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Zero Waste – when recycling is not enough

by Joan Marc Simon

Recycling an aluminium can requires 5% of the energy & material flow than what is necessary to produce a can from virgin materials. Recycling is great! It keeps materials in use, reducing the demand for extracting and producing new materials and delaying the time before the materials become waste. Therefore it is and should be encouraged and supported… but unfortunately it is far from enough to achieve sustainability.

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Sustainability is about using current resources in a way that we can pass them on to the future generations; it is about preserving the ecological capital.

According to Eurostat 75% of Europeans think that separating the waste at home is their biggest contribution to fight climate change. It is true that with source separation it is possible to increase recycling rates. However, the real recycling –turning a bottle into a new bottle-happens very rarely. In most cases the materials are down-cycled because the new material has lost purity in comparison with the old product. Plus, recycling is often quite a dirty process.

More recycling doesn’t always mean more sustainability or less emissions. In Europe we see a certain confusion among policy makers and even among the –sometimes- self-appointed green cities or communities because they recycle 50 or 60% of their waste. This is misleading. For instance, according to Eurostat Denmark recycles 41% whilst Czech Republic recycled 3% of their municipal waste. At first sight one would think that Denmark is a lot more sustainable than the Czech Republic because they recycle more. However, if we look at the absolute numbers of waste we realise that with their high recycling rates Denmark still has a residual waste fraction that amounted to 472kg/capita/year (59% of the 801kg of total anual waste that they generate) whilst Czech Republic generated only 285kg/capita/year (97% of 294kg of total waste per capita). This means that in terms of material and energy flows the Czech Republic is more sustainable than Denmark. Therefore, sustainability is not a matter of –only- recycling more but rather of generating less waste.

Europe has to move from Recycling to Sustainability

Europe has to become a Sustainable Society rather than a Recycling Society, the latter is part of the former but as far as waste is concerned, waste reduction combined with increase in material productivity are of even more importance than recycling.

Zero waste is not only about closing the loop but also about making the loop smaller. The European Union aims to decouple waste generation from economic growth but this won’t be enough. It is necessary to reduce resource consumption regardless of the economic growth. Learn to do more with less. Indeed, if the world population continues to increase, with constant consumption patterns, at a higher rate than the rate we reduce waste the unsustainability is growing and not decreasing.

Recycling is mostly good and desirable but it can’t be the reason for complacency. It is precisely for these reasons that the new approaches to resource productivity go beyond recycling to approach sustainability taking into account more indicators:
The leading region for recycling in Europe, Flanders, has adopted a Sustainable Material Management (SMM) strategy which looks at the whole material chain in order to better phase out waste by incorporating material design and productivity approach as part of waste prevention.
Simultaneously, the Environmental Directorate of the OECD is developing guidelines for SMM that are likely to be adopted by many OECD countries in order to effectively tackle the sustainability of the materials.
– In the Netherlands there has been the Chain Approach initiative in which the authorities partner with companies in order to reduce the waste at the end of the process.

Beyond recycling!

Landfill and incineration, together with other disposal options have no place in a sustainable Zero Waste society. Recycling is here to stay but its limitations start to show themselves in those places where recycling rates are above 50%; they have realised that recycling alone can’t do the work. They need to work in waste prevention, minimisation, raise awareness, product design, proper treatment, extended producer responsibility, etc in order to reduce its material and energy consumption without reducing its living standards.

The approach might be new but what we are doing in fact is go back to some traditional usages; designing things to last (from fashion as well as from product point of view), easy to be repaired or refurbished, with non-toxic materials, easy to dismantle or tear apart, traceable, recyclable, etc… Some companies have built a success out of these traditional principles. The English brand Vitsoe has been selling solid, long-lasting and design furniture since decades and has proven that is possible to live better with less that lasts longer. One of the mottos of Vitsoe is “we see recycling as a defeat”. Now it looks like, little by little, with the materials being more scarce and difficult to recover governments and organisations are also starting to look beyond recycling.

Zero Waste is a strategy aiming at doing more with less by improving the resource productivity in order to phase out the clearest symbol of inefficiency: waste!

More recycling doesn’t always mean more sustainability or less emissions.

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There are 2 comments
  1. […] Zero Waste – when recycling is not enough […]

  2. I believe the US could learn a lot from Europe. We have a long way to go. We are recycling but there seems to be obstacles getting in the way. In order to preserve what is left of our resources and to protect the Earth we should be willing to aim for Zero Waste. Our leaders need to take a heads up when dealing with the recycling issue.

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