Beyond Waste Management

- to avoid waste, you need to start at product design

Waste and Circular Economy

Waste seems to be an ever increasing problem to which politicians are seeking solutions.

The EU's Circular Economy could become a world trend as it combines product design with reuse and recycling of components and preventing waste.

14 Jul 2020    By Poul Madsen           

The world is facing major problems with dwindling resources and ever piling waste. It seems that politicians simply are unwilling to put a foot down and instead steer countries, companies and consumers in a sustainable direction. This blog takes a look at the EU directive on circular economy. It also a looks at additional options.

In 1994 the EU issued a directive on packaging and wrapping waste [1]. The aim was to avoid the increasing amoung of waste from packaging. However, taken into account the current build up of plastic waste, it's difficult to conclude that the directive has had a major impact.

The EU directives from 2002 on electric and electronic equipment (WEEE) [2] was a step in the right direction. The directive does seem have an effect, but mostly in the way used computer parts are managed. It doesn't help much on the use of raw materials for new products. A paper at [3] describes a UK based research carried out including 30 interviews. Among conclusions it says that the UK is geared for collecting waste, but not for reuse - partly because producers have more power than local authorities in the process. The research also highlights that "Recovery through recycling is limited to easily salvageable materials" and that "Waste prevention and reuse of EEE is often neglected in favour of recycling".

The EU introduced a new directive on circular economy in 2014. The overall idea is to implement recycling and reuse in the design stage of products. That could be a step in the right direction, provided that USA and the western Pacific markets like China, Japan and South Korea are willing to turn the tide as well.

Circular Economy was implemented in 2018. The EU is monitoring progress and there are many initiatives and samples [4].

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation sees a circular economy as based on three principles: [5]
- Design out waste and pollution
- Keep products and materials in use
- Regenerate natural systems

Others, incl., sees circular economy as based on collaboration rather than linear economy which is based on competition. [6]

Dumping waste in nature

It's essential with not only national legislation, it's essential with international legislation, because globalizing dissolves borders and increases competition. Those companies selling products at the lowest price are winners. Unfortunately, to sell products cheap, it means that these companies very often sell products which are environmental hazards.

Packaging Fees

Solving this 100 % may not be possible, however, vast amount of waste can be recovered if a packaging fee is introduced. If people can pick up waste from streets and make money from it, street waste will vanish - not all but most of it. Of course, if people have plenty of money already - which seem to be the case - they won't get motivated by making a few quid. But homeless people and school kids can collect waste and make moeny. In many countries consumers already pay a bottle fee. Denmark has had fees on glass bottles since the sixties and later in the 1980s fees were introduced on both plastic bottles and cans.

The EU is in fact planning on introducing a fee on plastic wrapping - actually it's a penalty of 800 Euros for each tonne. The fee is expected to be implemented by January 2020 and has been received with mixed reactions [7].

It's no excuse that soft plastics cannot be recycled. If they can't, the obvious solution for governments is to invest in research to find ways of recycling soft plastics or make sure other materials become available.

Money is the Tool

The EU writes that "Retailers are in an exceptional position to promote more sustainable production and consumption via their daily contact with millions of European consumers as well as through their own actions and partnerships with suppliers." [8]. Now, that sounds great, however, the EU cannot rely on consumer goodwill, because consumers want the most for their money, so retailers sell the cheapest products.

It would be great if circular economy was the final solution to dwindling resources, but it doesn't solve eveything. How do we avoid waste tossed in nature by the people who don't care? Some people care more about their money than about future generations, and since the markets are driven by money, why not take this into account? That's why it's essential to be able to generate money from waste.

Most consumers care about the environment, however a number of consumers don't and they dump used batteries, plastic and other waste anywhere. They do it because they get away with it unpunished.

Lots of political sources emphasize that a circular economy will create new jobs. Yeah, sure it'll create new jobs, but how many jobs will become redundant? The statement only is valid if the number of created jobs is greater than those lost in other sectors, for example in the mining sector.

Standardized bottles and jars, packaging and wrapping

Another solution could be for countries to introduce approved standard packaging and wrapping materials. Use a bottle of shampoo as an example. To tempt consumers to buy their products, companies come up with all sorts of shapes and colours of bottles. But instead, companies could have a range of standard bottles - all recyclable or reusable of course. The labelling could be either stickers made of reusable materials or it could be printed onto the bottle using washable ink.

Standard reusable packaging and wrapping materials already exist and it's a new invention. Denmark introduced glas bottles in the sixties. They looked the same apart from the label meaning that any company could receive return bottles, wash them and put their own label on the bottle. Something similar could be introduced for plastic bottles.

A further requirement could be that any product and any packaging materials must be recyclable (and reusable) or compostable. This would assure any item tossed in nature will not cause damage to ecosystems.

Value Added Tax

In general, the price of a product is determined by the cost of production plus some profit including distribution and retailing. And then, of course, the last add-on is Value Added Tax, VAT. Now, what if the VAT was determined not by the preceeding cost links, but instead was determined by the succeeding entyties of product treatment?

Manufacturers creating products that goes back to input material for raw material in the smoothest and cost cutting way, would be imposed by the lowest VAT, and then become the cheapest product.