How much time do you spend thinking about waste? 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 that 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 day .
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 percent .
It is not just 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 negative impacts of litter or even landfills on the environment, we often forget that the brunt of the burden is borne by our marine environment.
New plastics will consume 20 percent of all oil production within 35 years, and despite the growing demand, just five percent of plastics are recycled effectively, while 40 percent end up in landfills and one third in fragile ecosystems, such as the world’s oceans .
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 that maximizes the use of scarce resources.
What are the basic principles of sustainable waste management?
The EU’s waste hierarchy favors prevention of waste, followed by reuse, recycling, recovery, with disposal of waste being the last resort .
Let’s have a closer look at what these mean:
1. Prevention of waste
Prevention occurs at the product design and manufacturing phase, but it also aims to encourage consumers keep products for longer time and re-use them .
This is a critical point as it strives to minimize waste before it is even generated by improving product design and packaging. Environmental NGOs across the globe believe this is a critical aspect of sustainable resource and waste management .
Promoting waste prevention by using targets or other means could for example help reduce overpackaging in supermarket goods, since household packaging waste makes up a substantial amount of overall household and municipal waste.
2. Preparing for re-use
This means different processes of checking, cleaning, repairing, refurbishing of whole items or spare parts that have become waste but are made in a way that they can be re-used .
You might be surprised about how much of the things we throw away as trash can be reused in some way without going through any further waste management processes.
According to recent estimates one third of all material arriving to recycling centers can still be re-used. For example, at least 25 percent of electronic waste still has significant re-use value . A lot more can be done to take advantage of the potential of re-use.
For example, Spain is the only country that has a separate preparation for re-use target to incentivize 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 created .
This well-known waste management process involves turning waste into a new substance or product. Recycling can also include composting if it meets quality protocols.
Despite that most of us have easy access to recycling, the sobering truth is that over 60 percent of waste that ends up in the trash could be recycled .
One UK study also found that almost 40 percent of the packaging found in a typical shopping basket cannot be easily recycled .
So, both manufacturers and consumers need to step up efforts on recycling!
4. Material or energy recovery
Recovery includes processes of waste management such as anaerobic digestion, incineration with energy recovery, gasification or pyrolysis which produce energy (fuels, heat and power) and other materials from waste .
When recycling is not possible, other types of recovery need to be looked into so that the material does not end up in landfill.
The bottom tier of the EU’s waste hierarchy for sustainable waste management, involves landfill and incineration without energy recovery.
This is the least favorable option and our waste management systems need to move away from such practice.
To achieve this, some environmental NGOs are arguing for a zero landfill target to be implemented as early as 2020. It is important to note that Europe has achieved a substantial progress in diverting waste from landfill in recent years: between 2004 and 2010, the EU Member States as well as Iceland and Norway reduced the amount of total waste deposited in landfills by 23 percent .
Why is Europe’s waste management so effective?
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” .
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!