Construction is booming worldwide driven by population growth, urbanization and increased need for dwellings, business sites and commercial spaces with volume output expected to grow by 85% to $15.5 trillion by 2030. Unfortunately, it also means that there is a serious challenge to implement sustainable waste management in the construction industry. It is not only the duty of waste management contractors and companies to ensure sustainable collection and management of construction wastes responsibly but also individuals who are doing their own DIY projects at home. Without a concerted effort to collect, recycle and dispose waste properly, there is real danger to the environment that will eventually spill over to people, vegetation, and wildlife.
Role of education and behavior change
On a global scale, over half of the world’s population have no access to a steady collection of trash. Illegal dumpsites hold over 40% of the world’s waste. It’s not only the lack of facilities but also inadequate information that is contributing to waste-related pollution all over the world.
Sustainable waste collection begins by educating people about reducing, reusing and recycling efforts or the 3R approach. From education and information campaigns to changes in behavior and attitudes, when people know and are aware of the benefits of reducing, segregating, collection, reusing and recycling, they become a collective and conscious effort.
Right materials and equipment
The availability of bins, collection containers, and recycling centers also has a great influence on how much a person and their communities recycle and reuse or dispose of construction waste properly. For people who are able to hire a 20 yard dumpster in West Chester, Lancaster, Norrington, Reading or any other town in the world, it is easier and convenient to remove construction and renovation waste knowing that the company will dispose of it properly by bringing it to approved landfills.
General awareness to reduce dumping is increasing as about 35% of construction and demolition waste (CDW) goes to landfills. Construction rubbish can contain lots of toxic materials such as lead, asbestos, and other dangerous substances that can find their way into the soil, groundwater, and the air that we breathe.
The construction industry has also recognized that reusing components and materials in making or erecting structures is sustainable and saves money. Most of the parts of construction consist of wood, sticks, steel, and concrete. Rubble can be compacted and reused. Demolition is carefully considered if renovation can be carried out.
The Way Forward
Waste generated from construction need not be a nuisance to the environment. With the right education to increase awareness to reduce/recycle/reuse, provision of collection and recycling points and the newer and better techniques to reuse construction materials, sustainable management of construction waste can become a reality.
Waste management systems can be divided into a number of steps from collection, storage, transportation, processing, treatment, recycling and final disposal. Integrated solid waste management refers to this entire process and aims to maximise resource use efficiency, with minimal amounts ending up in final disposal sites. During Practical Action’s recent work in the South Asia region, we have gained particular experiences in terms of firstly waste collection, storage and transportation; and secondly waste processing in particular of organic waste.
Collection and Transportation
In many cities, waste collection services fail to reach all areas of the town or city. People are left to manage their own waste, which they do by burning and burying it, or dumping on open spaces. Sometimes large bins or skips are provided but they may be irregularly emptied, and also overflow when the contents is picked over by waste pickers and animals.
In Bangladesh, in order to help increase the overall capacity for collecting household waste, Practical Action has promoted a door-to-door collection service run by local NGOs. Residents pay a service charge in addition to their municipal rates, but in return they receive a regular service, leading to a cleaner neighbourhood.
In Faridpur, the local NGO, WORD, with technical backstopping from Practical Action serves more than 5,000 customers with waste collection. There are three main types of customer, non-slum households, slum households and institutions. Slum-based households are charged the lowest tariffs (minimum BDT 10) while the institutional rate is highest (minimum BDT 150).
The numbers of slum households is small because the alternative option of localized composting (with a barrel system) was widely taken up. This is easier than collection through vans and is useful for slum people as they can use the compost later. Waste collectors use small rickshaw vans for the collection service. Recently we have also introduced small small rickshaw vans and small motorized versions for the collection service.
The waste is taken to a composting facility where it is sorted and the organic portion is separated for composting, and in some cases for generating biogas. In 2008, WORD started the waste collection business with only 525 customers. In the last 8 years, the number has increased more than tenfold (5,100 customer per month) making the solid waste management a viable business. It has not only contributed to a better living environment, but also generated green and dignified jobs for 21 waste workers.
