About Be Waste Wise

Be Waste Wise is a global platform for content and conversations on waste. Its mission is to bridge the waste solutions expertise dissemination gap worldwide by using 21st century tools, opening up high-quality, leading-edge thinking to those who have not had access to this expertise, while also eliminating the environmental and financial costs of global conferences.

Waste Management in Global North and Global South

Waste management is highly context specific. Therefore it is important to distinguish between the conditions in the Global North and the Global South. Recent ILO figures suggest that 24 million people around the world are involved in the informal waste recycling sector, 80% of whom are waste pickers. Some estimates say that 1% of urban population in developing countries makes their primary household income through informal sector waste management activities.  In Latin America alone, 4-5 million waste pickers earn their livelihood by being a part of the global recyclables supply chain.

Municipal budgets in the Global South are often limited and only a small percentage of that budget is assigned to waste management as compared to other municipal services. In the Global North waste management is recognized as a necessary public good and there is a greater willingness to pay for this service. Solid waste management (e.g. waste collection, transportation and recycling) is generally more labour intensive than in North America and Europe.

Urbanization in the Global South is often haphazard and unplanned; creating pockets of high and low income neighbourhoods. This creates logistical issues for the waste management service provision limiting options for viable waste collection and transportation. It is often the informal sector that steps in to fill this service gap.

The maturity and strength of the legal framework differs between the Global South and Global North. In North America and Europe the legal framework of waste management actively promotes and provides incentives for waste reduction, reuse and recovery whereas, despite recent developments in some countries, in Latin America legal frameworks remain focused upon mixed waste collection, transportation and disposal.

Recycling rates in Argentina are at 11% of the total waste stream with 95% of this material is recovered by the informal sector. This situation is replicated in many other countries. The informal sector recovers between 50% (e.g. Mexico) and 90% (e.g. Nicaragua) of the waste recovered and in the different countries of the region. Resource recovery and recycling is driven by market conditions. Materials that have a value are diverted from landfill through an informal network of recyclers and waste collectors.

The composition of waste is also very different in the Global South where organic waste is a much larger percentage of the waste stream. Because of the high percentage of organics in the waste stream in many cities in the Global South, innovations in decentralised composting and small scale biogas have been seen across the Global South (particularly in India) and can be used effectively by the informal sector, making a zero waste future a real possibility.

Role of Informal Recycling Sector

The informal sector can be highly effective at collecting and diverting garbage from landfill. When empowered with a facilitating legal framework, and collectively organized, the informal sector can be a key part of a sustainable resource recovery system. Using people power to increase recycling and diversion rates decreases the need for expensive, fixed, high technology solutions.

Understanding that the context for waste management is different between the Global North and Global South, and even in different areas within a city or region, means that no two situations will be the same. However, if there is one principle to follow it may well be to consider the context and look for the simplest solution. The greenest cities of the future may well be those that use flexible, adaptable solutions and maximize the work that the informal sector is already doing.

Note: This excerpt is being published with the permission of our collaborative partner Be Waste Wise. The original excerpt and its video recording can be found at this link

Recycling Outlook for Latin America

Latin America has one of the highest rates of urbanization in the world (80% urban population). By 2050, 90% of Latin America’s population will live in urban areas. This high rate of urbanization coupled with the global economic crisis has resulted in a waste management crisis. Municipalities find themselves unable to keep up with providing services and infrastructure to the urban populations.

Some cities in Latin America are facing this challenge by integrating the informal sector recyclers who are already active in their cities into the municipal solid waste management systems. In many cities, these “recicladores”, “cartoneros” or “catadores” (a few of the many names used for these workers in the region) are responsible for up to 90% of the recyclable waste recovered from the waste stream. Their work reduces municipal waste transportation costs, increases landfill lifetimes and supports the recycling chain throughout the region.

State of the Affairs

Every location presents its own challenges–there is no one-size-fits-all solution for integrated solid waste management systems–but relevant lessons can be drawn from both failed attempts and successful examples of informal sector integration in recycling systems in Latin America.

