Solid Waste & Recycling


The problem with the "waste" concept and transitioning to a circular economy

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is developing a policy toolkit to identify what legislation is required to accelerate circular transition. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is developing a policy toolkit to identify what legislation is required to accelerate circular transition. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

The column presents readers with an excellent article from The Guardian about the conversation in Europe on how to move the economy from a linear model (in which natural resources and energy are extracted and made into goods that are then used and discarded as waste, that’s either disposed of or recycled) toward a circular model in which everything is designed for reuse, disassembly and remanufacturing.

The heart of the article is expressed in the following passage:

According to MacArthur, recycling is “the loop of last resort” within a circular economy, but she was keen to emphasise the positive. “Most of the value in a circular economy lies along the inner loops; the reselling, the remanufacturing, the disassembly, the de-componentisation. Within a circular economy, the recycling increases because companies are creating a system whereby those products come back.”

(Note that this article was brought to my attention by Bill Sheehan, Executive Director of the excellent product and packaging think tank Upstream, based in Athens, Georgia.)

But before I present the article (below), which pretty much speaks for itself, I want to comment on what we seem to be missing in North America in making the same shift, which is the connection between waste (and waste treatment and disposal) and how a truly sustainable “cradle-to-cradle” manufacturing and consumption system would function.

The piece we’re missing is illustrated quite well with a recent develop in British Columbia, where the provincial government rejected a proposed municipal bylaw (Bylaw 280 if you need to know) from Metro Vancouver that would have allowed that regional government tier to prevent export of waste outside its borders. This piece of “flow control” legislation, Metro argued, would keep locally-generated waste inside the region where it could be recycled and composted to achieve (eventually) a high rate of diversion from landfill disposal.

Without Bylaw 280, Metro Vancouver officials argued, waste haulers could simply skirt the region’s waste diversion programs and haul material to landfills and other facilities where processing and disposal rates are cheaper, and thereby undermine the goal of 70 per cent (and higher) diversion.

Critics argued that another more nefarious reason Metro Vancouver wanted its Bylaw 280 passed was that it needed the region’s waste to feed a planned $500-million mass-burn incinerator. Officials argued that with population growth, even if it achieved 70 per cent or greater waste diversion, a lot of residual waste would still remain, in need of disposal. In order to promote its incinerator (which I suppose we ought to call a “waste to energy” or WTE facility), Metro Vancouver went so far as to co-found a National Zero Waste Council (NZWC), and promote the concept of “zero waste to landfill” — with the understanding that waste to incineration is okay. This drew the ire of Zero Waste Canada (ZWC) — an organization truly dedicated to waste reduction and elimination. ZWC viewed the NZWC as a kind of “astroturf” organization (i.e., fake grassroots) with an agenda at odds with what is emerging as an international Zero Waste movement.

(A careful reading of Metro Vancouver’s long-term waste management plan reveals ZWC has reason for concern. The text leaves lots of wiggle room for officials to send at least some recyclables to an incinerator if they need more high-BTU materials like plastic or paper. And the high diversion targets the region set for itself are described only as “aspirational goals.”)

The story of Metro Vancouver’s proposed bylaw and incinerator has other local dimensions we don’t need to get into for our purposes, about which readers can learn more from articles I wrote here and here.

The point of the Metro Vancouver bylaw and incineration story is that it illustrates the kind of limited, circular and (ultimately) dead end conversation our society and its policymakers end up having because we routinely separate “waste” from the economic system that produces it. Until we connect the two, as Maxine Perella’s article in The Guardian suggests, we’ll forever be generating material that can’t be reused or recycled, which will have to be burned or buried (or treated in some expensive high-tech gasifier). We will endlessly need to construct new landfills or expand existing ones. We’ll forever have politicians, the public and various stakeholders going to war to approve or prevent the construction of another waste-to-energy plant.

The conversation about waste (and by this I mean residual waste — the stuff left over once the organics and recyclables have been separated and processed) — is usually disconnected from the deeper conversation about what a sustainable economy would look like. Therefore, an understandable and even admirable alert problem-solving engineering mentality takes over, and public works staff develop a utility model for managing and disposing of the waste, as though it was inevitable, like the water their municipal waterworks department must purify for drinking, or treat afterwards as sewage.

What environmentalists have been saying for quite some time is that there’s nothing inevitable about the kind of waste material our society generates, for which the only economically viable destination is a landfill or incinerator. When municipal officials offer reassurance that incinerators are somehow safe and their toxic emissions aren’t all that bad (i.e., they’re comparable to, say, automobile emissions we live with every day), they miss the point that this argument is fundamentally offside where the public is today, which is that citizens really want zero waste — they just need to discover the path for getting there. Even if an incinerator (or some kind of black box) could be shown to have no harmful emissions at all, they still wouldn’t want it. Why? Because they “get it” (at last) that our environmental footprint extends far past what we see at home. Anything that ends up in a black or green garbage bag (or grey residual waste cart) is an artifact of our economic inefficiency. As activist waste expert Dr. Paul Connett has said a thousand times, we need to study that stuff, and work diligently to eliminate it upstream.

