Pieces of plastic have been trying to get our attention. The first scientific reports of plastic pollution in oceans were in the early 1970s. This waste plastic soaks up other pollutants at up to a million times the concentration in water, harming and killing sea life worldwide. From the point of view of the plastic, we have convincingly failed with solutions. Over the past 40 years the problem has grown around 100 times, with now over 8 million tonnes of plastic waste added to oceans per year.
Everyone is aware about ways for plastic to not become waste. We can set up redesign, sharing, refill, recycling and even composting. When it comes to creating practical possibilities for not making waste, people are super smart. But when it comes to making policy to install this practice throughout the economy, which has been the aim of circular economy for the past four decades, we’re consistently collectively stupid. I call this mob thinking.
We have intelligent activists, business people, experts and officials unintentionally thinking like a mob? always bringing forward the same decades old policy weapons. When these weapons don’t work there is a discussion about strategy but not any actual new strategy, just talk about how forcefully to use the same old policy weapons. This is how it’s been possible for waste management, waste regulation and the unsolved waste problem to all grow in tandem for so long.
The stomach and intestines of sperm whale was filled with 29 kg of garbage
If the piece of plastic had a voice in the circular economy debate what might it say? It would remind us to beware mob thinking. Today’s problems are solvable only by trying new thinking and new policy weapons. Precycling is an example. The piece of plastic doesn’t mind whether it’s part of a product that’s longlife or refilled or shared or refurbished or recycled or even composted (so long as it’s fully biodegradable). It doesn’t even mind being called ‘waste’ so long as it’s on its way to a new use. Action that ensures any of these is precycling.
Our piece of plastic does mind about ending up as ecosystem waste. It does not wish to join 5 trillion other pieces of plastic abandoned in the world’s oceans. It would be horrified to poison a fish or starve a sea bird. Equally it does not want to be perpetually entombed in a landfill dump or transformed into climate destabilising greenhouse gases by incineration.
The two possible outcomes for a piece of plastic, remaining as a resource or being dumped as ecological waste, are the same fates awaiting every product. Our economies and our futures depend on our ambition in arranging the right outcome. The old policy weapons of prescriptive targets and taxes, trying to force more of one waste management outcome or less of another, are largely obsolete.
Circular economy can be fully and quickly implemented by policy to make markets financially responsible for the risk of products becoming ecological waste. Some ever hopeful pieces of plastic would be grateful if we would get on with doing this.
In just a few decades plastics have become omnipresent in our society. But, unfortunately, the consequences of their use last far beyond their useful lifetime. Everyone is aware of their overwhelming dispersion in our landscapes. The situation in the oceans is not better . As a reaction, a few thoughts spring to my mind.
First of all, it is clear that the industry is assuming very little responsibility, and that Public Administrations are complicit with this. Extended Producer Pesponsibility (abbreviated as EPR) only affects –and only partially– those plastics used as light packaging, in vehicles, in tyres or as part of electric and electronic equipment, not any of the others. Also, recycling levels are not sufficiently high, as a result of poor separate collection systems and inefficient treatment facilities. As a consequence, society has to face not only the problems created by those materials which are not recycled, but also has to assume a high share of the costs of managing them as waste.
Secondly, it illustrates the importance of the quality of the materials that we aim to recycle, and thus the importance of separate waste collection; for all materials, but particularly for biowaste. Although most composting and anaerobic digestion facilities have the capacity to separate some of the impurities (of which around 40% can be plastics), this separation is far from perfect.
Two recent studies confirm that the quality of compost is influenced by the presence of impurities in biowaste  and that, in turn, the presence of impurities is influenced by several factors , among which particularly the type of separate collection scheme, door to door separate collection models being those presenting better results.
Thirdly, it makes clear the urgency to adopt measures that address the root of the problem. High quality separate collection and sound waste treatment are necessary, and allow enormous room for improvement, but they are end-of-pipe solutions. It is also important to promote greener consumption patterns through environmental awareness campaigns, but this is not enough either.
One can think that these measures are a bit too hard, but honestly, after wandering around beaches and mountains, and finding plastics absolutely everywhere, I am bit disappointed with the outcome of soft solutions.
