a duty entrusted to public funded municipal authorities. However, there is evidence suggesting that solid waste management in Kinshasa is highly driven by issues relating to the political power, and the economic and social status of the residents. There is a clear divide in the solid waste management between the rich and poor neighborhoods of the city. The rich neighborhoods seem to enjoy much more well-formulated systems of service delivery than high density areas where almost 80% of the population in Kinshasa resides. This state of affairs may be the result of inequalities that exist between the more powerful and poor members of the urban society in Kinshasa.

Furthermore, research findings suggest that increased collaboration among the government, private companies, and nongovernmental organizations, and community-based organisations in solid waste management would facilitate the development of more effective and efficient integrated systems and approaches in solid waste management. This development could result in the adoption of technologies and innovative ways of managing solid waste and would promote social and environmental justice in Kinshasa. Among the various solid waste management solutions, it was found that composting would be more socially, economically, and technologically acceptable. This is because it could reduce the collection and distribution problems of solid waste, creates a usable resource in the form of manure, and generates energy. It is also cost effective and more importantly does not need dumping sites in poor areas of the city. Thus, it can lead to environmental justice in solid waste management in Kinshasa.


Environmental justice, particularly in solid waste management, is a challenge all over the world; however, it is particularly prominent in the cities of sub-Saharan Africa. Kinshasa in DRC is facing this challenge at a large scale. Appropriate and effective policy interventions and mechanisms are essential to alleviate this problem in the city. A politico-cultural mechanism for remedying solid waste management inequities could enable changes that will address environmental justice in Kinshasa. Such a solution, will go directly against the prevailing notions that it is inevitable that “some [will be] happy, others sad” with respect to environmental justice in solid waste management.


Dillip Kumar Das, Department of Civil Engineering, Central University of Technology, South Africa.

Michael Thompson, Risk, Policy and Vulnerability Program, IIASA

M. Bruce Beck, Environmental Informatics and Control Programme, Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, University of Georgia, USA


Nzalalemba Serge Kubanza, of the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, is a citizen of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and was funded by the IIASA South African National Member Organization during the SA-YSSP.

Please note these Proceedings have received limited or no review from supervisors and IIASA program directors, and the views and results expressed therein do not necessarily represent IIASA, its National Member Organizations, or other organizations supporting the work.   

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Last edited: 01 February 2016

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