by Ad Lansink6 minute read
While the production and distribution of consumer goods takes place within a global market, EU member states nevertheless play a major role in defining waste and resource management. Therefore, developing integral, realistic policy remains an essential task, especially for the European Commission and the European Parliament.
Against this background, Dr. Stuart McLanaghan’s recent proposal for a European Resource Hierarchy at first seems an interesting concept to help us make the transition from waste management to a circular economy. Thinking about new and useful concepts cannot hurt, and innovation remains necessary in the ever-changing world of production and consumption. However, upon closer inspection it becomes apparent that the idea only serves to confuse an existing, well-functioning conceptual tool.
Circling the triangle
The proposed resource hierarchy is largely based on the well-known priority order for waste management. Since I made my original proposal for a waste hierarchy in 1979, the five steps of prevention, reuse of products, reuse of materials (recycling), recovery of energy, and functional land filling have been incorporated into national and European legislation. Each of these steps also features in the resource hierarchy, with the exception of ‘prevention’.
McLanaghan criticises the waste hierarchy for encouraging a dogmatic focus on ever higher end-of-life recycling targets. By contrast, the new resource hierarchy is supposed to be more suited to the conceptual needs of resource circularity. However, this is to misread the waste hierarchy: waste prevention, while being the most difficult step, is also the most important, and focuses on a reduction of products and materials, thereby saving resources and energy. Also, the criticism seems odd when the resource hierarchy includes all of the same steps other than prevention, aspects of which feature in a new “re-” tier.
There will never be a perfectly circular economy because there will inevitably be leaks in the system. Plugging leaks in existing supply and use chains seems to me to be the biggest and most pressing challenge – both technologically and politically – and it is unclear that a new (or perhaps more accurately ‘expanded’) hierarchy helps with this. The primary causes of existing leaks are overly strong regulation limiting the use of recycled materials and the low price of virgin materials, both of which hinder the use of secondary raw materials.
Weakening rules around secondary materials and introducing special taxes on primary ones present solutions, but solutions not easily accepted. Similar factors arise in relation to influencing consumer behaviour – one of the most significant leaks in resource chain management. Reducing VAT for reused and recycled products may increase society’s interest in second and even third life products and goods. Extending product lifetimes will make a major contribution to a more circular economy, and is as important as any other link in the chain of product and material management. Of course, public education remains a continuous task for both government and industry in order to diminish the leaks caused by a lack of knowledge in society.
In his discussion paper, McLanaghan draws a contrast between the waste hierarchy and the concepts needed for a circular economy. I feel this is a false dichotomy: in reality, recovery and recycling (especially recycling) are circular processes, up until the time when quality losses make disposal necessary. For example, it is well known that paper fibres can only be recycled seven times before they become unusable in further paper production, at which time their fate is to be downcycled or incinerated.
Certainly, McLanaghan is right when he says that the needs of the processes at the heart of the waste hierarchy – recycling and reuse of materials – have had too little influence on the upstream supply chain. But this shortcoming has nothing to do with the conceptual structure of the waste hierarchy itself. It’s not a lack of conceptual tools, but some ingrained structural issues that makes it difficult for waste management to change supply chain choices.
One is that the price of virgin materials remains too low to encourage widespread use of secondary alternatives. Even where recycling business can deliver secondary materials of high quality and at competitive prices, a large number of producers still opt for virgin materials instead. There is an element of inertia, but also a stigma attached to certain secondary raw materials and a fear within some industries of losing business due to the negative perceptions amongst consumers about products made from recycled materials.
Producers of disposable nappies, for example, have proved reluctant to accept even the cleanest paper fibres from nappy recycling companies such as Knowaste, believing that consumers are sceptical about the purity of recycled materials. The dynamics of the free market on which resources are bought and sold add layers of complexity to the issue.
Not shedding a tier
While McLanaghan’s criticisms of the waste hierarchy are open to dispute, there is a significant problem with the resource hierarchy: it is built on a fundamental category error. The lower five tiers of his inverted pyramid are a waste hierarchy-derived normative order of preference for the management of resources embedded in products once they have become waste, whereas the top three tiers are factual descriptions of processes by which natural resources become products.
The waste hierarchy serves as a guide to action; the upper tiers do not. At most, the uppermost tier of ‘unextracted’ may serve as a guide, but it still lacks a normative relationship to either ‘extraction’ or ‘conversion’. It is illogical to rank the steps of ‘extraction’ and ‘conversion’ above ‘recycling’ and ‘reuse’, as a circular economy entails reducing the use of – and the negative impacts of the use of – primary raw materials. Contrary to its aims, using the resource hierarchy as a normative tool would encourage the use of primary raw materials in production processes where secondary materials are abundant (e.g. glass, metals, paper).
The ousting of the waste hierarchy’s ‘prevention’ tier is also an important loss from the semi-circular system of the waste hierarchy. Prevention is the best way to avoid both resource consumption and waste, and is an important avenue for consumer responsibility to have an influence through the decisions about whether to buy products. The higher tiers of the resource hierarchy leave little room for consumer action.
Extracting little value
Perhaps the resource hierarchy is meant to draw attention to the technological and legal issues surrounding production processes. An increase in the focus on source reduction, prevention during extraction and production processes, and transport and distribution is certainly important. However, these factors are simply elements of the waste hierarchy’s ‘prevention’ tier.
Meanwhile, increased emphasis on hitherto neglected tiers should not come at the expense of the core of resource and waste management: reuse and recycling. Up until this point, international experience has shown the waste hierarchy to be a highly useful and universally applicable concept. It is by applying it more rigorously (especially as regards prevention), rather than by redesigning it, that we can best steer action and policy towards improved resource management and a more circular economy.