On 16th January 2018 the European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy was adopted . A number of measures will need to be applied by the European Union (listed in Annex I of the Strategy), by Member States and by the industry (Annex II), but also by Regional Governments and Local Authorities. No doubt that implementing the Strategy will bring about significant advances, but only time will say if it is sufficient to address the huge challenge we face.
The European Union has also recently adopted the much-awaited Directive 2019/904 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 5 June 2019 on the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment, which introduces several bans and restrictions on different uses and materials. This is indeed a huge step, which needs to be followed by others, both in Europe, but also elsewhere, as this is truly a global challenge.
 Campos Rodrigues, L., Puig Ventosa, I., López, M., Martínez, X. (2016) Anàlisi de la incidència dels impropis de la FORM sobre la qualitat del compost de les plantes de compostatge de Catalunya https://tinyurl.com/y37ncton
 Puig-Ventosa, I., Freire-González, J., Jofra-Sora, M. (2013) Determining factors for the presence of impurities in selectively collected biowaste, Waste Management and Research, 31: 510-517.
Waste is an inevitable aspect of being human in today’s world — or so most people believe. But what if we told you that reducing and even eliminating waste is possible? All we have to do to get to that point is convince a few key industry sectors to start doing things a bit differently. Basically, we need to transition to a circular economy model.
If you’ve never heard of the term, we can’t blame you. Most people don’t go around researching the economic system they live in — let alone alternative methods of production. Still, learning about circular economy is a great way to introduce other concepts — like Zero Waste manufacturing.
Of course, before we can do all that, we have to be aware of the system we currently have. With that in mind, let’s start by talking about the cause of the waste accumulation we are dealing with today.
Is Linear Economy Outdated?
Most people know that the amount of waste production and accumulation we are fighting against was ultimately caused by our economic system. The principles of linear economy are fairly simple. We take what we need from nature, and we transform these raw materials into products, which we dispose of when they’re no longer of use. Proponents of this system assumed that the planet is capable of providing infinite resources and regenerating an infinite amount of waste.
As we now know, that is simply not the case. So the system’s goal of maximizing production and sales has become impossible to envision without also seeing the eventual consequences.
After all, to keep production cycles going, we also need to create demand. That’s why many commodities we buy nowadays fall apart so quickly. The sooner your shirt rips open at the seams, the sooner you’ll go looking for a new one. But before we start pointing fingers at the fast fashion industry, remember that the system affects all commercial enterprises.
Is There a Different Kind of Approach We Can Opt for?
The excessive production and turnover of commodities we see in the linear economy are all but guaranteed to produce an enormous amount of waste. But as any waste management expert will tell you — it’s never too late to veer toward another approach.
In recent years, many people have been considering the benefits of transitioning to a Zero Waste lifestyle. Basically, rather than throwing their used up and damaged items, the goal of Zero Waste is to find a way to use them again. Whether it’s composting, making bags out of ripped jeans, or turning broken pans into planters — people are having to be creative with items they would have otherwise tossed in the trash.
But while most people are familiar with the philosophy in general, not many are aware of who started Zero Waste. Believe it or not, the phrase was coined in the ‘80s. However, Daniel Knapp, one of the first people who formulated the idea of total recycling, didn’t just talk the talk. Instead, he and his wife founded a salvaging market, Urban Ore, to focus on diverting waste from their local landfill and reusing it within the community.
Over the years, their ideas inspired many others to look for ways to reduce their waste production. Eventually, those principles reached the waste management industry and society at large. All through the ‘90s and early ‘00s, “no waste” slogans were everywhere. But where did all that activism lead?
The Birth of Circular Economy
The idea of a cyclical system of production is certainly older than the modern Zero Waste philosophy. However, the concept of a circular economy wasn’t mentioned until 1988. Even then, shifting perspectives around the subject of waste production and management certainly helped popularize the idea.
Ultimately, the philosophies behind these two concepts are closely aligned. Both aim to reduce and eventually eliminate the production of waste. Unlike the linear approach we discussed earlier, circular economy is all about letting the Earth recover and minimizing the amount of raw resources we take from it. But in addition to benefiting the planet, the principles of sustainable production also need to benefit businesses.