There are often two very different contexts within cities. In low-income neighborhoods waste collection services are often not provided and individuals and families accumulate and then sell their recyclables for additional income. In contrast, residents in high income neighborhoods do receive a waste collection service and their motivation for recycling is often related to greater levels of environmental awareness. It is important to consider these differences when designing waste management solutions.

Imported systems, and even locally derived systems based on examples from the Global North, generally focus on only one waste management scenario, making it difficult to manage the multiple competing scenarios in many cities in Latin America. There is often a bias towards the automation of waste management services, with the application of the high technology solutions used in the Global North. Regardless of the practicality or scientific evidence against certain high tech solutions, these are often sought after, thought to raise the bar of the city, to make it appear more sophisticated and modern. This leads to a misconception that working with informal sector is a step backwards in terms of urban development and modernization.

Conflicts between private waste management companies, the municipality and informal recyclers are common. The waste management companies do not want pickers on the landfill and wastepickers then go to the municipality for help. However, municipalities usually have very little experience to support the integration of formal and informal waste sectors. There are opportunities for new systems to emerge within this conflict. For example, during a similar conflict in Mexicali, Mundo Sustentable, with the help of Danone, intervened to help a private company work with the informal waste sector and improve recycling rates.

The Way Forward

In Latin America, there is a great opportunity to increase recycling rates by using labour-intensive solutions, which create jobs and support the development of a better urban environment in the cities. Municipal governments should be an integral part of these processes as they are usually responsible for solid waste management at local level. The key to catalyzing informal recycling sector integration will be the development and dissemination of successful examples.

Informal recyclers provide important a range of services to municipalities (such as waste collection and recovery in communities that would not otherwise have access to them), as well as cost savings (for example, the extension of landfill life and reduced transport costs), yet are rarely compensated for these benefits. Informal recyclers further form the foundation of an entire recycling supply chain, which ultimately benefits formal businesses, and often aliment entire local economies.

Challenges to Overcome

Municipal governments are often hesitant to work with informal actors, who are frequently seen as an unknown quantity. Yet often in the process of working and developing relations with informal recycler groups, their concerns diminish and they may actually exhibit enthusiasm. Likewise, the recyclers may gain in confidence and professionalism in their experience of formalization.

One major challenge facing efforts to integrate the informal sector in developing countries is the desire of some local governments to adopt technological solutions that appear more “modern.” In much of Latin America, however, low-cost, low-tech solutions tend to be more viable and sustainable.

The main difference between Latin America and the countries of the Global North is that solid waste management is a labor intensive system. It is made up of workers and hence has an important social component. The ILO estimated there is 24 million of people working in the global recycling supply chain, but those at the bottom of the pyramid, the wastepickers, make up 80%. They remain the lowest paid even though they make an enormous contribution to their cities.

It is important to understand that highly sophisticated, high technology systems are not required for effective resource recovery. In many cities in Latin America between 80-90% of everything that is recycled is recovered by the informal recycling sector.

Despite the fact that there is little or no public investment in waste management or recycling infrastructure, cities with an active informal sector reach twice the rate of fully formalized municipal solid waste management systems. As an example, the recycling rate is 60% in Cairo, while in Rotterdam (and other cities in the Global North) recycling levels only reach 30%, even with a high public investment in the system (UN Habitat, 2010).

When designing infrastructure and waste management systems we must consider not only the waste management and resource recovery needs but also the social side of the system. In order to be effective, efforts to upgrade waste management services should go hand in hand with efforts to formalise and integrate the informal sector.

Bogota – A Success Story

An example of a recent success story is that after 27 years of struggle, the waste pickers in Bogota, Colombia have managed to change the government’s outlook on their work and their existence. They are now included in the system and are paid per tonne of waste collected, just like any other private sector collection and waste management company would be. They have become recognized as public service providers, acknowledged for their contribution to the environment and public health of the city.