The municipal conservancy department continues to play a regulatory and coordinating role through the Waste Management Steering Committee. This meets regularly to discuss any emerging issues and review the progress of door-to-door collection services. The conservancy department continues to manage the sweeping of streets and drains, and collection of waste from some areas of the town, from vegetable markets and slaughter houses. The only recycling and reuse of organic waste is done by WORD, as all municipal waste for now continues to be disposed at an open dumping site where no further treatment, sorting or reuse takes place.
In Nepal, Practical Action has facilitated organic waste management under a public-private partnership model. For example, in Butwal Municipality, a private firm, Marry Gold Concern, collects and manages wastes from 400 households with a monthly service fee of NPR 50 (GBP 0.33) in an area called Ramnagar. The company employs three operators for collecting and managing waste from low income communities. A compost plant has been set up which processes up to 10 metric tonnes of organic waste and generate 5 metric tonnes of compost per month. In addition, recyclable waste, mainly plastic, is sold to scrap dealers, creating another source of income.
Recycling and Disposal by Forming Associations and Enterprises
In Bangladesh, collection services have been organised through existing local NGOs. In Nepal, Practical Action has instead helped to form different groups of Informal Waste Workers (IWW) such as street waste pickers, waste segregators, pheriya (dry waste pickers), scrap owners and door to door collectors.
We have worked intensively with IWW from five municipalities of Kathmandu Valley. We have facilitated the establishment of a IWWs association called Samyukta Safai Jagaran (SASAJA), and the first waste workers’ cooperative with the same name. These organisations have distributed identity cards to members to increase their recognition as an ‘official’ part of the waste management system. We provided basic safety equipment to 5,622 IWWs, including rain boots/shoes, gloves, masks, raincoats, windcheaters with trouser and wrapper, aprons, cap etc. to minimize health risks.
Basic safety equipment is essential to minimize health risks to informal recycling sector.
Following capacity building and skill enhancement training from Practical Action, many of the IWW group members have established waste-based enterprises. For example, plastic tearing (PET bottle and carton crushing or pressing) for recycling and reuse; paper recycling and mechanical composting of organic waste. This approach has been scaled up in other municipalities in Chitwan and Rupadehi districts reaching around 350 IWWs there.
Reducing Waste through Home Composting
In Nepal and Sri Lanka, and in some slum communities in Bangladesh, we have promoted barrel composting of organic waste. This has the dual benefit of producing compost locally which can be used for home gardening, and reducing the amount of waste that needs to be collected and disposed of elsewhere.
It can reduce the amount of organic waste coming in to the waste collection stream by about 20-30%. It requires community involvement in waste management system as well as frequent monitoring and troubleshooting. This process ensures source segregation of waste, a necessary condition for proper implementation of the 3R system (reuse, reduce and recycle).
Practical Action has distributed more than 2,000 compost bins in Sri Lanka. Especially in Galle, Kurunegala and Akkaraipattu cities where we have distributed about 1,500 home composting bins from 2006 to 2016. More than 65% of the bins are being regularly used.
Our experience shows that once a locality is provided with home composting, the volume of organic waste into the municipal collection system is reduced around 20-30%. However, this varies greatly by locations. If the local authority strictly monitors the compost bin usage and provides troubleshooting support, waste reduction can reach up to 30%.
Both Kurunegala and Galle municipal councils have upscaled the distribution of bins city-wide with the support of national government funding. This technology was taken up by the private sector and other municipal councils. It has been used widely in the country as a solution for reducing organic waste coming in to the waste collection system. For example, Kandy municipal council has adopted the technology with strict restriction on organic waste collection in the municipality collection system.
The Provincial Agriculture department in Kurunegala and the Coconut cultivation board in Akkaraipattu are both promoting organic agriculture with the usage of composting and are using Practical Action’s work as examples for expansion. The central government has provided seeds and fertilizer to city dwellers, including the urban poor, to promote home gardening.
This has been further expanded by Kurunegala municipal council which has distributed potted plants. Some of the vertical gardening structures promoted by Practical Action are now included in urban gardening models of the Western Province Urban Agriculture unit.