Beyond Metro Vancouver’s incineration frustration, the British Columbia situation neatly highlights the bleeding edge of waste issues in North America for other reasons. In BC an aggressive experiment is currently underway in extended producer responsibility (EPR). EPR promotes the integration of environmental costs associated with goods throughout their life cycles into the market price of the products — a European concept first formally introduced in Sweden by Thomas Lindhqvist in 1990. In BC, legislation came into effect last spring that requires the producers of printed paper and packaging (referred to y the non-catchy term “PPP”) to pay the full end-of-life management costs associated with their materials. Simply put, producers in BC pay for the full costs of the Blue Box. After a lot of wrangling, the system took effect and companies above a certain size now fund recycling activities. Though they could (and one day might) create collection systems of their own, the companies (as was predicted) contracted with municipalities to continue to perform these tasks, as they already had the collection and processing infrastructure in place.

BC’s adventures with EPR for PPP (how’s that for set of acronyms?) will be fascinating to watch, and will undoubtedly encounter problems. There have already been complaints that many services have been contracted out to a limited set of waste and recycling companies, at the expense of freer market competition. This has been the bane of many EPR programs, with legislated EPR more or less condoning what would be called marketplace collusion or racketeering in any other context. Let’s assume for a moment that BC figures that out over time (which Germany did when faced with the same problems from its famous Green Dot program when it brought its competition bureau staff into the picture). It’s reasonable to expect that Blue Box diversion success will continue to grow. (Another thing I like about BC’s system is that used soft drink containers are already collected under deposit — a strategy that’s proven to collect more containers for recycling than curbside programs, which can never adequately deal with the problem of drinks consumed away from home.)

What’s needed now in BC (as elsewhere) is the next step, which is to take on the residual waste. We really shouldn’t call it “waste” at all, because this condones the idea that it should be created in the first place. In a circular economy, there would be little if any “waste.” Byproduct material is a much better term. Something that needs to be considered is the extension of the EPR program for PPP to all waste (sorry… “byproduct materials”) that (at this time) end up in landfill. If producers had to pay for those materials, they’d be inspired to take a much greater interest in what they’re putting into the market. While having producers pay for the Blue Box system is a great idea, it’s arguable that society is punishing the “good guys.” Following the polluter pays rule and the waste management hierarchy, shouldn’t we be charging the manufacturers and brand owners whose material gets sent to landfill or incineration?

I think so.

This is why staff at places like Metro Vancouver need to move away from their utility model for waste, and start educating the public that, since no one wants their incinerator or a new landfill, everyone is going to have to pull together in what is nothing less than a vast social project of eliminating waste at the source. And BC residents are the perfect people with whom to conduct this ongoing experiment. We’re talking here about nothing less than the reverse engineering of the economy.

Some of the low-hanging fruit will be easier. (For example, getting everyone to switch to reusable cloth shopping bags.) More difficult will be the elimination of difficult kinds of packaging (e.g., blister packaging for items sold at box stores, made from different plastics and laminates). Some products (like bottled water) shouldn’t even be sold in the first place, or should be consumed much less. Whatever the case, the full environmental cost of the product and its packaging, including impacts at the natural resource extraction stage, energy form transportation, and reuse or recycling at end-of-life, would be internalized in the items retail price. (Currently, some of these costs — especially the end-of-life management costs — are externalized onto taxpayers and the environment in most jurisdictions.)

I’d expect opposition from multi-national corporations, whose business model is to produce goods in places like China and sell the same thing all over the world. Places like BC will have to take a tough stand, as these companies don’t like to accommodate exceptions in their vast distribution systems. But, in the end, this could lead to more local production and consumption, and that’s what a sustainable economy looks like, right?

I’d venture we can’t even imagine the kinds of broad and/or micro changes that will take place as BC moves to sustainability. I certainly think it will create a boom economy for companies that rise to the challenge of redesigning their products and packaging, and companies that recycle materials into new products.

Though we can’t guess how the specifics will play out, the starting point is obvious: look at what’s in the residual waste currently sent to landfill or incineration, and start addressing it. And make the people who create it pay for it!

Now here’s the article from The Guardian. Some smart folks over in Europe are working hard on these same issues. Maybe we can work together with them.


Recycling: ‘the loop of last resort’ within a circular economy

Dame Ellen MacArthur and others outline the European legislative and policy levers needed to transition to a circular economy

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is developing a policy toolkit to identify what legislation is required to accelerate circular transition. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Speaking at a circular economy debate in Brussels hosted by Philips earlier this month, Dame Ellen MacArthur asked the audience in front of her to let their minds momentarily wander. “Imagine if investment within the European Union was focused on business models that could accelerate this – helping to decouple growth from resource constraints,” she said. “There’s a massive opportunity here for us in Europe. We feel the thirst for this need, for the enabling conditions to help this transition.”