After all, rather than paying for raw materials that are directly taken from nature, circular economy advocates for reusing and recycling already-processed materials. That should reduce the cost of production — in theory. Unfortunately, recycling technology is still too expensive for some businesses to invest in. So how can we, as consumers, nudge them in the right direction?
How Do We Start Transitioning to Circular Economy?
On an individual level, one thing we can all do is check our consumption habits. Don’t just throw out old items if you don’t have to. Instead, learn how to mend and transform objects into items you can keep using and loving.
Additionally, you can transition to shopping from sustainable local businesses. Ultimately, the cost of shipping is much greater than you might think. If nothing else, shopping locally tends to have a lower carbon footprint.
These individual decisions should eventually influence businesses to reduce the number of commodities they produce in the first place. But there’s one more thing we can do to prompt the industry to change its ways. Namely, we can influence policies with our vote.
Getting people to participate in this as a political movement is the best way to put pressure on companies. If there are laws and sanctions in place to regulate the production of commodities and waste, businesses will have to adjust their habits.
Can We Achieve Zero Waste Manufacturing?
As we have previously stated, all we need to transition to Zero Waste manufacturing is a few key industry sectors. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, these sectors should be steel, plastic, and aluminum manufacturing, as well as cement and food industries. By getting these five sectors to reuse materials during the production process in the factory, we could cut carbon emissions by 3.7 billion tons by 2050.
Best of all, the emerging models of circular economy will not only stimulate business growth but also create many new job opportunities. So the sooner we take that leap, the sooner our planet can start recovering.
The disposal of municipal solid waste is the second most major concern for public health in developing countries because of population explosion, rampant poverty and high urbanization rates combined with poor government funding to curb waste management. Factors such as waste composition, technologies and lack of infrastructure have been found to set apart the good management of solid wastes in developing nations. Municipal waste is mainly comprised of paper, vegetable matter, plastics, metals, textiles, rubber and glass. In some countries (developing as well as developed), municipal solid waste is mixed with medical wastes and this may pose health risk to waste handlers and general public.
Historically, burying the wastes is the most preferred method for waste management in many countries. This method is still used in many more countries. Tackling environmental issues has become more important and more preferred than pollution and consumption of unsustainable utilization of resources. Most importantly, the primary objective of waste management is to put emphasis on protecting the people and environment from potentially harmful effects of waste.
Methods of Solid Waste Management
Depending on the types of wastes generated, four methods of solid waste management has been used throughout the history, i.e. dumping, incineration, recycling and waste prevention. Waste generated from household is much different from industrial waste, agricultural waste, medical waste or mining wastes.
When wastes contain any hazardous component, or it has capability to become hazardous with time, poses very serious threat to environment and health. Hazardous wastes generated needs to be handled very carefully, with special techniques. This is one of the major reasons of open landfills are getting replaced with sanitary landfills.
At a landfill, wastes are covered with thick layer of soil. By the late 1950, this practice was very common for waste management across the world. Earlier landfills had considerable sludge and methane emissions, which were harmful to the environment as well as animal and human health. But these issues have been resolved largely by modern disposal methods, which were developed around 20 years ago. Modern landfills are equipped with thick layer of clay followed by plastic sheets. This method was practiced by some nations and still going on.
In 1930-1940, many cities in USA adopted new technology to curb waste issues by burning at high temperature, this method is known as incineration. During initial years, this method was not very efficient and emit very large amount of poisonous gasses, this is the major reason of incinerators shut down during that period. During mid-1970s, scientists modified incinerators to generate energy, which are known as waste to energy plants. But after around a decade, it has become major issue to build these plants, again because of emission issues.
With development of technology, waste burning in advanced form of incinerators became common in 1970s, researchers across the world bet on incinerators or waste to energy plants for solution to energy crisis in 1973. However, with realisation of impact on environment and air quality, it become very difficult to find location to build any waste to energy plants, mainly because of public opposition. Another issue with incinerator is production of ashes, which contain huge amount of heavy metals, toxic and inorganic compounds.
Incineration is the most common waste-to-energy method used worldwide.
Future of Solid Waste Management
The overall concept of wastes needs to be considered economically, it will be more considered as economically viable product if waste is considered as an inefficiency of the production process not as rejected residue of waste product. A permanent rejection or heavy restriction into products which produces waste that cannot be accumulated back into the environment safely.
