One challenge that almost all cities share is sustainable waste management. Urbanization, rapid population growth, higher product consumption rates are all resulting in a vast increase in the quantity of waste generated. Meanwhile, communities are becoming more alert on the importance of living in a waste free environment and enjoying the natural resources that our planet Earth has to offer. Local authorities in developing and least developed countries now know the importance of managing waste properly so as to avoid the impacts on the environment and public health; however, they still lack the proper legal and organizational framework to implement integrated waste management practices within their jurisdictions. They mostly rely on disposal options rather than on waste prevention or reduction. Scavengers and waste pickers are still their only resort for sorting the recyclable materials out of the garbage containers.
Unsustainability of waste management practices emerges from a number of driving forces. To name a few; lack of at source sorting, insufficient recycling schemes, lack of adequate sanitary waste disposal strategies, lack of community awareness, weak authoritative engagement and law enforcement, weak collaboration among the different stakeholders, and little private sector involvement. As a result, the unsound disposal of waste poses significant threats to the global environment, through the emission of greenhouse gases and flammable substances and contamination of soil and underground water, to the biodiversity, and to the health of those living near disposal sites.
Sound and sustainable waste management requires rigid environmental, social, as well as economic backbones that are strongest when integrated. The integrated approach takes into consideration a combined strategy of technologies and working conditions and stakeholder involvement in a cost effective manner with better resource allocation. As indicated by the Dutch NGO,WASTE, Integrated Sustainable Waste Management (ISWM) is based on four principles: equity for all citizens to have access to waste management systems for public health reasons; effectiveness of the waste management system to safely remove the waste; efficiency to maximize benefits, minimize costs, and optimize the use of resources, and sustainability of the system from a technical, environmental, financial, socio economic, institutional, and political perspective (Anschutz Justine 2001).
What is Waste?
According to the United Nations Statistics Division, “Wastes are materials that are not prime products (that is; products produced for the market) for which the initial user has no further use in terms of his/her own purposes of production, transformation or consumption, and of which he/she wants to dispose.”
Although there are many definitions to this term, the meaning of waste is most of the time subjective. What one person might consider being waste, another person might not. In the Washington DC area, several organizations are actively working on reducing the quantity of food waste generated.
These organizations have noticed that there is a considerable amount of food, either packaged or fresh produce, being thrown away just because of appearance rather than actually being rotten (133 billion pounds every year). With this motivation, they have started a DC Central kitchen, whereby healthy food that otherwise would be discarded is collected and used to prepare daily meals to the needy (Chrobog 2015). This provides a great example of diverting the endpoint of the so called ‘waste’ from the landfill (or disposal site) to reuse activities.
The waste hierarchy was first introduced in the European Union’s Environment Action Program in 1977 (CEC 1977), as a waste management priorities model. It was based on the “Ladder of Lansink”, a hierarchy of waste handling technologies from prevention to reduce, reuse, recycle, recovery, treatment, and finally disposal in sanitary landfills (see figure-1). The waste hierarchy was a transition from end of pipe to preventive thinking, so when each element is given a greater effort than that given to the following, the quantity of waste generated can be minimized, and thus we can go a step closer to the sustainability target. The hierarchy also indicates the importance of integrating the different management steps. Each step affects the other and therefore the entire system should be approached from a holistic stand point rather than separately.
However, according to many critics, the hierarchy is difficult to maintain because the related authorities have little decision making power in the production process that could lead to waste prevention and minimization (Gertsakis and Lewis 1993). Therefore, the bigger responsibility is left on the private sector, in particular, manufacturing companies that could significantly influence the amount of waste that is generated.
According to the UN-HABITAT, there are three key system elements in ISWM; resource management, environmental protection and public health. (See figure-2).
Resource Management refers to “closing the loop” by returning both materials and nutrients to beneficial use, through waste prevention, reduce, reuse, recycle, and recovery. Environmental Protection emphasizes the waste chain mainly during treatment and disposal, and Public health refers to the maintenance of health conditions in residential areas, particularly related to good waste collection services (UN_HABITAT 2010). These three approaches when interlinked give rise to a sound waste management practice with minimal environmental and public health threats.
The main responsibility of the private sector therefore lies in resource management. It encompasses the preventive approaches that are indicated in the Ladder of Lansink.
“The roots of the (sustainability) crisis are political and social issues that exceed the mandate and capabilities of any corporation. At the same time, corporations are the only organizations with the resources, the technology, the global reach and, ultimately, the motivation to achieve sustainability,” said Prof Stuart Hart from Harvard Business Review.
Although not generally agreed, the private sector is the key performer in the waste management process. Corporations, especially large ones, have the know-how, needed capabilities (technical, financial, and other resources), and institutional framework to significantly minimize the quantity of wastes generated. Many have already incorporated waste minimization policies and goals within their business operations. Companies as such have realized that properly managing their waste is a competitive advantage over others, because it would help them significantly cut production expenses, gain higher consumer loyalty levels, motivate and engage stakeholders by using ISWM as a value based path and many others.
Resource Management Strategies
There are many noteworthy resource management concepts that corporations can embrace in order to achieve sustainable waste management goals while maximizing their operational profits and minimizing their expenses. These include; waste prevention, environmentally preferable purchasing, closing the loop (cradle to cradle), and targeting zero waste.