The key challenge is to be much more creative and understand that in order to improve the working conditions of waste pickers and in order to increase recycling rates, we don’t need high technology. We need a systemic approach and this can be very simple sometimes infrastructure as simple as a roof [on a sorting area] can be effective in improving working conditions.

Note: This excerpt is being published with the permission of our collaborative partner Be Waste Wise. The original excerpt and its video recording can be found at this link

Obstacles in Implementation of Waste-to-Energy

The biggest obstacle to the implementation of Waste-to-Energy (or WTE) lies not in the technology itself but in the acceptance of citizens. Citizens who are environmentally minded but lack awareness of the current status of waste-to-energy bring up concerns of environmental justice and organize around this. They view WTE as ‘dumping’ of pollutants on lower strata of society and their emotional critique rooted in the hope for environmental justice tends to move democracy.

An advocate of public understanding of science, Shawn Lawrence Otto regrets that the facts are not able to hold the same sway. Some US liberal groups such as the Center for American Progress are beginning to realize that the times and science have changed. It will take more consensus on the science and the go ahead from environmental groups before the conversation moves forward, seemingly improbable but not without precedent.

Spittelau Waste-to-Energy Plant

The Spittelau waste-to-energy plant is an example of opposition coming together in consensus over WTE. It was built in Vienna in 1971 with the purpose of addressing district heating and waste management issues. Much later awareness of the risks of dioxins emitted by such plants grew and the people’s faith in the technology was called into question. It also became a political issue whereby opposition parties challenged the mayor on the suitability of the plant. The economic interests of landfill owners also lay in the shutting down of the WTE facility. The alternative was to retrofit the same plant with advanced technology that would remove the dioxins through Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR).

Through public discussions it appeared that the majority of the people were against the plant altogether though thorough studies by informed researchers showed that the science backs WTE. The mayor, Helmut Zilk eventually consulted Green Party members on how to make this technology better perceived in the eyes of the people, and asked the famous Austrian artist Freidensreich Hundertwasser, who was a green party member to design the look of the plant. Freidensreich Hundertwasser after carefully studying the subject wrote a letter of support, stating his belief as to why WTE was needed and accepted Mayor Helmut Zilk’s request. Later public opinion polls showed that there were a majority of people who were either in favor of or not opinionated about the plant, with only 3% in outright opposition of the plant.

Polarized Discussion

Waste-to-Energy or recycling has kept public discourse from questioning whether there may not be intermediate or case specific solutions. This polarization serves to move the conversation nowhere. For now it can be agreed that landfills are devastating in their contribution to Climate Change and must be done away with. The choice then, of treatment processes for municipal solid waste are plentiful. If after recovery of recyclable materials there remains a sizeable waste stream the option of waste-to-energy can be explored.

Primary Considerations

  • Environmental implications (i.e. CO2 emissions vis-à-vis the next best fuel source) given the composition of the local waste stream. If the waste stream consists of a high percentage of recyclables the more sustainable waste strategy would be to ramp up recycling efforts rather than to adopt WTE,
  • Likely composition and variation of the waste stream and the feasibility of the technology to handle such a waste stream,
  • Financial considerations with regards to the revenue stream from the WTE facility and its long term viability,
  • Efforts at making citizens aware of the high standards achieved by this technology in order to secure their approval.

Note: This excerpt is being published with the permission of our collaborative partner Be Waste Wise. The original excerpt and its video recording can be found at this link

Importance of Waste-to-Energy

Waste-to-energy has been evolving over the years and there are many new developments in this technology, moving in mainly one direction – to be able to applied to smaller size waste streams. Not only is it a strategy that has real importance for the current public policy, it is a strategy that will definitely present itself to additional areas.

More than 50% of waste that is burnt in waste-to-energy facilities is already part of the short carbon cycle. In which case, it has an organic derivative and it doesn’t add to climate change, to begin with. The long form carbon that is burned, things like plastics that have come out of the ground in the form of oil do add to climate change. But, they have already been used once. They have already been extracted once and what we are doing is taking the energy out of them after that physical use, capturing some of that (energy), thereby offsetting more carbon from natural gas or oil or coal. So, the net effect is a reduction in carbon emissions.