The major challenge in waste management is to persuade people/community to consider waste as a resource, rather than a liability on society, which can be created with more innovation and technological development of manufacturing industry, waste processing industry and new business model and plans.
This planning system will create circular economy where product value created by inputs (e.g. energy, materials, labour etc.) is extended by enabling a material that goes into circular economy, beyond product life. We go from mineral to metals to product then back to minerals/metals. By understanding economic cycle of waste, people will understand the creation of opportunities to more sustainable product in future with limited resources.
When it comes to waste minimisation and moving material up the waste hierarchy you will find partisan advocates for the roles of the public, private and community sectors. Each will tell you the reasons why their sector’s approach is the best. The private sector will extol their virtues as the only ones capable of efficiently and effectively doing the job. They rightly note that they are the providers on the front lines who actually recover the vast majority of material, that the private sector approach drives innovation and efficiency, and that if waste minimisation is to be sustainable this must include economic sustainability.
The community sector on the other hand will make a strong case to say that their model, because it commonly encompasses social, environmental, and economic outcomes, is able to leverage value from recovered materials to dig deeper into the waste stream, to optimise recovered material quality, and to maximise employment and local economic benefit.
Before recycling and composting were economically viable prospects, community sector organisations led the way, developing many of the techniques now widely used. They remain the leaders in marginal areas such as furniture reuse, running projects that deliver environmental outcomes while providing wider community benefits such as rehabilitation and training for marginalised groups.
Finally, in the public sector corner, advocates will point out that the profit-driven private sector will only ever recover those materials that are able to generate positive revenues, and so cannot maximise waste minimisation, while social outcomes are strictly a secondary consideration. The community sector, on the other hand, while encompassing non-monetary values and capable of effective action on a local scale, is not set up to deliver these benefits on a larger scale and can sometimes struggle to deliver consistent, professional levels of service.
The public sector can point to government’s role in legislating to promote consistent environmental and social outcomes, while councils are major providers and commissioners of recycling services and instrumental in shaping public perceptions around waste issues. The public sector often leads in directing activity towards non-monetary but otherwise valuable outcomes, and provides the framework and funding for equity of service levels.
So who is right? Each sector has good arguments in its favour, and each has its weaknesses. Does one approach carry the day? Should we just mix and match according to our personal taste or based on what is convenient?
Perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Maybe the issue is not “which approach is better?” but instead “how might the different models help us get to where we ultimately want to go?”
Smells Like Waste Minimisation
So where do we want to go? What is the waste minimisation end game?
If we think about things from a zero waste perspective, the ideal is that we should move from linear processes of extraction, processing, consumption and disposal, to cyclical processes that mimic nature and that re-integrate materials into economic and natural systems. This is the nirvana – where nothing is ‘thrown away’ because everything has a further beneficial use. In other words what we have is not waste but resources. Or to put it another way – everything has value.
Assuming that we continue to operate in an essentially capitalist system, value has to be translated into economic terms. Imagine if every single thing that we now discard was worth enough money to motivate its recovery. We would throw nothing away: why would we if there was money to be made from it?
So in a zero waste nirvana the private sector and the community sector would take care of recovery almost automatically. There might evolve a community and private sector mix, with each occupying different niches depending on desired local outcomes. There would be no need for the public sector to intervene to promote waste minimisation. All it would need to do would be to set some ground rules and monitor the industry to ensure a level playing field and appropriate health and safety.
Returning to reality, we are a long way from that zero waste nirvana. As things stand, a bunch of materials do have economic value, and are widely recycled. Another layer of materials have marginal value, and the remainder have no value in practical terms (or even a negative value in the case of hazardous wastes).
The suggested shift in perspective is most obvious in terms of how we think about the role of the public sector. To bring us closer to our goal, the public sector needs to intervene in the market to support those materials of marginal value so that they join the group that has genuine value.
Kerbside (or curbside) collection of certain materials, such as glass and lower value plastics, is an example of an activity that is in effect subsidised by public money. These subsidies enable the private sector to achieve environmental outcomes that we deem sufficiently worthwhile to fund.
However, the public sector should not just be plugging a gap in the market (as it largely does now), but be working towards largely doing itself out of a job. If we are to progress towards a cyclical economy, the role of the public sector should not be to subsidise marginal materials in perpetuity, but to progressively move them from marginal to genuinely economic, so that they no longer require support.
