Waste is the biggest failure of Modern Society for two main reasons. On the one hand, it represents a huge environmental and economical cost in terms of lost resources and damages to natural ecosystems. On the other hand, it’s an insult to years of human evolution, especially if we consider that the more we are educated, well paid, and hold a relevant position in society the more waste we generate.
The industrial revolution had the great ambition to allow the highest number of people to access the largest number of products to improve their life quality. How did that happen, though, was the origin of the problem and brought to the inception of the current Linear Economy. Instead of creating a fair society in which wealth was equally distributed, we focused on making processes more efficient and products cheaper without considering the hidden, or once hidden, costs of this.
Waste generation, therefore, is closely rooted in our consumption and production culture. Waste is created at every step of a product's lifecycle, from resources extraction to manufacturing, energy generation, packaging and shipment and end of life (what is known as Waste Footprint). Moreover, the sheer number of products entering the market, demographic changes, like the increase in the number of one-person households, the large spectrum of waste types and complex waste-treatment paths have the effect of magnifying this societal wrongdoing.
According to the data published by Eurostat, In 2018, the total waste generated in the EU-27 by all economic activities and households amounted to 2 317 million tonnes or over 5 tonnes per European Citizen. To put that in perspective, every two citizens have generated an amount of waste equalling the weight of the Tour Eiffel for a total of 223 Million Tour Eiffel. Construction and Mining are responsible for the 62% of all the waste generated, while Manufacturing, Households and Waste/Water (indicating the management of waste and wastewater) make up for the 28,6% or 664 million tons.
To confirm the fact that waste generation is a perfect indicator of a country or region's wealth, we compared available data for Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) and GDP in the past two decades. In 1994 per-capita waste generation was around 474kg, peaked in 2008 with 520kg to decrease down to 492kg in 2018. Looking at GDP, we can see that the peak in the waste generation of 2008 perfectly matches the peak in GDP, of $16,24 Trn, and so does the following contraction in both waste generation and GDP of 2018 (GDP $15,9 Trn). What emerged from data, however, was also a drastic increase in waste management. For example, the quantity of waste recovered, in other words, recycled, used for backfilling (the use of waste in excavated areas for the purpose of slope reclamation or safety or for engineering purposes in landscaping) or incinerated with energy recovery grew by 33.9 % from 870 million tonnes in 2004 to 1165 million tonnes in 2018.
While there have been evident improvements in terms of attention towards the waste problem, with more effective policies and ambitious targets, it is also true that for years Europe, as all the western countries, have partially outsourced the problem by shipping waste overseas (especially towards Africa and Asia). Now, amid the growing number of bans and tougher international rules on the export of certain waste to other countries, we are facing the dilemma on how to deal with the millions of tonnes of waste generated every year with the growing concern over the impact of such waste on the environment, our health and our economy.
In all these years we have failed to see the bigger picture. The Linear Culture of passing the responsibility to fix our misdoing to who is coming next, both in space and time, does not consider the fact that we are all part of a finite planet and connected society and that the price we don’t pay now will come back later, with the interests. It all comes down to the fact that we call the effects of our actions on third-parties externalities, and that we are not held responsible for that.
For example, let’s take a company that pollutes a river with its waste-water. It will surely benefit from lower operational costs since it doesn’t have to invest in a water management system and will be able to sell its products at a cheaper price and, maybe, win over its competitors. Consumers too will be happy since they could access that product at a cheaper price, seeing their purchasing power grow. So, all in all, it sounds pretty much like a win-win situation. But here we forgot to consider the (in)famous Newton’s Third Law For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, which in this case means that polluted water must end up somewhere.
So, let’s try to analyze all the potential reactions arising from one company misdoing. Surely polluted water will damage the local ecosystem by poisoning fishes and plants. Then, if the water is used for agriculture it will also affect crops and therefore the local economy. And it’s not all yet. Maybe the river will end up in the ocean, spreading marine diseases and affecting the local communities both by impacting on their economy and on the health of those eating poisoned fish. All the pressure will then end up on the public healthcare system, that will have to treat the patients, and on the economic system that will have to compensate for the economic losses, both taking money from takes we all pay.
This happens every time we produce waste, waste fresh water, litter waste in nature, dump waste in landfill or release carbon emissions.
A societal problem requires a societal effort to solve it. In fact, while it is true that 90% of the environmental impact of a product is determined in the design stage, consumer behaviour surely needs to play its role in moving away from consumerism.
According to the Waste Management Hierarchy the number two strategies to fight wastes are prevention and reduction. What would it take to achieve that? Businesses, to start, should radically change their design strategy to make products last longer, be repairable, use renewable resources and transform their business models to be less dependent on product sales.
Consumers, on the other hand, should change their consumption habits by first working on the compulsive need to buy more stuff even when they don’t really need them. Then, they should start to consider the real value of products, going beyond the price, and try to avoid all the sources of waste that don’t really play an important function in their lives, such as packaging.
Moving down the hierarchy, we should definitely work on making the waste management system more effective. Starting with businesses that should be more transparent in defining the composition of their products and make them easy to disassemble. Consumers should pay more attention to home recycling while institutions should improve collection systems and develop new technologies to maximize the recycling and recovery end of life products.
All this would be possible by implementing policies that could successfully support businesses and consumers towards the transition. On the one hand, incentivizing and rewarding the businesses that take the needed steps towards circular models and penalizing the others (also working on the diffuse implementation of extended producer responsibility schemes). On the other hand by ensuring consumers higher transparency in products labelling and making it easier to access green products.