Waste management in the SAARC countries has occasionally been raised as an area for regional co-operation. It fits in with other more pressing regional concerns such as environmental degradation, food safety, power generation, poverty alleviation and trans-boundary technology transfer. The Dhaka Declaration on Waste Management of 2004, for example, recognises the environmental imperative to promote more effective waste management systems ‘with special attention to addressing the needs of the poor’.
Similarly, the SAARC action plan on Climate Change of 2008 listed waste management as an area for nationally appropriate mitigation actions where regional sharing of best practices could be useful. The 2010 convention on co-operation on the environment, also included waste management among a list of 19 areas for the exchange of best practices and knowledge, and transfer of eco-friendly technology. However, these commitments have rarely turned into concerted action.
Effectively tackling the growing waste management crisis has not proved easy for most municipalities. Their capacity to cope has not kept pace with the increasing quantities of waste generated, and yet waste management can be one of the biggest costs of municipal budgets. Often they are able to collect waste only from limited areas of their towns. For the South Asia region, waste collection rates are on average 65%, with wide variations between towns.
At the same time, there is often a very active recycling system through waste pickers and the informal sector, involving large numbers of poor people. Large schemes to recycle, separate and produce useful end-products such as compost have often run into problems if they relied too heavily on donor inputs. Once these were phased out they failed to generate sufficient income from sales to be sustainable.
A municipal drain choked by garbage in north Indian city of Aligarh
Two global agreements signed in 2015 may help to raise the profile and stimulate greater action on solid waste management. First, the Sustainable Development Goals which include a goal focused on cities and sustainable urban development. Within this, target 11.6 is to “by 2030, reduce the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities, including by paying special attention to air quality and municipal and other waste management”. This is the first time a global agreement of this sort has included commitments on waste management. Second, the Paris Climate Agreement, with a number of South Asian countries including better management of urban waste as part of their Intended Nationally Determined Contribution.
Solid waste management is already a significant concern for municipal governments across the South Asian region. It constitutes one of their largest costs and the problem is growing year on year as urban populations swell. And yet it is an area that has not received the attention it deserves from policy-makers. There are signs this may change, with its inclusion in the SDGs and in many INDCs which are the basis of the Paris Climate Agreement.
Entrepreneurship in solid waste management can be instrumental in environment protection, decentralization, economic restructuring and job creation. Entrepreneurial opportunities in solid waste planning are available in the areas of waste collection, handling, sorting, storage, transport, transformation and energy recovery.
Entrepreneurship begins with the generation of an idea and culminates in realization of the project objectives. Historically, the improvement of waste management services by the public sector has been hampered by lack of funds in both developed and developing nations.
Basic safety equipment is essential to minimize health risks to informal recycling sector.
Entrepreneurs can not only invest money in solid waste management sector, but also infuse new ideas, technologies and skills which can transform waste from being a liability into an asset. The efficiency of solid waste management increases with the involvement of entrepreneurs. Infact, it has been observed that involvement of entrepreneurs in solid waste management planning can reduce the service cost by half in Latin American cities with higher employment generation and vehicles productivity.
Entrepreneurial ventures in solid waste management can range from a one-man project to a mega-scale project involving thousands of skilled and unskilled workers. It has been observed that solid waste management is a labour-intensive process with tremendous potential to generate new jobs, depending on the type of project and the level of creativity. The major areas of entrepreneurial involvement include waste collection, transportation, reuse and recycling, upcycling and power generation.
Basic safety equipment is essential to minimize health risks to informal recycling sector.
According to the World Bank, municipalities in developing countries typically spend 20 to 50 per cent of their annual budget on solid waste management, but only 40 to 70 per cent of solid waste is collected and less than 50 per cent of the population has access to municipal waste collection services. Solid waste planning is an integral component of urban development as it contributes to public health, resource conservation and environment protection. Scientific disposal of domestic waste can prevent environmental degradation and harmful public health impacts while recycling can help in conservation of precious natural resources.
Entrepreneurial activities in solid waste collection can not only increase waste collection efficiency but also improve waste management services for the marginalized sections of the society. An excellent example is the case of Nigeria-based Wecyclers which is aiming to building a low-cost waste collection infrastructure in Lagos by offering cheap and convenient domestic waste recycling services using a fleet of cargo bikes.