At the same time new materials would be progressively targeted and brought through so that the range and quantity requiring disposal constantly shrinks. This suggests a vital role for the public sector that encompasses research, funding for development of new technologies and processes, and setting appropriate policy and price structures (such as through taxes, levies, or product stewardship programmes).
Similarly, the community sector, because it is able to ‘dig deeper’ into the waste stream, has a unique and ongoing role to play in terms of being able to more effectively address those materials of marginal value as they begin to move up the hierarchy. The community sector’s unique value is its ability to work at the frontiers.
Meanwhile, the private sector’s resources and creativity will be needed to enable efficient systems to be developed to manage collection, processing and recycling of materials that reach the threshold of economic viability – and to create new, more sustainable products that fit more readily into a waste minimising world.
In the end, then, perhaps the answer is to stop seeing the three models as being in competition. Instead, we should consciously be utilising the unique characteristics of each so that we can evolve our practices towards a future that is more functional and capable of delivering the circular economy that must eventuate if we are to sustain ourselves on this planet.
Note: The article is being republished with the kind permission of our collaborative partner Isonomia. The original article can be viewed at this link
For a society accustomed to the achievements of a linear economy, the transition to a circular economic system is a hard task even to contemplate. Although the changes needed may seem daunting, it is important to remember that we have already come a long way. However, the history of the waste hierarchy has taught that political perseverance and unity of approach are essential to achieving long term visions in supply chain management.
Looking back, it is helpful to view the significance of the Lansink’s Ladder in the light of the sustainability gains it has already instigated. From the outset, the Ladder encountered criticism, in part because the intuitive preference order it expresses is not (and has never been put forward as) scientifically rigorous. Opposition came from those who feared the hierarchy would impede economic growth and clash with an increasingly consumerist society. The business community expressed concerns about regulatory burdens and the cost of implementing change.
However, such criticism was not able to shake political support, either in Holland where the Ladder was adopted in the Dutch Environmental Protection Act of 1979, or subsequently across Europe, as the Waste Hierarchy was transposed into national legislation as a result of the revised Waste Framework Directive.
Prevention, reuse and recycling have become widely used words as awareness has increased that our industrial societies will eventually suffer a shortage of raw materials and energy. So, should we see the waste hierarchy as laying the first slabs of the long road to a circular economy? Or is the circular economy a radical new departure?
Positive and negative thinking
There have been two major transitionary periods in waste management: public health was the primary driver for the first, from roughly 1900 to 1960, in which waste removal was formalised as a means to avoid disease. The second gained momentum in the 1980s, when prevention, reuse and recovery came on the agenda. However, consolidation of the second transition has in turn revealed new drivers for a third. Although analysing drivers is always tricky – requiring a thorough study of causes and effects – a general indication is helpful for further discussion. Positive (+) and negative (-) drivers for a third transition may be:
(+) The development of material supply chain management through the combination of waste hierarchy thinking with cradle to cradle eco design;
(+) The need for sustainable energy solutions;
(+) Scarcity of raw materials necessary for technological innovation; and
(+) Progressive development of circular economy models, with increasing awareness of social, financial and economic barriers.
(-) Growth of the global economy, especially in China and India, and later in Africa;
(-) Continued growth in global travel;
(-) Rising energy demand, exceeding what can be produced from renewable energy sources and threatening further global warming;
(-) Biodiversity loss, causing a further ecological impoverishment; and
(-) Conservation of the principle of ownership, which hinders the development of the so-called ‘lease society’.
A clear steer
As the direction, scale and weight of these drivers are difficult to assess, it’s necessary to steer developments at all levels to a sustainable solution. The second transition taught that governmental control appears indispensable, and that regulation stimulates innovation so long as adequate space is left for industry and producers to develop their own means of satisfying their legislated responsibilities.
The European Waste Framework Directive has been one such stimulatory piece of legislation. Unfortunately, the EC has decided to withdraw its Circular Economy package, which would otherwise now be on track to deliver the additional innovation needed to achieve its goals – including higher recycling targets. Messrs. Juncker and Timmermans must now either bring forward the more ambitious legislation they have hinted at, or explain why they have abandoned the serious proposals of their predecessors.
