February 28th, 2014

Reaching for the top rung: achieving waste prevention

8 minute read

by Ad Lansink

 

Prevention is by far the most challenging rung to reach on Lansink’s Ladder. The prevailing growth-focused political and social mind-set isn’t easily compatible with waste prevention’s goals of decreasing consumption by cutting waste. Awareness of the looming threat of shortages of raw materials has increased in the forty years since the publication of the Club of Rome’s seminal report ‘Limits to Growth’. But so has consumer spending, and despite cyclical movements and international differences there has been almost continuous economic growth.

Some argue that so long as we design products well consumption can continue indefinitely. Michael Braungart considers those who urge waste prevention to have ‘an air of guilty people with a pessimistic view on the challenge of a full cycle of materials’. In his view, if products are properly designed so as to be non-toxic, and at the end of their lives are able to act as technical or biological nutrients, to be reincorporated into new products or to biodegrade, there need be no limit to consumption. Even if we accept the disputable idea that Cradle to Cradle design is widely achievable, Braungart seems to ignore the energy involved in the creation and distribution of products, which will always impede the realisation of a completely circular economy.

At the very least, then, we need to consider how we can prevent the waste associated with products that don’t meet the Cradle to Cradle standard. Furthermore, since the industrial revolution we have repeatedly learned to place limits on the amount of environmentally harmful substances we can discharge before doing ourselves damage — and we are increasingly learning the need for the controlled use of products and materials.

 

Preventative principles

Waste prevention has a long history in the Netherlands, and was already a key point in the governmental Urgency Note of 1972. However, legislation concerning soil, water and air took priority throughout the ’70s and prevention only returned to the political agenda with the acceptance of my proposed waste hierarchy in 1979. Action followed at last in the 1980s, stimulated by a report of the Central Council for Environmental Protection. The governmental ‘Note on Prevention and Recycling of Waste’ targeted measures at the sources of waste, the point at which prevention can generally be achieved at less social cost than efforts further down the line.

 

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Lansink’s Ladder helped the ascent of waste prevention in the Netherlands. Photo courtesy of Ad Lansink.

 

The Note was criticised in the Lower House, in not least for its unambitious prevention target of 5%, subsequently increased to 10%, to be achieved in 2000. However, valuable prevention measures slowly came on stream: monitoring prevention and recycling in various waste streams; a focus on innovation in qualitative and quantitative prevention; quality monitoring of secondary raw materials; pro-active policy on primary and secondary raw materials; and research on the use of financial instruments such as deposit schemes, regulatory charges, specific fees and charges on packaging products.

Conceptual and organisational problems have been at least as significant in impeding prevention as technical and economic hurdles. Approaches we have taken to tackling them include:

  • Establishing a direct link between regulation and a prevention-oriented approach to waste and emissions;
  • Better use of financial and economic instruments to promote the coupling of production and product use;
  • The involvement of civil society, in particular employers’ associations and trade associations, financial institutions, trade unions, environmental groups and advisory boards.

 

A 15-year study into waste prevention initiatives conducted by the Public Waste Agency of Flanders reveals a mixed picture. On the plus side, it found increasing awareness of waste prevention issues, especially among the business community, and improved legislation. However, it also found that the need for direct intervention in production and consumption decisions continued to impede progress. Other problems include the difficulty of measuring prevention, the complex division of responsibilities involved, shortages in funding compared with recycling and incineration, a lack of strong, systematic strategic policy backed by legal and economic instruments, and a failure to properly engage stakeholders.

Good stakeholder consultation is vital because prevention can influence the economy and employment. A shift from production to maintenance and service offers new opportunities for businesses that can offset negative economic impacts, but policy must fit into a broader societal context and be agreed by both government and industry. Stakeholders will also want to see evidence of the realisation of prevention objectives, which requires establishing workable indicators for qualitative and quantitative targets beforehand – otherwise producers and retailers are likely to lose interest in any commitments made.