Waste-to-energy and recycling are complementary depending on the results of analyses of the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics, which are absolutely valid. One can decide in specific situations whether waste-to-energy or whether some type of recycling technology would be more appropriate. It is not an either/or option.

In Austria, it was possible to have an absolute ban on landfilling wastes exceeding 5% organic carbon. This is written in law since 1996. There were some exceptions for some period of time, but landfills of organic wastes are just banned, not just in Austria but also in other cultures similar to Austria – like Switzerland and Germany.

Note: This excerpt is being published with the permission of our collaborative partner Be Waste Wise. The original excerpt and its video recording can be found at this link

Food Waste Management – Consumer Behavior and FWDs

food-waste-managementFood waste is a global issue that begins at home and as such, it is an ideal contender for testing out new approaches to behaviour change. The behavioural drivers that lead to food being wasted are complex and often inter-related, but predominantly centre around purchasing habits, and the way in which we store, cook, eat and celebrate food.

Consumer Behavior – A Top Priority

Consumer behaviour is a huge priority area in particular for industrialised nations – it is estimated that some western societies might be throwing away up to a third of all food purchased. The rise of cheap food and convenience culture in recent years has compounded this problem, with few incentives or disincentives in place at producer, retail or consumer level to address this.

While it is likely that a number of structural levers – such as price, regulation, enabling measures and public benefits – will need to be pulled together in a coherent way to drive progress on this agenda, at a deeper level there is a pressing argument to explore the psycho-social perspectives of behaviour change.

Individual or collective behaviours often exist within a broader cultural context of values and attitudes that are hard to measure and influence. Simple one-off actions such as freezing leftovers or buying less during a weekly food shop do not necessarily translate into daily behaviour patterns. For such motivations to have staying power, they must become instinctive acts, aligned with an immediate sense of purpose. The need to consider more broadly our behaviours and how they are implicated in such issues must not stop at individual consumers, but extend to governments, businesses and NGOs if effective strategies are to be drawn up.

Emergence of Food Waste Disposers

Food waste disposer (FWDs), devices invented and adopted as a tool of convenience may now represent a unique new front in the fight against climate change. These devices, commonplace in North America, Australia and New Zealand work by shredding household or commercial food waste into small pieces that pass through a municipal sewer system without difficulty.

The shredded food particles are then conveyed by existing wastewater infrastructure to wastewater treatment plants where they can contribute to the generation of biogas via anaerobic digestion. This displaces the need for generation of the same amount of biogas using traditional fossil fuels, thereby averting a net addition of greenhouse gases (GHG) to the atmosphere.

Food waste is an ideal contender for testing new approaches to behaviour change.

The use of anaerobic digesters is more common in the treatment of sewage sludge, as implemented in the U.K., but not as much in the treatment of food waste. In addition to this, food waste can also replace methanol (produced from fossil fuels) and citric acid used in advanced wastewater treatment processes which are generally carbon limited.

Despite an ample number of studies pointing to the evidence of positive impacts of FWDs, concerns regarding its use still exist, notably in Europe. Scotland for example has passed legislation that bans use of FWDs, stating instead that customers must segregate their waste and make it available curbside for pickup. This makes it especially difficult for the hospitality industry, to which the use of disposer is well suited. The U.S. however has seen larger scale adoption of the technology due to the big sales push it received in the 1950s and 60s. In addition to being just kitchen convenience appliances, FWDs are yet to be widely accepted as a tool for positive environmental impact.