The transition MacArthur talks about – our linear industrialised processes evolving into more restorative mechanisms that can keep resources in use for longer – is a challenging one, not least because it requires systems redesign at every level. Knowing where to start on this journey is a daunting prospect, but MacArthur believes sheer determination is a persuasive enabler. For her, overcoming entrenched attitudes and behaviours is half the battle.

“It is a huge challenge to shift our economy from linear to circular, I can’t deny that for a second. But it depends on the way that you see this,” she said. “One of the biggest challenges is the change in mindset. Because the case studies are there, we know that this is possible, we’re able to do so much of this.”

This view was echoed by Royal Philips’ senior vice-president Henk de Bruin, who oversees his company’s global sustainability drive. He told delegates: “The moment you start thinking about waste as an economic good, you start thinking differently.” Bruin advised businesses looking to make the transition to build on their existing strengths. “Look first at what you are doing and identify if there are circular elements in that. We looked at our own business and said ‘This is already circular, but we can improve it more’.”

Many leading on this agenda are in favour of policy intervention, in particular strengthening business obligations around eco-design and producer responsibility to stimulate market demand for more circular goods and services. MacArthur said that legislation was an increasing area of interest for her own foundation’s work in this field. “We are very used to hearing the words ‘legislation’ or ‘taxation’ as something very negative, but they can be hugely positive things, they can really help to steer. There’s an opportunity here to reset things.”

MacArthur revealed her foundation is about to embark on a new project – the development of a policy toolkit to identify what legislative levers are required to accelerate circular transition. This should hopefully assist more progressive policy makers in their decision-making, such as the European Commission, which launched its own circular economy package of measures earlier this year.

William Neale, member of cabinet for the European Commissioner for Environment, admitted the proposals had taken the Commission outside of its comfort zone. Addressing the audience, he said: “When we go higher up the [waste] hierarchy, when you start to talk about what and how to make the markets work for recyclates, when you start to talk about remanufacturing, reuse and prevention – in terms of EU policy tools, it’s not something we are used to dealing with.”

Neale pointed to various Directive revisions, particularly within batteries and waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), that should help promote moves towards circularity. “In the case of WEEE, we are piloting eco-design criteria for flat screen televisions in terms of the mercury that might be in them, in terms of lead in the plastics, to enable more easy dismantling and recycling.”

He added that the Commission was pushing for minimum rules for extended producer responsibility – a move that could make businesses more accountable for the products they produce and sell once they have been used by consumers. “We have a lot of instruments we could use, in the case of WEEE we are using a certain number of them, but we still have big gaps there. The fact that the markets aren’t working particularly well, there are system failures … problems in terms of consumer behaviour and producer behaviour.”

Part of the problem is a lack of understanding around product, component and material flows in the overall system, especially across global supply chains. These need to be mapped more effectively to enable stakeholders within a supply or value chain to identify where the system leakages are (where resources escape the cycle to become waste) and where there is most value to be gained in retrieving these resources for re-entry into the industrial process.

Such moves would be welcomed by companies such as Umicore, a global materials technology group that specialises in transforming used metals into hi-tech materials. Its senior vice president for precious metals refining Luc Gellens told delegates that his firm offers a closed loop customer takeback service for production scrap. “It’s a service model whereby in many cases our customers own the metal and we recycle it for them,” he explained.

Calling on Europe to “nurture and develop” its recycling sector, Gellens said: “We can rethink consumption, but I very much doubt we can reduce the use of metals. The need for metals will continue to go up and without recycling I think for a number of metals [in use today] the world will be in difficulty for a number of applications.”

According to MacArthur, recycling is “the loop of last resort” within a circular economy, but she was keen to emphasise the positive. “Most of the value in a circular economy lies along the inner loops; the reselling, the remanufacturing, the disassembly, the de-componentisation. Within a circular economy, the recycling increases because companies are creating a system whereby those products come back.”

Praising the European Commission on its policy work so far, Philips’ Bruin expressed a desire to see more fire within government. “I would challenge the European Union to see whether or not Europe can really become the stage on which we drive the circular economy, simply because it drives economic value and it reduces ecological footprint – what more could you want?”

Acknowledging this, Neale said the Commission was keen to hear from those businesses innovating at the sharp end. “We don’t always hear from the progressive companies … we need to find a way to get that advocacy happening here in Brussels. We’ve done a good job so far, but we are a long way from being able to say that the enabling conditions are there.”

Content on this page is paid for and produced to a brief agreed with Philips, sponsor of the circular economy hub

Maxine Perella is an environmental journalist specialising in the zero waste and the circular economy agenda