Consumers and service users also need to be engaged. Waste prevention efforts can be signalled to consumers through labelling, especially when consumers ultimately bear the cost, whether levied through taxes, return premiums, deposits, or disposal fees. The difficulties encountered in the introduction of deposit refund schemes have shown that effective policies can encounter resistance from those who fear negative effects on their business. Disposal charges have met with less resistance, especially when the size of the charge is relatively small compared to the cost of the product – say, a car or an electrical appliance.

 

Restricted definitions

How we interpret waste ‘prevention’ has proved surprisingly contentious when in everyday usage ‘prevention’ is a reasonably clear concept. Some have distinguished between primary prevention, where fewer products or waste materials are made, and secondary prevention, where products are made less resource intensive, last longer, or are used less. Prevention can be hard to separate from reuse. The concept of secondary prevention is helpful in understanding the distinction: extending product life will prevent an item entering the waste stream for a period; whether it stays in the hands of its original owner, or is re-used. More recently, the popular terminology has employed the distinction between quantitative prevention, aimed at reducing or limiting the weight and volume of products and materials, and qualitative prevention, aimed at designing out certain waste types – especially harmful substances.

The Dutch Environmental Management Act (1994) defined waste prevention as follows: ‘the production of waste is excluded or restricted’. ‘Restriction’, of course, goes less far than ‘prevention’ as it is widely understood.  Under the Waste Framework Directive (WFD), EU member states must establish and regularly review waste prevention programs, outlining existing prevention measures. Unfortunately, the definitions of prevention used in European and national legislation don’t always match up: indeed, Article 9 confuses matters by referring to promoting recyclable products as part of what is envisaged in ‘prevention’.

Although the WFD does not contain specific prevention targets, its acceptance and implementation represents an agreement between member states that prevention is a key waste policy objective. The European Regional Development Fund’s Prewaste Project aims to support local and regional authorities in the preparation and implementation of prevention programmes, using a simple project methodology.

 

Cycle

A virtuous cycle: the Prewaste project methodology.

 

Prevention reinvention

Successfully implementing waste prevention programmes will be a good start, but by will by no means represent the full extent of the waste prevention goals member states should be considering. The next steps we should be hoping to see include:

  • Developing chain-oriented waste management, where the waste and energy footprint of an entire product or material chain is assessed, which helps avoid improvements in one area simply displacing pressure onto other parts of the chain;
  • Promoting Ecodesign: in line with the European Ecodesign Directive, developing products with an eye to their total impact on the environment, both from the use and disposal. Designing with recyclability in mind benefits the environment;
  • Promoting the concept of ‘Cradle to Cradle’, which brings together thinking on sustainability, lifecycle thinking, eco-design, supply chain management and product policy;
  • Waste prevention monitoring on the basis of resources, results and impact indicators following the lines of the European Prewaste Project;
  • Developing better incentives for prevention and sustainable product development, as self-regulation by producers and importers is bringing insufficient progress;
  • Developing waste prevention kits, to help both authorities and producers, particularly to improve understanding of the impacts of financial instruments such as deposit schemes.

 

Although effective waste prevention tools can seem hard to find or implement, it is helpful to remember that most — with the exception of agreements with industry — are mainly a matter generating and communicating information to help producers and consumers make choices.

The full effects of the WFD have yet to be felt, but it is questionable whether it gives prevention sufficient prominence compared with recycling to enable it to grow.

The major barrier to success remains the connection of economic growth and the production of waste. Decoupling them is one of the key ambitions of the Resource Efficient Europe initiative, although we are still to see what objectives may be set. Leadership in this area is of the greatest importance, and whilst prevention sits at the top of the hierarchy, this status is not reflected in the weight of policy. What is needed most of all is a genuinely level playing field between prevention and other, more tangible forms of waste management such as recycling, to allow the full potential of prevention to be released.

 

Ad Lansink

 

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This article is adapted and based upon a chapter of De Kracht van de Kringloop, by Ad Lansink and Hannet de Vries-in ‘t Veld, a book on the history and future of Lansink’s LadderIt appears here for the first time in English.

 

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