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Out With The Old? Practicing Better Waste Management

Show Notes

We are in month two of adopting 12 sustainable lifestyle changes. This month is all about Practicing Better Waste Management.

Read below or hit one of the links above to listen!

Out with the old, in with the new

I have a question, what comes to mind when I say “Out with the old, in with the new”? Did you automatically think about that old pair of jeans you wanted to get rid of and get a new pair? Or maybe your couch, car, or cosmetics?

It’s a phrase that has led many of us to associate it with material things. If something is slightly used, broken, in need of repair, of no use to us anymore – we get rid of it and typically buy something new in its place. Americans have developed into a throwaway society: A society where things are manufactured for minimal use and thrown away after a single-use, based on consumerism.

Consumerism – then to now

This focus on consumerism started after the Great Depression and World War II. We went from sharing, reusing, repairing, and making our food, clothing, and products (honestly out of necessity) to having an abundance of disposable income and spending power. At the same time, businesses and economists noticed that people wanted to spend their money, and they started mass-producing materials and using consumerism as a business model. They needed people to buy new things and continue buying new things to support the kind of business they were creating.

But things were made well, and that was a problem. In comes the manufacturing philosophy of “planned obsolescence” – a policy of producing consumer goods that rapidly became obsolete through product fails, breaking, or creating a new design that made the old, but still useful – undesirable. This quick obsolescence means that products would need to be frequently replaced​​ , and the supply of spare parts declined drastically.

That philosophy still applies today. Consumerism doesn’t want you to repair, reuse, or make your own, only that you buy more.

the rise of throwaway items

Think about that in today’s society – how many times have you replaced your phone because there was a new version? Or even a new video game system? Or something all of us have fallen into – fast fashion. There’s always something newer, trendier, better, presented to us in a million different versions.

These manufacturers can make low-quality products earn a high margin, with the safety of knowing that you will likely come back when your clothes have fallen apart or there is a new product design.

Then in the 50s and 60s, plastic products that encouraged this throwaway mindset were being marketed heavily: Throwaway cups, bags, and cutlery.

Plastic products were all well and good for the businesses who were saving money and making a lot of money, and even the consumers who were undoubtedly thrilled to have these new things that made their lives more convenient and trendy.

But this rapid rise in disposable consumer goods and throwaway culture started to cause concern for its impact on the environment.

Waste management hierarchy

There was a rise in environmental action, and the effects of industrialization, injustice, oil spills, pollution, toxic dumps, and extinction led to the first Earth day in 1970. By the late 60s and early 70s, recycling as we know it today started to be commonplace.

In 1975, the European Union created the first iteration of the Waste Framework Directive (WFD). This framework was where “methods for waste management were divided into (i) reduction in quantities of waste; and (ii) disposal via recycling and re-use, via recovery, and storage and underground.” Sounding familiar to the reduce, reuse, recycle method we are all used to hearing?

Except this model didn’t include a hierarchy of what should be done first, of what was most important. In 1979, Dutch politician, Ad Lansink, proposed a concept, “Ladder of Lansink,” which ranked preferences for waste management and resource conservation options, with “reduce” at the top and “landfill” at the bottom, which became the framework for how waste management is recognized globally.

Industry and waste

It’s worth noting that much of the waste hierarchy framework applies to Construction and Demolition waste (CDW). Some research shows CDW “is the primary waste stream of gross waste generation in modern society” due to urbanization. China, the United States (US), and the European Union (EU) are the three biggest economies and the top three CDW generators. The Eco Experts report that the construction industry “is responsible for 50% of all-natural resource extraction worldwide. It accounts for one-sixth of global freshwater consumption, one-quarter of wood consumption, and one-quarter of global waste.” The EU put this framework into legislation to help mitigate their waste from that industry.

But although it does apply to industry, it also applies to every business and our everyday life.

Circular Economy + Waste Management

The 3 R’s (or more depending on how you look at it) surrounding circular economy and the waste management hierarchy share a similar goal: to improve the effectiveness of waste treatment by reducing environmental impacts, resource conservation, and avoiding waste altogether.

The waste management hierarchy has developed into many iterations throughout the years – food waste, resource waste, even zero waste iterations. Its typical illustration is an inverted pyramid – with the most preferred option, prevention or reduction, at the top, and the least desirable option, landfills, at the bottom.

So let’s walk through this journey to approach waste and waste management. (I mesh together a few different iterations of the pyramid for this!)

waste management hierarchy

Source: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652614012384

Prevention + reduction

FIRST STEP – At the top, we have prevention and reduction – also thought of as no waste. This is similar to Reduce or even refuse in the R framework, as it’s about reducing the amount of waste we have and the toxicity of the waste we have. AT the design level, this is about creating a more efficient design, manufacturing, and packaging process that produces less waste to begin with and less toxic waste at that. Some examples would be to create reusable products, longer-lasting products, and utilizing materials that are better for the environment once they are made (like reducing plastic and using more biodegradable, safe materials).

But the consumer standpoint of this is similar to what we talked about in the last episode (Waste Not, Want Not). Reframing what we consider waste – instead, thinking of it as a resource.

Prevention is the biggest step we can take and why it is the most preferable option on the waste management scale—intercepting waste before it even happens.

Reframing ‘out with the old, in with the new’

So take the same “out with the old, in with the new” phrase from earlier. I challenge you to approach it differently. Out with the old MINDSET, old IDEAS, old beliefs, and in with a new and fresh mindset, ideas, and thoughts. Think of it another way; it can mean that to move forward, we need to let go of the old and start growing with what is new. And what is new is a better way to live, design, and interact with everything on this planet so that we can live a lighter and healthier.