Some countries have achieved considerable success in solid waste management. But the rest of the world is grappling to deal with its wastes. In these places, improper management of solid waste continues to impact public health of entire communities and cities; pollute local water, air and land resources; contribute to climate change and ocean plastic pollution; hinder climate change adaptation; and accelerate depletion of forests and mines.
Compared to solid waste management, we can consider that the world has achieved significant success in providing other basic necessities like food, drinking water, energy and economic opportunities. Managing solid wastes properly can help improve the above services further.
Composting of organic waste can help nurture crops and result in a better agricultural yield. Reducing landfilling and building sanitary landfills will reduce ground and surface water pollution which can help provide cleaner drinking water. Energy recovery from non-recyclable wastes can satiate significant portion of a city’s energy requirement.
Inclusive waste management where informal waste recyclers are involved can provide an enormous economic opportunity to the marginalized urban poor. Additionally, a good solid waste management plan with cost recovery mechanisms can free tax payers money for other issues. In the case of India, sustainable solid waste management in 2011 would have provided
9.6 million tons of compost that could have resulted in a better agricultural yield
energy equivalent to 58 million barrels of oil from non-recyclable wastes
6.7 million tons of secondary raw materials to industries in the form of recyclable materials and livelihood to the urban poor
Solid waste management expenditure of above $ 1 billion per year competes with education, poverty, security and other sustainable initiatives in New York City. Fossil fuels for above 500,000 truck trips covering hundreds of miles are required to transport NYC’s waste to landfills outside the city and state. Similarly, New Delhi spends more than half of its entire municipal budget on solid waste management, while it is desperate for investments and maintenance of roads, buildings, and other infrastructure.
Solid waste management is not just a corporate social responsibility or a non-priority service anymore. Improper waste management is a public health and environmental crisis, economic loss, operational inefficiency and political and public awareness failure. Integrated solid waste management can be a nation building exercise for healthier and wealthier communities. Therefore, it needs global attention to arrive at solutions which span across such a wide range of issues.
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
Bahrain has the distinction of being one of the highest per capita municipal solid waste generators worldwide estimated to be more than 1.80 kg per person per day. Infact, Bahrain produces largest amount of waste per person among GCC countries despite being the smallest nation in the region. Rising population, high waste generation growth rate, limited land availability and scarcity of waste disposal sites has made solid waste management a highly challenging task for Bahrain’s policy-makers, urban planners and municipalities.
Municipal Solid Wastes in Bahrain
Bahrain generates more than 1.2 million tons of solid wastes every year. Daily garbage production across the tiny Gulf nation exceeds 4,500 tons. Municipal solid waste is characterized by high percentage of organic material (around 60 percent) which is mainly composed of food wastes. Presence of high percent of recyclables in the form of paper (13 percent), plastics (7 percent) and glass (4 percent) makes Bahrain’s MSW a good recycling feedstock, though informal sectors are currently responsible for collection of collection of recyclables and recycling activities
The Kingdom of Bahrain is divided into five governorates namely Manama, Muharraq, Middle, Southern and Northern. Waste collection and disposal operation in Bahrain is managed by a couple of private contractors. Gulf City Cleaning Company is active in Muharraq and Manama while Sphinx Services is responsible for Southern, Middle, and Northern Areas. The prevalent solid waste management scenario is to collect solid waste and dump it at the municipal landfill site at Askar.
Askar, the only existing landfill/dumpsite in Bahrain, caters to municipal wastes, agricultural wastes and non-hazardous industrial wastes. Spread over an area of more than 700 acres, the landfill is expected to reach its capacity within the next few years. The proximity of Askar landfill to urban habitats has been a cause of major environmental concern. Waste accumulation is increasing at a rapid pace which is bound to have serious impacts on air, soil and groundwater quality in the surrounding areas.
The Kingdom of Bahrain is grappling with waste management problems arising out of high population growth rate, rapid industrialization, high per capita waste generation, unorganized SWM sector, limited land resources and poor public awareness.