Waste prevention refers to the idea of preventing waste from being generated. It tackles the first two elements of the waste hierarchy; reduce and reuse. This could be achieved by allocating a company procedure to waste management. The waste generation rate at each level of production should be assessed in order to set waste reduction targets accordingly. The actions to achieve this target can be summarized as;
- reduce the amount of waste that is used in the production process,
- allocate the materials that would otherwise be disposed from one production level, as inputs in another level; thus reusing materials that are not necessarily wasteful,
- exchange or donate the unwanted materials; as mentioned earlier what is waste to your organization might be an input to another (Environmental Protection Agency 2013).
By endorsing waste prevention policies, companies would minimize waste generation before stepping on the recycling route!
Environmentally preferable purchasing (EPP) refers to the idea of carefully selecting and greening the supply chain of the company. The inputs to the manufacturing process dictate the impact companies can have on the environment and thus the amount of waste generated. EPP can be applied on both business to business and business to consumer levels. The latter is when individuals carefully assess the wastefulness of the product prior to purchasing. Wastefulness can be indicated mostly by the amount of unnecessary packaging of a product. EPP is also a waste prevention strategy as it reduces the environmental impact that products might have if they were purchased and used by business or individual consumers.
Closing the loop (cradle to cradle)is “a biomimetic approach to the design of products and systems. It models human industry on nature’s processes viewing materials as nutrients circulating in healthy, safe metabolisms. It suggests that industry must protect and enrich ecosystems and nature’s biological metabolism while also maintaining a safe, productive technical metabolism for the high-quality use and circulation of organic and technical nutrients” (Braungart and McDonough 2002).
It distinguishes between two categories of materials that are used in the production process; technical and biological nutrients. Technical nutrients are described as non-toxic and non-harmful synthetic materials that can be reused in the process as input instead of being discarded as waste. The biological nutrients are decomposable organic matter that can act as nutrients to other organisms found in nature. Biological nutrients are mostly collected and used for composting.
The cradle to cradle concept targets two main steps in the waste management hierarchy; reuse and recovery. If implemented efficiently, no material would go to waste; thus closing the loop of the material life cycle.
(Review the full report about Circular Economy in Issue No.11 of Responsible Business published in October 2014.)
Zero waste is a philosophy that encourages the redesign of resource life cycles so that all products are reused and no trash is sent to landfills and incinerators. Zero waste is a holistic and integrated approach that perfectly respects the hierarchical order of the waste management options. It is a thorough procedure that can be incorporated into a company’s business policy. Just like any other automaker, generating waste like scrapmetal, paint sludge or shipping materials is unavoidable. In 2011, General Motors set a goal to achieve 100 landfill free manufacturing sites and 25 non-manufacturing sites by 2020. Their main target practices were reduce, reuse, recycle, and recover all waste not leaving anything to be landfilled or disposed. By 2014, they had already landfill free status in 89 manufacturing and 33 non-manufacturing sites. Examples of GMs recovery sites are:
• An assembly plant in Zaragoza, Spain that composts wastewater sludge into fertilizer, while inside the shop reuses 80% of the solvents used within the operations
•The operations facility in Grand Rapids, Michigan recycles oil several times, saving the company around $1.2 million annually. It also reprocesses wastewater sludge into a renewable fuel source.
• An engine assembly plant in Joinville, Brazil composts cafeteria waste to be used for landscaping and many others (Kaye 2014)
The zero waste policy is also an adaptive management approach. That is, the management system is modified periodically based on lessons learnt, stakeholder perspectives, market response…etc. As it is also the case in the GM operations, the 9 steps that are needed to achieve landfill free goals are reassessed periodically by incorporating all lessons learnt in the process (see figure-3).
The GM zero waste policy is a perfect example on the importance of integration efforts in order to achieve sustainability.
Integration of waste management efforts would not be successful and effective without the partnership between the private and public sectors. The responsibilities of both are highly interrelated and neither can achieve targets without the other. As mentioned above, the three pillars of ISWM can be divided among the public and private sector; however, there should always be a significant level of cooperation. When corporations aim resource management through reduce, reuse, and recycle strategies, the concentration of the waste stream decreases drastically; thus, moving forward on the sustainability target ladder. Meanwhile, solid legal framework and political engagement is the main support system of the nationwide implementation of ISWM strategies.Therefore, it is only through the partnership of both sectors that any results can be achieved.
Waste Management & CSR
ISWM practices in the private sector are examples of corporate social responsibility, a term that has become very popular among businesses. Corporate Social Responsibility is a management concept whereby companies integrate social and environmental concerns in their business operations and interactions with their stakeholders (United Nations Indutrial Develpment Organization). It is composed of three interrelated segments covering environmental, social, and economic imperatives.
The diagram in figure 4 indicates some examples of advantages to a company’s waste management strategies in their attempt to achieve corporate social responsibility targets.
Ethics of Waste Management
Sound waste management is an ethical responsibility that we all share because when practiced poorly, it has a considerable ecological and population impact. Below are some examples:
•Improper disposal of waste results in environmental damages that could adversely affect future generations through climate change and diminished land spaces.
• The level of public health is very sensitive to the mode of waste management practices in the community.
• The unsound waste management affects not only the lives of humans, but also the biodiversity and the ecology as a whole, through exerting negative global environmental impacts, such as climate change, air and water plution.
Therefore, when calculating the cost of the ISWM service, decision makers should take into account not only the investment and operational expenses needed, but also the social and environmental degradation. They should be realistic in their planning process so as not to misuse stakeholders’ and customers’ trust and invest in a non-environmental and non-safe manner.
The implementation of a nationwide ISWM is a complex process that requires sufficient planning, public education and participation, well bound financial and technical bases, a strong legal framework that protects the process, and environmental and public health degradation.