Earlier in the month, we brought you the first part of an interview with the creator of the waste hierarchy, Ad Lansink. The interview is based on questions provided by readers of be Waste Wise, our collaborators on this article.
The first part of the interview explored issues around the implementation of the hierarchy in waste management as we find it today. In this second and final instalment, readers quiz Ad on some of other key concepts influencing developing thinking on matters of waste and resource.
- How close is it possible to get to zero waste?
Zero waste is a great concept and presents an attractive target; its feasibility is another issue. After all, during both the use of products and the subsequent processing of secondary raw materials from recycling there is always some loss of material. It would be great if a recovery rate of between 70%–90% could be achieved. I’d point out that for the use and recycling of food a different approach is necessary: wastage of food should obviously be avoided. But also in that case, the goal of zero-waste – i.e. 100% recycling – would again turn out to be unattainable.
- What is the relationship between the waste hierarchy and the concept of cradle-to-cradle design? Specifically, do you think that product design can succeed where waste management has failed in reaching the top levels of the hierarchy?
Really, the cradle-to-cradle concept (C2C) is only part of the order of preference, namely the reuse of products and materials. The core of the C2C is the design of products to facilitate recycling and to maximise the reuse of components and semi-finished products. C2C also aims at products with long lifetimes, or which facilitate the recycling of their component materials. The idea of using solely secondary materials in a circular system is, however, aiming too high.
Moreover, Michael Braungart – one of the architects of the C2C – always claimed that with C2C prevention would be unnecessary: an incorrect assumption, because prevention plays a very important role in the careful management of resources. For example, there is an actual shortage of some raw materials. Another questionable aspect of C2C is the assumption that all the energy necessary for product and material progress can be purely achieved from renewable sources. Without energy from biomass, that task will be unfeasible. Also, with C2C inevitably a loss of energy and materials will take place. So, the C2C concept is less universal than Lansink’s Ladder.
- Has the circular economy killed the waste hierarchy?
I would say: not at all. The waste hierarchy seems a linear concept, but is actually a sequence of circular processes. At any rate, this would become perfectly true if end-of-life-solutions – especially land filling – were phased out.
Of course, incineration has two sides: firstly the end-of-life aspect for residual materials and emissions (including CO2) which will not get a second or third life; and secondly, the recovery of useful materials from bottom ashes and CO2 returning in the circular process of biomass.
The upper rungs of Lansink’s Ladder (prevention, reuse of products, and reuse of materials after recycling) are essential for achieving a system of circular economy. The waste hierarchy stimulates innovation on and between each of the rungs, and forms the basis for ecodesign. The waste hierarchy also points the way for the development of legal and other instruments, including educational and informative projects. The last point is especially important with regards to the challenging rung of prevention.
- What do you think it would take – if you believe it is even possible – for our society to develop and sustain a circular economy that can function within the planet’s ecological limits?
Nowadays, the circular economy is a ‘trending topic’. However, the transition from a linear to circular economic system is no easy task, despite the increasing optimism in this area. This wish has apparently been behind the European Commission’s thinking in standing for a juxtaposition of recycling and incineration. ‘Brussels’ now has high ambitions in promoting the circular economy: in 2030, the average recycling rate should be doubled to 70%, and in the same year, there would also be a general ban on landfilling in Europe.
Admittedly, support for the circular economy concept grows. But the question is whether a rapid and complete transition to the circular model is feasible, as globalisation becomes more and more important. Quite apart from the finiteness of some materials, components and products, the free market has its own requirements and conditions. The often-advocated transition to a ‘lease society’ is possible under some areas (such as the automotive sector), but elsewhere encounters practical difficulties; think of free consumer choice, and don’t forget the value of ownership. In turn, manufacturers point out their assigned producer responsibility.
If the circular economy is not to become an empty concept, then a lot work has to be done in almost all related domains: fundamental and applied scientific research, design and production of (new) materials and products, development of management tools, and last but not least the development of thorough insight into all that society needs to function.
Without prevention and recycling, the circular economy will not be successful. Where recycling and reuse are expanded, ‘down-cycling’ should be avoided as much as possible. Furthermore, with greater emphasis on a ‘biomass economy’, politicians need to keep an eye open for the tension with the food issue. Also, the unequal distribution of global wealth is frequently overlooked in discussions on the circular economy. Without concrete, feasible implementation proposals and innovations, the circular economy cannot function. The real barriers do not concern so much the planet’s ecological limits, but social behaviour, the free market, globalisation and, of course, time.
- After all these years, is there anything you would change about the waste hierarchy?
No, not regarding the main line of the waste hierarchy. Experience has taught that the overall model is simple, clear and understandable. In my original 1979 proposal the ladder had five rungs: prevention, source separation, post-separation, incineration with production of energy and functional land filling (e.g. sculpting land formations for noise reduction). Between some rungs, there seems room for sub-rungs, for instance fermentation of biomass.
Incidentally, in practice and in legislation, the classic rung of incineration with production of energy has been divided into two rungs: energy from waste with a minimum energy production (see the R1 and R10 statuses in the European Waste Directive), and older incineration plants only aiming at disposal. However, all in all the waste hierarchy remains a universal and sustainable concept.
This interview is the product of collaboration between Isonomia and be Waste Wise.