Note: Note: This excerpt is being published with the permission of our collaborative partner Be Waste Wise. The original excerpt and its video recording can be found at this link

Plastic Wastes and its Management

Plastic seems all pervasive and unavoidable. Since the 1960s our use of plastic has increased dramatically, and subsequently, the portion of our garbage that is made up of plastic has also increased from 1% of the total municipal solid waste stream (household garbage) to approximately 13% (US Environmental Protection Agency). Plastic products range from things like containers and packaging (soft drink bottles, lids, shampoo bottles) to durable goods (think appliances, furniture and cars) and non-durable goods including things from a plastic party tray to medical devices. Sometimes marked with a number and a chasing arrow, there is an illusion that all plastics are recyclable, and therefore recycled. But there are a number of problems with this assumption.

While use and consumption of plastic is increasingly high, doubts about viable options for reuse, recycling and disposal are also on the rise. Complications such as the increasing number of additives used alter the strength, texture, flexibility, colour, resistance to microbes, and other characteristics of plastics, make plastics less recyclable. Additionally, there is very little market value in some plastics, leading municipalities to landfill or incinerate plastics as waste. Based on figures from the EPA (2011 data) only 8% of plastic materials are recovered through recycling.

Another major concern about plastics in the waste stream is their longevity and whether or not they are truly biodegrade. It is estimated that most plastics would take 500-1000 years to break down into organic components. Because of this longevity and the low rate of recycling, much of our plastic waste ends up in landfills or as litter. Some of this plastic waste makes its way via rivers and wind to the ocean. Garbage barges, and the trans-continental transport of recyclable materials also lead to an increasing amount of plastics in our oceans and waterways.

Plastic waste directly and indirectly affects living organisms throughout the ecosystem, including an increasingly high impact on marine life at a macro and micro scale. According to United Nations, almost 80% of marine debris is plastic. Policy enforcement remains weak, global manufacture of plastics continues to increase, and the quantity of plastic debris in the oceans, as well as on land, is likely to increase.

With limited sustainable recovery of plastics, there is a growing global movement to reduce the generation of plastic. Certain types of plastic may be ’safer‘ for the environment than others, however, there are troubling issues associated with all of them, leading to the conclusion that action is needed to remove plastic waste, and stricter controls are required to limit new sources of plastic pollution. Efforts such as light weighting of packaging and shifts to compostable plastics are options. Policies limiting the use of plastics such as bottle bills and bag bans are other ways to decrease the production and consumption of plastics.

Mining the debris fields in our oceans and turning plastic waste into usable materials, from socks made of fishing line to fuel made from a variety of plastic debris, is one way to mitigate the current situation.

Note: This excerpt is being published with the permission of our collaborative partner Be Waste Wise. The original excerpt and its video recording can be found at this link

Behavioral Drivers Behind Food Wastes

food-waste-behaviorBy 2075, the United Nations estimates the global population will peak at 9.5 billion, an extra 3 billion mouths to feed by the end of the century. Meanwhile, while we produce about four billion tonnes of food annually, it is estimated that 30-50% of this never reaches our plates. Of the food that does reach us, some western societies throw away up to a third of all food purchased. This has enormous implications for the global environment, from wasting the water used to grow the food to adverse effects on climate, land and biodiversity.

The drivers behind these phenomenal levels of food waste are complex and include food pricing, logistical and storage issues. However, given the significant level of waste that happens within the households of societies like the UK and US, it is useful and informative to consider those behaviours that drive this level of waste.

The quality of data around food waste, as with much of waste data, has historically been poor. To this end, WRAP commissioned groundbreaking research in the UK in 2006/7 to act as a baseline to their Love Food Hate Waste campaign. This came up with the alarming statistic that 1/3 of food bought by a UK household was thrown away. Until this time, there had been no comprehensive research, either by food manufacturers, retailers or interest groups, suggesting the importance of government, or some other dis-interested party, taking a lead on the issue.

Back to Basics

There may be a link between the amount of time spent preparing food, and the skill and effort that goes into this, and the amount of food waste produced. This has led to a loss of confidence in the kitchen, with individuals losing basic skills that allow them to cook with leftovers, understand food labeling, including Best Before and Use By, even basic storing. WRAP had found little evidence of best practice storage advice so carried out the research themselves – leading the (surprising for many) conclusion that fruit such as apples and pears are best stored in the fridge wrapped in a plastic cover. However, this has masked a larger trend of less time spent in the kitchen, due to demographic changes. This of course begs the question – how should we use this when trying to reduce food waste? Should we encourage people to cook from scratch as a principle?