The government is trying hard to improve waste management scenario by launching recycling initiatives, waste-to-energy project and public awareness campaign. However more efforts, in the form of effective legislation, large-scale investments, modern SWM technology deployment and environmental awareness, are required from all stake holders to implement a sustainable waste management system in Bahrain.
Waste management is a serious problem in Nigeria, and Delta State is no exception. It is a problem that starts at a cultural level: many of the populace believe that once they remove waste from their homes it is no longer their concern. It is a problem that starts at a cultural level: many of the populace believe that once they remove waste from their homes it is no longer their concern, and you often see people disposing of their household waste in the streets at night. Once the waste gets out into the streets, it’s perceived as the duty of the government to handle it.
However, I have never yet heard of any Nigerian politician making waste management a feature of his or her manifesto during the election campaign process. Having said that, a few of Nigeria’s political leaders deserve to be commended for coming to terms with the fact that waste has to be managed properly, even if such issues were far from their minds when they entered political office.
Legislation and Framework
Nigeria does have a waste legislation framework in place. Its focus has been on the most toxic and hazardous waste: partly in response to some major pollution incidents in the 1980s, the government took powers in relation to Hazardous Waste in 1988. In the same year, the Federal Environmental Protection Agency was established – and was subsequently strengthened by the addition of an inspectorate and enforcement department arm in 1991, with divisions for standard regulation, chemical tracking and compliance monitoring. These laws have since given rise to regulations and guidelines pertaining to environmental and waste management issues.
Under our laws, waste management in each state is the duty of the local governments that fall within it, but few are taking an active approach to implementing and enforcing the sensible measures that the regulations require. A small number of states have taken over this task from local government, and Delta State’s decision to do this has led to significant new investment in waste management.
One of the fruits of that investment is the Delta State Integrated Waste Management Facility at Asaba for treating both household and clinical waste generated locally. It was developed when the Delta State government decided to put an end to the non-sustainable dumping of waste in Asaba, the state capital.
Integrated Waste Management Facility at Asaba
It is described as an integrated waste management facility because it includes a composting department, a recycling department and a (non-WTE) incineration department. Trucks carrying waste are weighed in as they come into the facility. From the weigh bridge, they move to the relevant reception bay – there are separate ones for household and clinical wastes – to tip their load, and are then weighed again on the way out.
Medical waste is taken directly for incineration, but household wastes are sent along conveyors for sorting. Recyclables and compostable materials are, so far as possible, separated both from other waste and from one another. Each recyclable stream ends up in a chamber where it can be prepared for sale. The compostable materials are moved to the composting section, which uses aerated static pile composting.
The remaining waste is conveyed into the three incinerators – moving grate, rotary kiln and fixed end– for combustion. The resulting ash is recycled by mixing it with cement and sharp sand and moulding it into interlocking tiles. The stacks of the three incinerators are fitted with smoke cleaning systems to reduce emissions. The process produces wastewater, which is channelled to a pit where it is treated and reused. Overall, 30% of the waste is composted, 15% recycled and 55% incinerated.
There are many examples of sophisticated waste infrastructure being built in developing countries, but failing because the necessary collection systems were not in place to support them. To ensure that this problem is avoided at Asaba, the Delta State government is working with a group known as the Private Sector Participants (PSP).
Each member of this group has trucks assigned to them and has been directed to collect household waste from different parts of the city, for delivery to the facility for treatment. The arrangements made by each PSP are different: some collect from outside individual properties, and some from communal sites; most collect waste that is found in the streets; and while each is subsidised by the state, households also have to pay towards the cost.
Before the Asaba facility was developed, most of the wastes generated in Asaba were disposed of at a dumpsite just adjacent to the Delta State Airport. This created a pungent odour, as well as visual disamenity for people nearby. A great deal of remediation work is now taking place at the dumpsite, which is vastly improving the local environmental quality.
War on Waste
Of course, although this is an improvement there remains more to do. First on the list is education. People do not know how sustainable waste management can impact positively in their lives, reducing their exposure to toxins as well as improving their surroundings. Nor do they understand that recycling a beverage can or a plastic bottle will cost less than producing one from virgin materials and will have a lesser environmental impact. There remains a good deal of cultural change and environmental education that is needed before people will stop throwing waste and litter on the streets – but there are few countries where, to some extent, the same would not be true.
