The wicked problem of waste management: An attention-based analysis of stakeholder behaviours

Giuseppe Salvia, Nici Zimmermann, Catherine Willan, Joanna Hale, Hellen Gitau, Kanyiva Muindi,, Evans Gichana and Mike Davies


Surging amounts of waste are reported globally and especially in lower-income countries, with negative consequences for health and the environment. Increasing concern has been raised for the limited progress achieved in practice by diverse sets of policies and programmes. Waste management is a wicked problem characterised by multilayered interdependencies, complex social dynamics and webs of stakeholders. Interactions among these generate unpredictable outcomes that can be missed by decision makers through their understanding and framing of their context. This article aims to identify possible sources of persistent problems by focussing on what captures, shapes and limits the attention of stakeholders and decision-makers, drawing on the attention-based view from organisation theory. The theory describes the process through which issues and opportunities are noticed and how these are translated into actions, by focussing on the influencers at the individual, organisational and context scale. Views on issues and opportunities for waste management were collected in a series of fieldwork activities from 60 participants representing seven main types of stakeholders in the typical lower-middle income Kenyan city of Kisumu. Through a thematic analysis guided by the attention-based view, we identified patterns and misalignment of views, especially between government, community-based organisations and residents, which may contribute to persistent waste problems in Kisumu. Some point to detrimental waste handling practices, from separation to collection and treatment, as the main cause of issues. For others, these practices are due to a poor control of such practices and enforcement of the law. This study's major theoretical contribution is extending the application of attention theory to multi-stakeholder problems and to non-formalized organisations, namely residents and to the new field of waste management. This novel lens contributes a greater understanding of waste issues and their management in Africa that is relevant to policy and future research. By revealing the “wickedness” of the waste problem, we point to the need for a holistic and systems-based policy approach to limit further unintended consequences.