If we can't reduce our waste, we need to produce the same amount of stuff in a way that consumes fewer primary resources

Earlier this year, some Beijing residents found that in order to throw away their rubbish they would have to have their faces scanned by the rubbish bin. Big Brother in a bin? Even George Orwell wouldn’t have thought of that one.

The city authorities had supplied “smart” waste containers to track how much refuse each resident throws away and reward them for producing less waste.

Elsewhere in China, in Shanghai, fines are imposed on city residents for not sorting their rubbish correctly. This carrot and stick approach is helping to reduce the growing mountain of waste in the country

China used to welcome the world’s waste, but in 2017 it stopped doing so and countries from that once gladly sent their waste there are now learning how to deal with it themselves (or not).

With cities like Manila clogging up the ocean with 510,000 tons of waste plastic per year, causing whales to die because their stomachs are clogged up with 100 kilograms of the stuff, all countries need to act fast on waste.

We are learning that the best solution is to copy nature – where there is no waste and everything is endlessly reused.

The circular economy

The world is moving from a linear economy – where we take stuff from the ground, make something with it, use it, then throw it away – to a circular economy.

This circular economy is the model for nature where anything that dies, and any waste product from an organism, becomes food for something else in an endless process that constantly renews its components.

Similarly, in the circular (sometimes called closed loop) economy, the by-product or unwanted parts of an industrial process can always be used by another industrial process.

China’s high-tech solution for dealing with waste goes to the heart of the waste reduction hierarchy.

This hierarchy is, from most desirable to least desirable:

  1. avoid creating waste;
  2. reduce waste;
  3. recover its nutrients (if organic);
  4. reuse it for a different purpose;
  5. repair it;
  6. recycle (make) it into something else;
  7. burn it for energy in an incinerator;
  8. send it to landfill.

To avoid creating waste, doing more with less has to be our way forward if we are to survive as a civilisation long term.

Waste makes no business sense. It is lost capital.

It’s also expensive for municipal authorities who spend up to 20 per cent of their budget on waste management; it is in their interests to educate the public and incentivise them to minimise waste so they can spend the money on something useful.

Only if humanity reduces its consumption levels, will its collective ecological footprint reduce to a sustainable level.

And if we can’t consume less, then producing the same amount of stuff in a way that consumes fewer primary resources is the only option. This called resource efficiency.

Design for reincarnation

Every product you buy brings with it the story of its birth and eventual death – its life cycle; this is what you buy into by choosing it. Along every stage of the life cycle of a product and its components there is the chance to reduce its impact – including at the end of its life by letting it be reborn as something else.

Watch out for products like mobile phones and cars coming onto the market that have been designed to be reused or recycled. You might want to ask what they were in their previous life.

The circular economy begins with this design process, which aims to ensure that goods not only have minimal environmental impact on water, energy and materials but also that they can easily be repurposed or recycled.

Dame Ellen MacArthur, the inspiring yachtswoman turned prophet of the circular economy, says: “We did a big study looking at how the digital revolution will enable the European economy to save €900 billion (AUD$1459 billion). If we apply a circular lens, that could go up to €1.8 trillion (AUD$2.9 trillion). For us, it’s always rooted in the economics.”

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, over 80 per cent of a product’s environmental impact is determined at the design stage.

Buying something often represents the greatest amount of political power that we have. The choice can get you to the heart of business or government by letting you directly influence your impact on the environment and labour conditions in many industries.

How to find the best choices? Lists of more sustainable equipment, together with standards, are becoming more widely available. For example, the EU Ecodesign Directive database covers all energy-related products sold in the domestic, commercial and industrial sectors, with the exception of transport.

Europe has led the way with ecodesign and energy labelling. This is estimated to have saved around €100 billion (AUD$153 billion) per year 2020 through lower utility bills, equivalent to annual household savings of up to €500 (AUD$812).

According to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, supply chain optimisation can result in up to 60 per cent of energy intensity reductions.

Food and plastic

In food production and distribution, a lot of perfectly good food is wasted due to spoilage, both in the supply chain and at the retail level. This means that all of the energy embedded in the food is wasted as well.

By modelling the supply system throughout the chain, opportunities can be identified to significantly reduce waste by changing processing, handling, packaging and delivery systems.

The result is frequently fresher food delivered faster and more consistent quality. There is less waste and greater savings.

About 95 per cent of plastic packaging material value, or $80-$120 billion in economic value, is lost annually because of a short first use, according to a 2016 report by the World Economic Forum. 72 per cent of plastic packaging is not recovered; 40 per cent ends up in the landfill and 32 per cent leaks out of the collection system.

China and the European Union (EU) are cooperating on moving to a closed loop economy. The American Chemistry Council’s Plastics Division has committed to a goal of recycling or recovering all plastic packaging used in the U.S. by 2040 and making all plastics packaging recyclable or recoverable by 2030.

Don’t burn it

From the point of view of the circular economy, incinerating waste makes almost as little sense as sending it to landfill.

Destroying a thing completely just to produce heat and electrical energy creates three dangers, even if it might mean not using a fossil fuel:

  1. there are potential health impacts due to the production of air pollution;
  2. the reduction of resource efficiency because nothing else can be made from the same stuff;
  3. and the creation of a market for its fuel that provides a disincentive for recycling and reuse.

Resource efficiency means a shift from using virgin feedstocks to recycling or reusing existing materials. It can already result in significant savings.

Present day examples include turning old tyres into rubberised asphalt, which lasts twice as long and requires half the volume of conventional asphalt.

Plastics recycling is often cost-effective. But for certain types of plastic it’s sometimes hard to find customers willing to pay a price high enough to justify the collection and processing costs.

In such cases, taxing the use of virgin products and enforcement of compliance with waste recycling streams do help.

But it’s not just about plastic. Guess which common consumer items have the most ecological footprint – and frequently are associated with poor working conditions?

Yes, it’s textiles. New York City alone landfills around 100,000 tonnes (or 200 million pounds) of clothing every year.

To tackle this problem, the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) made an online interactive map to let consumers find over 1100 clothing drop-off points across the city.

Just think about it: even if you really can’t bear an item of clothing anymore, somebody else might want it – try donating it to charity.

Unbuilding waste

Up to 40 per cent of urban solid waste comes from construction and demolition, so the building industry has plenty of opportunity to reuse materials and avoid waste by sensible procurement in the first place.

A digital revolution in the urban products system, steered by good design, business models, and resource management, can foster long-term prosperity and reduce pollution and tackle climate change.

Distributors have a key role to play by offering products that can be easily reused, refurbished and an end-of-life take back or maintenance service. They can also help to educate consumers about waste.

The challenge is enormous: by 2025, it’s estimated that a further 1.8 billion people will join the global consuming class. Unless changes are made fast this will directly fuel further linear resource consumption – we will literally drown in our own waste – but the whales and other sea creatures will probably go first.

David Thorpe is the author of the books The ‘One Planet’ Life and the new ‘One Planet’ Cities. He teaches an online Post-Graduate Certificate in “One Planet” Governance.

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  1. Nice article.

    one comment is that waste to energy is part of the Paris Accord so we need to use this instead of burning coal. If… as the article states above we are loosing 32% of the plastic in the worlds collection system we need to consider creating cheap and storable energy with less green house gas emissions from it rather than attempting to recycle a commodity that holds very little value per tonne. The South Australians who have been world leaders in this space even had to shut down their plastic recycling plant due to energy costs. This to me demonstrates that all elements of the waste hierarchy have to be implemented rather than stating that waste to energy is a lost to that closed loop… when in fact that electric generation can be used to create new products for less carbon cost.