Next is the lack of infrastructure. Nigeria has 36 states and a federal capital, yet the facility in Asaba is the first publicly commissioned one of its kind in the country; there are also some privately owned incinerators that a few companies in Port Harcourt use to treat wastes from vessels (ships), hospitals and industries. Lagos state and Abuja are relatively advanced, simply by virtue of having put in place a few managed landfills, but they are still far from having the level of facility that Asaba can now boast.
The backbone of Asaba’s progress is the state government’s commitment to put a proper waste management solution in place. We’ve seen the impact in the form of infrastructure, collections and remediation, and law enforcement work is starting to change people’s perception about waste management in Delta State. At the moment, plans are being concluded to setup another facility in Warri, Delta State’s industrial hub, which will be twice the size of the Asaba facility.?
My hope is that the progress made by Delta State will be a beacon for other states’ governments. The example we are providing of cleaner, hygienic, more environmentally responsible waste management, and the positive changes that is bringing about, should inspire new development elsewhere in the country, which could equal or even exceed Delta State’s results. So whilst Nigeria’s track record on waste may leave a lot to be desired, the path ahead could be a great deal more promising.
Note: The article is being republished with the kind permission of our collaborative partner Isonomia. The original article can be found at this link.
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
New York City and Oxford are two prominent examples of local authorities that have tried to restrict the use of foam packaging for takeaway food and drink, arguing that doing so would reduce the environmental impact of waste in a way that alternative approaches could not. In both cases, the intervention of packaging manufacturers has lifted or watered down the rules. Other administrations might well be put off the idea of similar measures – but the argument for cracking down on foam packaging that almost unavoidably gives rise to regional waste management problems, as well as wider environmental degradation through its contribution to litter, remains hard to ignore. Bans, however, may not be the only option.
Menace of Foam Packaging
A particular target for action has been expanded polystyrene (EPS). It’s rigid and a good insulator, and yet a great deal of it is air, making it very lightweight: it’s little wonder that EPS trays, cups and ‘clamshells’ are staples of the industry. It’s also widely used in pre-moulded form in the packaging of electronics, and as loose fill packaging in the form of ‘peanuts’.
While no-one would deny its convenience, for waste managers, EPS is a challenge, for many of the same reasons that it is popular. It’s light and difficult to compact, so it fills up bins and collection vehicles quickly; and takes up a great deal of space if you try to bulk and haul it for recycling.
It’s easy to see, then, why in 2013 New York City’s council voted unanimously to prohibit the use of EPS by all restaurants, food carts, and stores. Yet from the outset, the ban proposal faced stiff opposition from retailers and manufacturers, with packaging giant Dart Container Corp. and the American Chemistry Council reportedly organising a million dollars’ worth of lobbying against the legislation. Once it took effect, the industry quickly managed to overturn it in the courts last month.
Ban on the Run
The city had found that the recycling of EPS was not, in fact, environmentally effective, economically feasible and safe, and NYC was declared EPS-free in July 2015. But in a widely reported ruling, Justice Margaret Chan deemed the decision “arbitrary and capricious”: the complex case turned on the question of whether there was a recycling market for EPS, and the judge decided that Commissioner Kathryn Garcia of the city’s Department of Sanitation had failed to take account of evidence supplied by the industry that such a market did exist.
Although it lacked the courtroom drama of the New York City case, a similar story played out in Oxford last year. The city council proposed to use its licensing powers to require street traders to use only “biodegradable and recyclable” packaging and utensils. The move was stymied by semantics: the Foodservice Packaging Association lobbied for the phrasing of the proposed licensing rule to be amended to ‘biodegradable or recyclable’. That tiny change allowed continued use of expanded polystyrene, as it is technically recyclable (though certainly not biodegradable).
Oxford’s traders are also required to arrange for the correct disposal of EPS takeaway packaging from their premises. This is an odd requirement given that take-away food is usually – well – taken away, and then disposed of in street bins, household bins, or in no bin at all. Unfortunately, Oxford City Council – like almost every other council in the country – isn’t currently able to send EPS for recycling, so the EPS it collects will in practice end up in the residual stream. The EPS litter that escapes will linger in the environment for centuries to come.