Although waste prevention and recycling are clearly separated within the waste hierarchy, there are apparent links between the two when considering food waste. There is an urgent need for legislation to enforce separate food waste collections, not only to ensure it was diverted to anaerobic digestion or composting, but also as it led to greater self awareness around food waste. WRAP research has clearly showed a fall in food waste when separate food waste collections were introduced.

Role of Packaging

Historically, packaging has always been a high priority to the public when asked about priorities for reducing waste. However, as awareness of food waste has grown, a more nuanced position has developed among waste managers. While excess packaging is clearly undesirable, and, within the UK for instance, the Courtauld Commitment  has helped reduced grocery packaging by 2.9 million tonnes of waste so far, there is a realization of the importance of food packaging in preserving food and hence reducing food waste.

Making food easily accessible and affordable by many, it could be argued, is one of the crowning achievements of our age. Over the last century, the proportion of household income that is spent on food has plummeted, and there is a direct link to malnutrition and food prices, particularly for children. But does cheap food mean that it is less valued and hence greater wastage? Is the answer expensive food? The evidence from WRAP in the UK is that food waste is still a serious economic issue for households, and underlining the economic case for reducing food waste a major incentive for households, especially as food prices are not entering an era of increase and instability, providing added economic urgency

Political Persuasions

Different political persuasions often differ in the approaches they take to changing behaviours and food waste is no different. In the UK, the Courtauld Commitment is a voluntary agreement aimed at encouraging major retailers to take responsibility mainly for packaging, later growing to encompass food waste, voluntary and so far has seen a 21% reduction in food waste post-consumer.

Meanwhile Wales (in the UK) effectively banned food waste from landfill. Scotland has ensured that businesses make food waste available for separate collection – again it’s only once you see it, you can manage it. Campaigns like the UK’s Love Food Hate Waste have been successful but measuring food waste prevention, as with all waste prevention, is notoriously difficult. But, people are now widely aware of food waste as an issue – we even see celebrity chefs actively talking about food waste reduction and recipes involving leftovers or food that is about to go off.

There is clearly a balance between food waste and food safety, with a commitment to reducing food waste throughout the retail and catering world, not just at home. By engaging environmental health officers to help deliver this, a potentially conflicting message can be delivered in a nuanced and balanced way. Indeed, environmental health officers in Scotland will be responsible for ensuring that Scottish food businesses present their food waste for separate collection.

Role of Communication

It is worth considering how the message should be communicated, and by whom. The community sector are more trusted by the public than government and the private sector are more effective at imparting personal, deeply held beliefs – the sort of beliefs that need to change if we are to see long term changes in attitudes towards consumption and hence waste production.

Furthermore, communications can engage wider audiences that hold an interest in reducing food waste that is perhaps not primarily environmental. The health and economic benefits of issues and behaviours that also result in food waste prevention may be the prevalent message that fits with a particular audience. So whilst the main aim of a training session might be food waste prevention, this is may not be the external message. And this has wider implications for waste prevention, and how we engage audiences around it.

Municipal authorities tasked with waste prevention will need to engage with new groups, in new ways. They will have to consider approaches previously considered to be beyond their powers to engage new audiences – should they be partnering with public health authorities with an interest in nutrition, or social housing providers that are focused on financial inclusion.

Should waste prevention even be a discipline in itself? After all, across material streams it is a motley assortment of behaviours with different drivers. Furthermore, with the knots that one can tie oneself in trying to measure waste that doesn’t get generated, – therefore doesn’t exist – should we integrate waste prevention in to other socio-economic programmes and position it as an “added benefit” to them?

Note: The article is being republished with the permission of our collaborative partner be Waste Wise. The unabridged version can be found at this link. Special thanks to the author Mike Webster.