Landfill site

+ Approaches to resources and waste management must change radically by 2063.

One thing in the waste management industry is certain: the world’s resources are finite. If we are to make best use of them, radical change is needed in the next 50 years.

Fifty years ago, landfill was the main approach to managing waste in many countries. Today, areas such as Western Europe have an integrated approach to waste management that combines: trying to reduce the amount of waste produce, reuse-recycling and creating energy from waste. And targets have been set for the reduction of waste to landfill. However, this is not enough.

Over the coming decades the world must cope with a growing, urbanising global population; it must tackle climate change; and it has to find a way for countries to grow their economies while cutting their carbon emissions and reducing the waste produced.

If we’re to make waste part of the solution to our global problems then I believe resource and waste management will need to change radically over the next 50 years. Specifically, there are seven things that need to happen by 2063.

1. The word ‘waste’ needs to disappear

The word waste will have disappeared - we need to think of everything as a resource. We will not throw things away, we will put them where they can be used again.

2. We need one global goal

This global goal for waste must aim to protect public health – remember that 50% of Europe’s population once died of the plague due to rubbish not being collected. It must also aim to protect the environment, reduce carbon emissions, address material scarcity and a number of other targets.

3. We need to design out waste

Resources shouldn’t just be a problem for the waste management industry – by the time it gets to them it is too late. Designers, engineers and scientists should ensure that products can be taken apart at the end of their lives and their components re-used again and again.

4. We must decouple economic growth and consumption

I don’t think we can get away from countries’ fixation on GDP. However, if we want to continue to grow GDP we simply can’t continue to consume an ever-increasing amount of resources to do it.

5. We have to deal with all waste

Waste from households, offices, construction and manufacturing must be considered together – not separately as it is today. We need one system across the public and private realms.

6. We need global and local best practice

We have to learn from the experience of others and share it around the world, taking a common approach based on what is proven to work.

7. A global convention on the shipment of waste

We need a global convention to establish the legal and regulatory frameworks of nations that controls the transfrontier shipment of waste, similar to the Basel Convention.

How can we get to this position? It certainly demands a sense of urgency, and extensive behaviour change programmes will be needed to transform people’s attitudes to buying, using and disposing of products. In fact, we may need to move to a system where we rent or return goods.

I believe the retail industry has a vital role to play. It can reduce packaging but also combine deliveries with collections of materials to be recycled. And it can help people feel good about returning high value recyclates – by making it part of loyalty points programmes, for example.

We’ll also need new technology to refine useful material from what is currently considered waste. Incinerator ash, residual waste and complex products, such as mobile phones and plasma screens could all be refined. Mobile phones, for example, contain gold, rare earth elements, copper, gold, palladium and platinum.

Ultimately, the world needs a global best practice committee overseen by a body like the UN. If we’re to achieve the goals this body sets, then the developed nations must help the less developed.

It sounds ambitious, but I believe it’s possible – if we act together now.

No more waste, just resources. What do you think?