It seems that both courts and councillors have been impressed by the manufacturers’ argument: ‘Why ban a highly efficient product when you can invest in recycling it instead?’ However, there are three important points that count against this contention.
The first is that, whilst EPS can technically be recycled, the economics of doing so remain tenuous. Zero Waste Scotland’s report on Plastic Recycling Business Opportunities found that polystyrene waste compacting and collection was the only one of five options considered that did not represent a viable business opportunity in Scotland.
In order to make the finances of collecting EPS for recycling stack up in New York, Dart Corporation and Plastics Recycling Inc. had to offer to provide the city with $500,000 of sorting technology; pay for four staff; and guarantee to buy the material at $160 per tonne for five years. Without this (time limited) largesse, New York’s ban would likely have stood.
They also provided a list of 21 buyers, who they claimed would purchase dirty EPS – although when the city did a market test, it could find no realistic market for the material. It’s hard to know whose view of the US market is correct; however, in the UK, the market is definitely weak.
Of the 34 EPS recyclers listed by the BPF Expanded Polystyrene Group, 12 only accept clean EPS – ruling out post-consumer fast food waste. Another dozen will only accept compacted EPS, creating an extra processing cost for anyone attempting to separate EPS for recycling. That leaves a maximum of ten UK outlets: not enough to handle the potential supply, and leaving large tracts of the country out of economic haulage range for such a bulky, lightweight material.
The second is that it’s difficult to get a high percentage of takeaway food containers into the recycling stream. Food eaten on the go is likely, at best, to go into a litter bin. And if it’s littered, because it’s light, EPS can also easily be blown around the streets, contributing to urban, riverine and ultimately marine litter. It’s also very slow to break down in the natural environment. Polystyrene has been found to make up 8% of marine litter washed up on North East Atlantic beaches; in all, plastics account for three quarters of this litter. The cost, particularly for coastal and island nations, is only beginning to be recognised.
That leads on to the third argument: while EPS undoubtedly works, less damaging alternatives are clearly available. Vegware, for example, allows takeaway boxes to be moved up the waste hierarchy – from disposal to composting. Reducing impacts was clearly a consideration in Oxford: in the words of Councillor Colin Cooke:
“It is about making the waste that we do have to get rid of more user-friendly and sustainable.”
The economic and technical difficulty in recycling EPS, combined with the long-term impacts of its littering and disposal, led Michelle Rose Rubio to conclude, in an Isonomia article last year, that environmentally minded people – and perhaps governments – should perhaps avoid it altogether.
Despite the discouraging events in New York and Oxford, there’s better news from elsewhere. Bans remain in place in Toronto and Paris (both dating from 2007), while Muntinlupa in the Philippines, and the coastal state of Malaka in Malaysia have imposed charges, fines, and biodegradable replacements for EPS food packaging, eventually leading to bans.
Scottish Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead has indicated that the Scottish Government is: “considering a number of options in line with the commitment in the national litter strategy to influence product design of frequently littered items to reduce their environmental impact… [W]e note a number of US cities have introduced bans on Styrofoam products, most recently New York City. We are keen to learn from these cities’ experience of introducing and implementing such bans.”
In Wales, a polystyrene ban petition lodged last year by Friends of Barry Beaches has been picking up support. The Foodservice Packaging Association’s pre-emptive opposition to the notion certainly suggests we haven’t heard the last of EPS food packaging bans in the UK.
However, bans are not the only way to deter the use of problem products. England has just joined the ranks of countries to impose a charge for single use plastic bags. Belgium has a tax on disposable cutlery, and Malta taxes numerous products on environmental grounds, including chewing gum and EPS clamshells. Whilst beyond the powers of local authorities, fiscal measures could drive change while being a bit less of a blunt instrument than a ban.
While EPS manufacturers may have scored some recent successes, they haven’t won the overarching argument. As we push towards a more circular economy, the pressure to reduce our reliance on materials that are inherently hard to recycle, which tend to escape into the environment, and which don’t decompose naturally, will grow. For EPS fast food packaging, the chips could soon be well and truly down.
Note: This 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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