In practice, this can be finding materials that come with the least packaging, require the fewest resources, or consist of recycled or recyclable components, properly caring for perishable and nonperishable items, so they don’t go to waste, and avoiding single-use goods.

Preparing for reuse

The second-best approach on the hierarchy for waste management is preparing for re-use. This means checking, cleaning, repairing, or refurbishing items to reuse them in their original form. A lot of what we throw away can be used again, and if we focused on extracting these reusable items before they made it further down the chain, we could increase jobs and reduce scarcity.

In practice, this is pretty self-explanatory! Both companies and consumers can reuse items so that there is no need to create something new, which is a very time and resource-intensive process no matter what is being made.

Recycling

Now we are at the third tier – recycling, and composting falls under that because it recycles our food waste into a new substance. According to the EPA, Americans generate 292.4 million tons of waste per year, with a total of 94 million tons of that being recycled and composted.

While many people think of these two things as the first best option, because it is so well known, there are more preferable options before that. To be honest, you can tell by the numbers that we aren’t using our recycling and composting methods to their full capacity when comparing the numbers to the waste that we generate.

One of the reasons it is third on the list is because, unlike the first two approaches, it takes much more energy and resources to process our waste into a new product. But recycling does have value, and it’s something that anyone can take part in easily.

Another aspect of recycling can be finding new uses for the waste like to feed animals, industrial services, or just your average joe making one product into something new again.

We talked about composting in Episode 67, so definitely go back and listen to that one if you missed it before, and we will talk more about recycling next week!

Energy Recovery

So as we are going down our inverted pyramid, we are reaching the smaller and smaller portions – the least desirables. If our waste makes it past the first three stages – then as a last-ditch effort to prevent it from going to a landfill- we should hope to recover the energy.

Out of those 292 million tons of waste that I mentioned earlier, 35 million tons (11.8 percent) were combusted with material or energy recovery.

Some forms of energy recovery involve biogas: anaerobic digestion of plant matter for natural gas. Or a similar process, gasification, which produces energy and other materials from biomass using heat. And incineration, or waste-to-energy facilities, uses waste combustion under controlled conditions to generate electricity and heat.

There are also incineration facilities without energy recovery, but this is less common because it is pretty expensive to run an incineration facility. It doesn’t make sense to do it without recovering something in return.

The energy collected can keep up the operation like a loop system or be fed back into the electricity grid.

So once we’ve created waste, past the first step of prevention, and made our way to the end of recovery, I think you know the last outcome.

landfill

At the bottom of the pyramid is the landfill. More than 146 million tons of our waste (50 percent) are sent to landfills. Now that is JUST municipal waste – not even industrial, agricultural, or commercial waste. So for Municipal waste, the EPA says that “Food was the largest component at about 24 percent. Plastics accounted for over 18 percent, paper and paperboard made up about 12 percent, and rubber, leather, and textiles comprised over 11 percent. Other materials accounted for less than 10 percent each.”

Hearing that, I think it’s pretty clear that most of that does NOT need to end up in the landfill. If we were to practice better waste management, we could save precious landfill space for items that truly need to be there.

zero waste landfill

Landfills are a significant source of pollution. They release toxins, greenhouses gases, contaminate water, smell, and are unsightly. We do not need to rely on filling up landfills, covering them, and converting them to green spaces. We have to move away from this practice through better waste management.

This is possible. The New York Times reports that less than 1 percent of household waste finds its way to landfills in Sweden. And many other places hope to reach zero waste landfill goals. In London, Mayor Sadiq Khan said the goal is that “by 2026 no biodegradable or recyclable waste will be sent to landfill and by 2030 65 percent of London’s municipal waste will be recycled”. It is possible if the proper measures are put into place, and more people start to care about what happens to our environment when we waste.

practicing better waste management

Every day, our society is becoming more environmentally conscious. Our numbers are growing, the message is being spread, and companies who can eliminate much of this waste are starting to rethink their environmental footprint and change their strategy.

At its core, the waste management hierarchy focuses on what we do with waste, but it’s not perfect. To take it further, we need to also link this hierarchy with environmental impact and dematerialization. Dematerialization is reducing the mass of materials used in industrial end products. The waste management hierarchy focuses on diverting waste from landfills through prevention, reuse, recycling, and recovery. However, this doesn’t guarantee a closed-loop system with the best environmental outcome or enforce dematerialization.

One of the ways research shows we can improve this hierarchy is:

    • By defining each phase more and including information on tradeoffs,
    • Refining recycling to specify a closed-loop system rather than an open-loop,
    • Creating a better infrastructure to support this hierarchy and prevent loss of waste along the way,
    • And most importantly, treating waste as something valuable, a resource, instead of waste – something that we have already laid the groundwork for!

The action you can take here is to try to be a conscious consumer. Don’t buy what you don’t need, use what you have, prioritize sharing with others, and if you do need to buy – choose companies that have prevention built into their business. Once something comes into your possession, consider it as your responsibility and try to think of how you can keep its value before sending it on down the line.

Something to grow on

For this week’s something to grow on segment, I want to bring us back to the thought of why we have become a throwaway society – because it is convenient, trendy, and truthfully saves us some time on the front end. But convenience at the expense of the planet is not convenient at all. I’ll let you mull that over until next time – thanks for joining me, neighbor.

To find out what book we’re reading this month in the Hello, Neighbor! Bookclub join the Facebook Group!

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