Probably not too much but waste management experts have actually spent a lot of time thinking, developing and fine-tuning our waste management system to deliver greater resource efficiency. While different countries have different approaches to treating waste there are some common principles that everyone respects. In the European Union, there is a very well established waste hierarchy which is enshrined in legislation. The key principles underlying the EU waste hierarchy are also reflected in other regions.
One of the most important principles of sustainable waste management is to eliminate the word “waste”! Indeed, in our mind waste should be considered as a secondary resource which if properly treated can help conserve our natural resources by limiting extraction. Thinking of waste as a resource is critical given how much waste we are generating and how much more waste it is estimated that we will be generating in the future: current global municipal waste generation levels are approximately 1.3 billion tonnes per year, and are expected to increase to approximately 2.2 billion tonnes per year by 2025. This represents a significant increase in per capita waste generation rates, from 1.2 to 1.42 kg per person per day1.
The World Resources Forum highlights that global resource extraction grew more or less steadily over the past 25 years, from 40 billion tons in 1980 to 58 billion tons in 2005, representing an aggregated growth rate of 45%2. And it is not just about the depletion of our resources that puts our economies under strain and increases our dependency on imports. It is also about the increasing pollution that our waste is creating. While we often talk about the impacts of litter or even landfill, we sometimes forget that the brunt of the burden is borne by our marine environment.
According to the Ellen McArthur Foundation, one refuse truck’s-worth of plastic is dumped into the sea every minute, and the situation is getting worse 3.
New plastics will consume 20% of all oil production within 35 years, and despite the growing demand, just 5% of plastics are recycled effectively, while 40% end up in landfill and a third in fragile ecosystems such as the world’s oceans3. This is why tools and policies that encourage sustainable waste management are so critical. More specifically, waste prevention and management both have a central role in enhancing resource efficiency and creating a circular economy maximising the use of scarce resources.
What are the basic principles of sustainable waste management?
The EU’s waste hierarchy favours prevention of waste, followed by reuse, recycling, recovery, with disposal of waste being the last resort4. Let’s have a closer look at what these mean:
- Prevention of waste
- Preparing for re-use
For example, Spain is the only country that has a separate preparation for re-use target to incentivise operators to extract materials that have been collected as waste but are useful and do not need to undergo further treatment processes such as recycling or energy recovery.
Research suggests that such targets would give these products a new lease of life, low income groups would have access to material goods and at least 300,000 green jobs could be created7.
- Other recovery
What is more the EU’s approach to waste management, being emulated by other countries across the globe, is predicated on one more important concept. This is the “polluter pays principle” which means that companies are responsible for environmental damage. In terms of waste management, this puts the onus on companies to rectify issues such as littering and pollution due to waste. This is why, a lot of waste management systems are run using the “Extended Producer Responsibility” (EPR) principle. The OECD defines this as “the policy approach under which producers are given a significant responsibility – financial and/o/r physical – for the treatment or disposal of post-consumer products” 11. In other words, in most European countries, companies are responsible for the waste generated by their products and need to help set up systems – usually in cooperation with local authorities – to collect and treat the waste in line with sustainable waste management principles.
But if there is one golden rule among sustainable waste management principles that you need to remember, this is it: treat waste as a resource!