by Ad Lansink8 minute read
The proposals of the EU circular economy package (CEP) reveal that the waste hierarchy will retain a central place in the transition to a circular economy. The European Commission (EC) writes:
“Waste management plays a central role in the circular economy: it determines how the EU waste hierarchy is put into practice. This principle aims to encourage the options that deliver the best overall environmental outcome.”
In light of this clear statement, it may be instructive to reflect on the role the waste hierarchy has played in the transitions achieved in waste management so far.
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For a long time after the Industrial Revolution, environmental protection was subordinate to economic development and technological progress. However, during the 1960s the negative consequences of unbridled growth in industrial and transport activities became visible in the contamination of water, soil and air. When the report of the Club of Rome drew significant attention in 1972, environmental action groups began to gain influence and politicians began to discover that unlimited economic growth was not the highest ideal.
Private enterprises responded by developing new technical and industrial tools to continue their activities, and in turn NGOs occasionally appeared willing to engage with industry and government on solving environmental problems. Government initially focused on regulating the key areas of water, air and soil, before later developing sectoral and eventually general legislation, including strengthening the legislative framework to inspire research and innovation in environmental technologies. However, the enforcement of innovation by legislation was not commonly accepted.
A complex set of relationships and tensions exist between environmental regulation, innovation and profit maximisation, making systematic examination of transitions a complex task; environmental laws are only one of cog in the machinery that regulates social interactions and economic transactions. Discussions around corporate social responsibility have further demonstrated the complications involved in business’s attempts to transition.
The scientific, policy-oriented and historical notion of transition commonly applied to changes in the fields of energy and waste management involves a crossover to new technological operations and their broad societal acceptance. Most transitions exhibit a standard pattern of development:
- Firstly, a development stage during which thinking and experimentation are dominant.
- Secondly, a take off stage where the first changes become visible, mostly on a micro-level.
- Thirdly, a phase of breakthrough, with acceleration of the changes to the structure of social, economic, ecological and institutional interactions.
- Finally, a phase of stabilisation, where the rate of change decreases and a new dynamic balance is achieved.
The actual break-through always happens on the meso-level, where changes can be stopped or delayed, but with sufficient interaction between social levels, and ideas dropping on fertile soil, transitions will become irreversible. However, the complexity of the influencing factors and potential interactions between actors at different levels – citizens, associations, companies, institutions, governments, markets – make transitions hard to predict; therefore, whether and how the EC can steer – or even enforce – a transition is difficult to say.
Still, the importance of research is widely recognised. Often, many years of stabilisation follow the period of change, and the duration is not to be estimated in advance – nor is that of the entire transition process. Only afterwards can transition and consolidation periods be mapped, along with those factors which played a role during the transition process.
Along with Parto, Loorbach and Kemp, I applied transition theory to Dutch waste management during a workshop on the waste hierarchy, and in doing so two prior transition periods were revealed. From 1900 to the 1960s, the situation was largely characterised by centralised waste dumps, and while government accrued ever increasing powers over waste collection, disposal remained the primary means of management. It was during the second transition – beginning in the 1970s, for the reasons we have seen –that treatment and processing of waste became visible, with this going hand in hand with changes in the production of goods and services and the attitudes of consumers.
The second transition’s stabilisation period continued through the 1980s and 1990s, and – along with growing environmental awareness – the waste hierarchy provides one of the driving forces. This preference order for waste management was soon recognised by policy makers as a call for a new approach to waste policy: provincial authorities actively promoted incineration with energy recovery; landfilling ceased to be seen as a useful option; and while waste arisings continued to increase they did so at a decreased rate somewhat decoupled from national GDP. It became clear, then, that government can steer waste management through policy.
In retrospect, it appears that during the second transition the government insisted on two tracks: preventing contamination to guarantee a safe and healthy environment, and preventing and reducing waste in order to achieve efficient resource management. Innovations became visible at all levels, for example in relation to the new concept of producer responsibility, under which self-regulation agreements were signed to reduce packaging material.
The second transition in waste management displays five aspects: behavioural, cognitive, associative, regulatory and constitutive. In these terms, it is apparent that the waste hierarchy has been transformed from a cognitive and intuitive model into a business like and regulatory one, codified in the Dutch Environmental Management Act in 1994 and now politically, socially and even industrially accepted. Though monetary incentives were not easily accepted, people became increasingly aware that a bonus-malus system could be effective, and therefore the importance of disposal fees was recognised, with the introduction of landfill tax encountering no meaningful resistance.
Considering the predictions of a resource scarce future, a combination of technological innovation with concepts of sustainable resource use would provide a sufficient basis for a successful third transition. Indeed, signs of this transition were already evident around the turn of the century, driven by the liberalisation of utilities including waste collection and processing plants, with even local authority owned waste companies beginning to focus more on market behaviour.
Another impulse was provided by European directives – especially the revised Waste Framework Directive of 2008 – which caused an increase in opposition to landfill and incineration. The cradle-to-cradle concept – with emphasis on eco-design, re-use and recycling – also stimulated specifically progressive sections of industry. Meanwhile, growing markets reduced the need for formal government involvement and increased the possibilities of self-regulation, though governmental control remains important for market regulation and stimulation of the circular economy.
The right climate for change
Now, climate policy has attained a firm place in political and social debate, and the interaction between waste and energy policy deserves special attention in the analysis of transition factors. According to the EC:
“‘Waste to energy’ can therefore play a role and create synergies with EU energy and climate policy, but guided by the principles of the EU waste hierarchy”
That’s an important statement. In addition, energy-related topics should be considered regarding their CO2 footprints: an aspect which only played a minor role during the second transition. Hopefully, the new CEP will tackle this point.
While some critical issues await resolution – particularly around increased mobility and the slow penetration of renewable energy – the essential goal remains the pursuit of a sustainable society capable of accommodating future generations. Looking at the factors likely to be decisive in the breakthrough and stabilisation of a third transition, we can draw out the following key themes:
- The impact of globalisation, which eventually will reduce the prosperity gap;
- Demographic changes, which bring uncertainty about the stabilisation of the world population;
- Energy supply, and to what extent renewable energy is possible;
- Development of the worldwide mobility of people and goods;
- Innovation, with the acceptance of ecodesign and supply chain management;
- A broad approach to problems of food supply and food-waste; and
- Problem of scarcity, in all of its aspects, all over the world.
With society increasingly aware of the relation between resource management and climate policy, the need for leadership from the European Commission and Parliament on waste is now more obvious than ever. The CEP document tells us that the package will “make greater use of economic instruments to ensure coherence with the EU waste hierarchy”. The EC also writes:
“Incineration or mechanical biological treatment, will be granted only in limited and well justified cases, where there is no risk of overcapacity and the objectives of the waste hierarchy are fully respected.”
In other words: firmer adherence to the waste hierarchy, and thus better waste management, will be at the heart of the circular economy.
Qualitative and quantitative, long-term recycling targets for municipal and packaging waste remain necessary, with at least a minimum obligation on Member States to perform to the best of their ability. What’s more, if waste management is to be central to the circular economy, then the waste hierarchy must remain at the heart of waste management. Having played its part in the second transition, largely by stimulating recovery and recycling, a more rigorous application of the hierarchy would guide the advances in reuse and prevention necessary for a third transition: the transition to a circular economy.