Perhaps the major differences between Member States and other countries may require a preliminary two-speed policy, but any differences in timetable between Western Europe and other countries should not stand in the way of innovation, and differences of opinion between the European Parliament and the Commission must be removed for Europe to remain credible.
Governmental control requires clear rules and definitions, and for legislative terminology to be commensurate with policy objectives. One failing in this area is the use of the generic term ‘recovery’ to cover product reuse, recycling and incineration with energy recovery, which confuses the hierarchy’s preference order. The granting of R1 status to waste incineration plants, although understandable in terms of energy diversification, turns waste processors into energy producers benefiting from full ovens. Feeding these plants reduces the scope for recycling (e.g. plastics) and increases CO2 emissions. When relatively inefficient incinerators still appear to qualify for R1 status, it offers confusing policy signals for governments, investors and waste services providers alike.
The key role for government also is to set clear targets and create the space for producers and consumers to generate workable solutions. The waste hierarchy’s preference order is best served by transparent minimum standards, grouped around product reuse, material recycling or disposal by combustion. For designated product or material categories, multiple minimum standards are possible following preparation of the initial waste streams, which can be tightened as technological developments allow.
Where the rubber meets the road
As waste markets increase in scale, are liberalised, and come under international regulation, individual governmental control is diminished. These factors are currently playing out in the erratic prices of secondary commodities and the development of excess incinerator capacity in some nations that has brought about a rise in RDF exports from the UK and Italy. Governments, however, may make a virtue of the necessity of avoiding the minutiae: ecological policy is by definition long-term and requires a stable line; day to day control is an impossible and undesirable task.
The road to the third transition – towards a circular economy – requires a new mind-set from government that acknowledges and empowers individuals. Not only must we approach the issue from the bottom-up, but also from the side and above. Consumer behaviour must be steered by both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ controls: through information and communication, because of the importance of psychological factors; but also through financial instruments, because both consumers and industry are clearly responsive to such stimuli.
Where we see opposition to deposit return schemes, it comes not from consumers but from industry, which fears the administrative and logistical burden. The business community must be convinced of the economic opportunities of innovation. Material supply chain management is a challenge for designers and producers, who nevertheless appreciate the benefits of product lifetime extensions and reuse. When attention to environmental risks seems to lapse – for example due to financial pressures or market failures – then politics must intervene.
Government and industry should therefore get a better grip on the under-developed positive drivers of the third transition, such as eco design, secondary materials policy, sustainable energy policy, and research and development in the areas of bio, info, and nanotechnologies.
Third time’s the charm
Good supply chain management stands or falls with the way in which producers and consumers contribute to the policies supported by government and society. In order that producers and consumers make good on this responsibility, government must first support their environmental awareness.
The interpretation of municipal duty of care determines options for waste collection, disposal and processing. Also essential is the way in which producer responsibility takes shape, and the government must provide a clear separation of private and public duties. Businesses may be liable for the negative aspects of unbridled growth and irresponsible actions. It is also important for optimal interaction with the European legislators: a worthy entry in Brussels is valuable because of the international aspects of the third transition. Finally, supply chain management involves the use of various policy tools, including:
Rewarding good behaviour
Sharpening minimum standards
Development and certification of CO2 tools
Formulation and implementation of end-of-waste criteria
Remediation of waste incineration with low energy efficiency
Restoration or maintenance of a fair landfill tax
Application of the combustion load set at zero
‘Seeing is believing’ is the motto of followers of the Apostle Thomas, who is chiefly remembered for his propensity for doubt. The call for visible examples is heard ever louder as more questions are raised around the feasibility of product renewal and the possibilities of a circular economy.
Ultimately, the third transition is inevitable as we face a future of scarcity of raw materials and energy. However, while the direction is clear, the tools to be employed and the speed of change remain uncertain. Disasters are unnecessary to allow the realisation of vital changes; huge leaps forward are possible so long as government – both national and international – and society rigorously follow the preference order of the waste hierarchy. Climbing Lansink’s Ladder remains vital to attaining a perspective from which we might judge the ways in which to make a circle of our linear economy.
Note: The article is being republished with the permission of our collaborative partner Isonomia. The original article can be found at this link.
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