Why we should move towards zero waste
“Waste not, want not”. An old proverb, originating in the 16th century, reminds us to be mindful of not wasting what we have, to ensure that there will always be enough of what we need in the future. It is a concept we have well lost sight off in modern day living.
Today, many things are not manufactured to last because consumers will be wanting to upgrade to the latest and greatest version well before a product’s end of life. We favour convenience in our busy daily lives from packaging to take aways and single use plastics.
Australians throw away on average 312kg of food per person a year * which is about 20% of all food purchases. Our behaviour is far more consumeristic, buying what we want rather than just what we need.
We are a throwaway culture and are now recognizing that this behaviour is simply unsustainable. Throwing things away wastes resources that often come from non-renewable sources and creates a burgeoning problem in the environment.
The first step towards positive change is obvious- reduce. We need to use less and be more mindful about what we buy. Manufacturers need to redesign products and packaging to be less wasteful. But, where waste is unavoidable, we need to look at how we dispose of the waste we create
What’s wrong with landfills?
Originally landfills were seen as a good way to control rubbish by sending it to a designated area for disposal rather than littering the streets. There was no better motivator than the Bubonic Plague to encourage people to look for systematic and sanitary ways to discard rubbish. Originally just holes in the ground, landfills have evolved to become better managed to reduce environmental damage. Many landfills are governed by regulations to ensure they are self -contained. Landfills are lined with an impermeable layer to prevent the migration of materials into air, soil and waterways. In landfill, waste is compacted which creates an environment devoid of oxygen. When material breaks down in this anaerobic atmosphere landfill gas is created, in particular, high concentrations of methane. Methane is 20 times more deadly than CO2 when it comes to global warming. Some landfills have a system for capturing theses greenhouse gas emissions and harnessing them for energy. Methane can be burned off in the same way as oil or coal but this process still results in the production of CO2 which is released as a by- product into the atmosphere.
Landfills are all well and good while they are monitored but eventually, they will reach capacity, be closed off and no longer tightly managed. Toxic leachates, chemicals and gases will continue to be produced within and won’t be able to be contained forever. As such landfills are not the best long-term solution for waste.
What about Waste- to energy (WtE)?
Waste to energy technologies vary. The most well- known and recognized is incineration. Incineration refers to the combustion of waste materials. For WtE, an incinerator incorporates technology to generate energy from the heat produced during the combustion process.
It sounds like a great concept to get rid of waste and use it for energy instead of fossil fuels. Waste to energy is even touted as the harnessing of energy from a renewable resource. The goal of WtE is to divert waste away from landfill. Waste incinerators however do not completely eliminate waste. They actually generate it. Physical matter cannot be destroyed. Incineration simply converts existing waste into another form, ash. While waste is reduced by weight and volume, this waste still needs to be landfilled. A large amount of waste is needed to produce a very small percentage of our power needs, so WtE is really a waste management solution as opposed to a solution for reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. There is still a lot of debate about whether investing more heavily in WtE is the best solution. While a better option then landfill, WtE is still a lineal disposal method. Resources that could be recovered and used by a secondary industry via recycling are destroyed and therefore wasted.
Recycling for true zero waste.
Recycling is really the Holy Grail of waste disposal for inorganic materials. Creating a circular economy where the resources we extract from the earth are reused, delivers long term benefits to the environment by preserving non- renewable materials and reducing pollution. It takes a lot less energy to reuse raw materials then it does to harvest them in the first place. We need to move away from the concept of single use. Considering end of life solutions before a product is manufactured and designing it so that raw materials can be recovered and recycled, is the best and most productive way to reduce waste. Recycling is a value-add strategy and completely the opposite of landfilling.
A recent survey of members conducted by the New Zealand Sign and Display Association showed that the majority of materials our industry uses are going to landfill. Corflute, vinyl, application tape, backing paper and protective films being the biggest offenders.
So why is it that our recycling figures are so bad?
There are a number of reasons.
- Lack of local infrastructure to collect and process the materials that have the potential to be recycled.
- Manufacturers continuing to make materials that are not able to be recycled end of life, like PVC
- Businesses not willing to invest in alternative medias because of cost (both material and recycling costs).
- Education – customers are not fully aware of the green alternatives that are available or the problem their existing print media is causing in the environment.
Some of these barriers to recycling are outside of our control but not all of them. As consumers of material, we can be more selective in what we use and design projects to be less wasteful from the start. The cost barrier to green alternatives is nowhere near as high as it was years ago. Products like PVC are cheap because they are used and manufactured in high volume. Apply the same scale to green media and the price will decrease. If you want costs to come down, support businesses who are introducing sustainable products.
Cost is directly related to value. Some of your customers may not care about sustainability but there are an increasing number of businesses with strong sustainability objectives who will pay for solutions that align with their business goals. A 10 to 20% increase in material cost doesn’t translate to a 10 to 20% increase in the overall job. The end percentage increase will be less and may well be within the client’s budget especially if they see the value of what they are getting. This is more easily achieved if you can substantiate the sustainable benefits and make the recycling process easy and transparent. Customers are much more likely to engage with a user- friendly take back model and one where they know the products will be recycled and used locally, rather than shipped offshore into the unknown.
Change requires collective effort. Zero waste is not a technology but a vision to create a sustainable society. Reducing waste is a good start but not a stand- alone strategy. It is simply a means of just buying a little more time. Landfill and Waste- to- energy solutions get rid of our waste but they are the mindset of a linear economy. The best outcome is recycling for zero-waste. Using substrates and media that can be recycled end of life ensures that finite and valuable resources are preserved and the environment protected.
References: *www.awe.gov.au **Closing the Loop on Sustainability Report- 2021