President, International Solid Waste Association

ISWA Blog: The Role of Recycling in the Environmental Paradox

How much does good waste management cost and how to define "good"? I was having this discussion with several colleagues these past days and it led to some interesting arguments.  

Costs. How much does good waste management cost and how to define "good"? I was having this discussion with several colleagues these past days and it led to some interesting arguments.

First there was a consensus that a healthy environment can be achieved only by protecting nature from human intrusion and damage- think sewage, air emissions, waste. And such protection costs. But the second argument, the consequences of those investments, drew sharp exchanges.

Let's take one point, anaerobic digestion of organic waste. Clearly the industry is stimulated by incentives to produce "green" renewable energy.

Without incentives, AD is hardly feasible. Aren't incentives the right thing to do? Don't we get clean energy, energy dependence, localised energy supplies?

Of course. But then we take the digestate, often virtually untreated with all the health and environmental risks that entails and discharge it to land, transferring an environmental problem from emissions to soil- at least in some countries where standards on digestate allow this, such as in the UK.

Were digestate to be treated in aerobic conditions to the standards applied in other countries, like Italy, the costs would soar, making the UK AD industry economically vulnerable.

So the cost of treating our food waste and producing renewable energy is possibly lasting, long term damage to soil quality because we want to reduce treatment costs that are only in any case viable due to the tax incentives we citizens are pumping into the system. Paradoxical no?

Or another case, plastic recycling. ISWA's recent report shows that 46% of EU's recycled plastic is exported to China where it is transformed in often environmentally damaging, uncontrolled factories that export those products back to Europe. And EU recycling plants are starved of raw materials.

All this to save costs, because the Chinese market is more lucrative than selling in the EU. But ISWA's report shows that this international trade in plastic waste is the least environmentally friendly solution.

So costly collection schemes, financed by EU citizens, believing they are doing their best for the environment, are actually feeding a trade and Chinese production which is environmentally more harmful than were that plastic recovered for energy or recycled at home - albeit at a higher cost. Paradoxical no?

Somewhere we have to find a balance between markets, environment and costs sustained by our citizens. It is harder than we think. And the politics of where you put the emphasis, costs or environmental quality, is a divisive issue.

David Newman is President of the International Solid Waste Association

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