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Time to put our waste to better use

Doug Woodring says by fixing the problem of our mounting waste – by treating it as a resource – we can create opportunities to address other challenges such as climate change

Some 8 million tonnes of plastic waste makes its way into our oceans every year, according to recent reports. That is the same as placing five garbage bags of trash on every foot of the coastline on our planet. And that is just plastic.

To put the World Bank’s estimates of global municipal solid waste production into perspective, it would be like covering all of California in waste to a depth of almost 10 metres each year. And the scary fact is that some predict this figure will double within 15 years, as population growth and consumption take their toll on our resources.

So, it is worth asking, is our waste footprint a bigger concern than climate change? In the scheme of long-term impact, it’s hard to say, but what is not hard to say is that most of our communities lack the waste management and recycling infrastructure to keep waste from creating problems in our societies and environment.

Unlike climate change, which affects certain locations at certain times, waste affects billions of people on a daily basis, and it is right under our noses. But because it is not “sexy” in terms of the technology and remediation options that exist for harnessing these resources, and because the waste treatment modus operandi in many countries is controlled by the “old guard”, it has proved hard to close the gap between our consumption “outflows”, and our ability to channel that material for job creation, innovation, clean water, better tourism and improved societies.

In some ways, waste is the “magic” point from which we could correct some of our bigger environmental ills. Why? Because trash is something everyone can see, feel, touch and also do something about. It is not like carbon, which children can’t see, and adults can’t judge.

With plastic in particular, the hardest of the municipal solid waste streams to create economies of scale for – due to the wide variety of types and colours – people know that it should not be in the natural environment. Worse, many times, a brand name is associated with that trash. Of course, the companies did not dump it, but to an increasingly aware public, the brand name carries a lot of negative impact for those trying to make their communities a better place.

All the onus cannot be put on the public to put their waste in the right place. In many places, the education system fails to provide the base of knowledge needed for proper recycling and waste management, nor is there the capacity to deal with many materials we discard.

The result is a direct threat to our water systems, which many argue is the next hot topic on the global list of challenges to be addressed.

On the ocean side of the equation, more than 1 billion people rely on protein from the sea each day, yet many are fishing in coastal zones affected by pollution. Trash that is not dealt with can lead to problems of disease, reduced tourism, agricultural impact and flooding.

All these problems can be solved with the right systems. When these systems start to be improved, it is also possible to engage the local community on other, more complex issues, such as those related to climate change.

A good analogy is the “broken window” theory for poor neighbourhoods, in which maintaining and monitoring our communities, while fixing all the broken windows, helps create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness – in this case, preventing more trash being dumped. If you can sort out the waste issues, you create a sense of pride in the area and its waters, with a greater chance that people will recycle and dispose of waste responsibly.

Creating economies of scale for plastic waste, with the help of the companies involved in distributing it in the first place, will lead to many positive results.

This means creating bring-back programmes, using reverse supply chains to recapture some of the material sold, the use of recycled content in products and being part of the “design-for-recycling” economy. This will create a strong social uplift, which is needed in many parts of the world.

Waste is a “forgotten” resource, and by dismissing the value that different waste streams can create, we end up inadvertently adding to climate change ills. Organic waste produces methane, which is 23 times more harmful to our atmosphere than carbon dioxide. There are all kinds of technologies to make use of organic waste, but when it is mixed with plastic, the aggregated waste (plastics and organics) becomes virtually worthless, unless there is a hi-tech sorting facility or incineration is used for energy recovery.

Not everyone has such technology, however, so by seeing plastic as a valuable usable raw material, and one that can be recycled while creating jobs along the way, with the help of companies, governments and other communal institutions, we can channel these resources back into use.

This will help keep the organic material in a more usable, pure form, allowing composting or gasification for energy and avoiding methane production from rotting waste.

Virtually everyone wins in this cycle, except maybe the “old guard” who are afraid of change. There are no natural enemies for waste, but we have not changed our collective mindsets to harness the opportunities for improvement. If we do, we can move to the next level of climate-related challenges.

Doug Woodring is founder of the Ocean Recovery Alliance/Plastic Disclosure Project
Source URL (modified on Feb 24th 2015, 5:31pm):

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