by Ad Lansink7 minute read
The publication of Challenging Changes – my book about the relationship between the waste hierarchy and circular economy – gifted me many new experiences. Within a few months, I received interesting invitations to lecture and present at workshops and congresses in Stockholm, Beirut, Johannesburg and Kuala Lumpur. These opportunities taught me that, even after many years of thinking and writing about waste and recycling, it’s is never too late to learn and sharpen old insights.
Travelling the globe, I saw first-hand the differences in waste management practice across different countries; however, I was also struck by how much different countries have in common. More to the point, I realised just how much we can learn from each other, and just how important knowledge sharing is to empowering us to meet the global environmental challenges we face.
A world of difference?
During my visit to Sweden, the Ragn Sells Group convinced a mixed audience of parliamentarians, civil servants, business people and me that our current waste terminology hinders the transition to a circular economy. In their opinion, the waste hierarchy has to be transformed into a coherent resource hierarchy by changing the term ‘waste’; therefore, new waste legislation should focus on the management of primary and secondary raw materials.
I agreed, and indeed, resource chain management may be an appropriate way to frame the issue. However, I explained that prevention – i.e. reducing consumption along with reusing and extending the lifetimes of products and materials – must remain at the top of the preference order, regardless of any change in terminology. Still, the legal meaning of waste should be changed, and we should realise that the end-of-waste criteria of the former and new European Waste Directive are not future-proof for the circular economy.
In Lebanon, a new waste law had come into effect shortly before I attended a workshop on waste legislation – although the minister responsible for environmental matters assured the inquisitive guests that the new act offered sufficient room for further adjustments. While some policy makers certainly showed a real desire to strengthen legislation in line with the waste hierarchy, at the same time they explained that the road to a circular economy is beset with numerous obstacles.
One workshop participant told the other European speakers and me that the system and structure of the waste hierarchy could not be copied in Lebanon because of the large differences between Mediterranean countries and Western Europe. In their opinion, the economic potential, technical knowledge and mindset of society must be on the level of developed countries in order to implement the waste hierarchy and circular economy. It is certainly true that Lebanon has pressing issues of basic waste infrastructure, such as burning landfill sites, which first require action.
In South Africa, IWMSA (the Institute of Waste Management for Southern Africa) made ‘Implementing the Waste Hierarchy’ the leading theme of its 24th biennial waste conference. The IWMSA staff asked me to give an inaugural address on how Lansink’s Ladder points the direction towards a circular economy in vast, predominantly unspoiled South Africa. During informal meetings and talks, I learned a lot about the country’s situation and the efforts being made towards more sustainable waste management. There are big differences between the large towns and rural areas, with the former some way ahead, but a sightseeing trip through Johannesburg made clear that a lot can and must be done there too, especially in the townships.
Quick wins towards a sustainable world may be too much to ask, but generally speaking the desire for change is probably stronger in Africa and in Asia than it is in Europe. The old continent has its hands and head full maintaining unity across a range of policy areas: migration, finance, energy, climate as well as the circular economy. In Johannesburg and Kuala Lumpur I found a feeling of unanimity: a helpful driver for a sustainable future, both in terms of environmental and social sustainability.
Getting on in the world
From Johannesburg I travelled to the ISWA World Congress 2018 in Kuala Lumpur to receive the honourable ISWA Publication Award 2018 for Challenging Changes. During the plenary sessions and workshops the relevance of circularity was discussed. In the corridors of congress, my book provided a good starting point for fascinating discussions on worldwide fields of tension: the distance between nationalisation and globalisation, the choice between government and free market, the transition from waste management towards a circular economy and the differences between material and immaterial values.
These issues present us with questions that are difficult to answer. However, sharing knowledge and experiences can not only bring relief from common concerns but also offer good opportunities to move forward in the challenging area of value creation. My trips to Lebanon, South Africa and Malaysia have led me to reflect on what different countries have in common, as well as their differences, and my experiences have taught me a number of lessons.
First of all, it’s centrally important to remember the unambiguous, global connection between waste management and climate policy because of the large energy content of many secondary resource materials (aluminium, steel, concrete and even plastics), and also because of energy losses during the production of primary materials. This means that reuse and recycling make a large contribution to the reduction of CO2 emissions.
We must also remember the need for a gradual transition to a circular economy. From a financial, economic and technological viewpoint, developed countries have a big lead over less developed countries, and this disadvantage cannot simply be redressed within a couple of years. Moreover, even countries with strong economies need time to make complicated transitions. So, we must accept that different countries will have different transition velocities, depending on their product chains, areas of production, and levels of consumption and recycling.
The unmistakable differences between countries at varying levels of economic development also play another, more socially defined role. We see economies affected by both the political dimensions of nationalism and the influence of increasing globalisation, with an interplay of opposing forces such as trade protection versus free market policy (e.g. China’s import restrictions), or the unpredictable consequences of separation movements (e.g. Brexit).
Virtually all governments struggle with implementing financial policy instruments and achieving the intended outcomes, including in the area of CO2 pricing. While taxes are nearly as old as society, the basis and structure of taxes always give rise to discussion. The same is true for the use of tax money for specific purposes, such as ameliorating air and soil pollution or reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, addressing the transition costs is a difficult task because of the difference between the principles of capacity, proportionality and environmental damage. Because of the global nature of climate change and the border-crossing effects of air and water pollution, the international harmonisation of certain environmental taxes is necessary.
Finally, we must confront the reality of the modern human mindset: the need for freedom of choice, prosperity and enough money, in tandem with a reduced interest in other necessary values. Populations show low support for biodiversity, but there is a broad wish to make long journeys. Religiosity is diminishing – at least in Europe – while consumers expect immediate service in all areas of life; universal worship is being replaced by the service of one’s own wishes.
With a unified approach to knowledge sharing, it is possible to develop solutions in all areas of tension, not only in Europe but far beyond. Therefore, my plea is for strong international cooperation on consistent climate policy in relation to the circular economy, a fairer distribution of wealth and welfare in accordance with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and the harmonisation of taxes.
Given the pressing necessity of achieving both environmental and social sustainability, and the hitherto lagging results of climate policy, it is imperative that we work together to develop solutions on both a national and global level.
Featured image: Sophie van Kempen.