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Recycling – Why Is It Not Working? Part 1

At the turn of this century rapid global development, a rising middle class, availability of items at the click of a button and the desire to own more started to create a waste problem of which we, as consumers, were oblivious. If we could not see the problem, it did not exist. For those who chose to see it, recycling became the emerging solution to the issue of waste generation.  As long as were recycling, we were OK to continue consuming and disposing at a fast pace. This concept became wedged in our minds until recently.

Thanks to BBC One’s documentaries, the Blue Planet and Fashion’s Dirty Secrets, environmental catastrophes slowly started to unveil on television, a much needed eye opener for corporations, governments and the general population alike. Waste, and in particular, plastics and clothing, have been at the forefront of the polluters causing significant damage to the environment. But as consumers we still did not think it was a problem because “we recycled”.  As far as the consumer was concerned, once it went in a recycling bin, it was being recycled. In reality, not all was going for recycling, most was actually polluting our oceans, damaging marine life and ecosystems.

We must bear in mind, that not all countries will have recycling services. Some have a brilliant system, such as Germany and Sweden, others have a mediocre system such as the UK and others have none, which is the case across many parts of Asia and Africa. For the purpose of this blog, I’m focussing on how organisations can make recycling more effective where services are mediocre or starting to emerge.

So what do we mean by recycling? Recycling means the process of turning a piece of waste into a reusable material. Instead of using raw materials to make more products, we use the material that has been thrown away, such as a used plastic bottle, to make another bottle. In today’s world, circular economy when used in the context of waste is essentially a more modern term for the same concept, with a few new additions. A bit like block chain. Someone recently told me that block chain was a fancy term for supply chain management. In other words, same concept, different words, but if the concept is not executed properly, the fancy words will have no impact. And this is the problem in waste management. Recycling today, is better known as circular economy, but since the 90s, other than words, nothing much has changed. Local authorities and businesses are pouring millions to manage waste. Yet we find that our oceans and landmass is covered with waste which consumers assumed was being recycled. Why? Simply put, our consumption and disposal habits are changing much faster than the current infrastructure can handle. A poor infrastructure is just as bad as no infrastructure. Couple that with behavioural waste and you get a weak, ineffective recycling service. So how can organisations make recycling more effective?

Tighten up Your Infrastructure

To start with, pay attention to infrastructure. Although organisations, public and private, have invested millions in infrastructure, the connection between correct waste disposal systems and consumerism is missing. Organisations tend to implement a basic system to collect a couple of waste streams. They seem not to pay attention to waste until it’s too late, often resulting in either a poor service for customers or last minute unexpected costs associated with operational needs. Shopping malls are a classic example. When customers walk into a shopping mall, their time will revolve around the food outlet. They may find a bin for plastics, cans and general waste, but not food waste or glass bottles. It is a food outlet, yet bins for such items are rarely found. The food and glass waste ends up in the nearest bin, therefore contaminating other materials and often resulting in higher disposal costs, increasing the frequency of emptying bins and cleaning time.

Food waste, if disposed separately would go to an anaerobic digestion system and eventually generate energy.  As micro-organisms break down the food, the gases released can be used to produce heat and electricity. The leftover material can be used as fertiliser or slurry.  Glass bottles on the other hand can be crushed and used as aggregate and also recycled to manufacture more glass bottles.  In the UK, managing food waste is about to change for households. The former Prime Minister, Teresa May, recently announced a food waste collection system for all households. Once local authorities and waste disposal contractors start to incorporate this into their business plans, the private sector will soon follow suit.

My point is, to make recycling more efficient and effective, organisations, in particular, businesses should identify internal and external infrastructure requirements at the onset of a project. Project managers often fail to perceive the impacts of waste when outlining requirements for capital programs. I find it frustrating when waste disposal requirements are ignored during capital and refurbishment programs and everyone looks at you for answers once the building is operational.

In countries where recycling is starting to emerge, paying attention to waste infrastructure during the early stages of a project will lead to better recycling habits and save organisations a lot of money and time in the future.

By identifying very early in the project the footfall, likely consumer, types of waste, amount of waste, bin style, bin size (internal and external), space constraints, vehicle accessibility, turning points for the vehicle, collection frequency etc, the project can eliminate a lot of waste related problems in the very early stages.  Ensuring existence of correct and up to date infrastructure will have a massive impact of what and how we recycle. Germany, for example, have the highest recycling rate at 62%*, whilst the UK has a rate of 39%. Germany have trialled and adapted different methods, such as reverse vending machines for collecting plastic bottles, and it is working. For children, who find this fun, it is a novel system which starts to embed the concept of recycling at a very early age.

In my next blog I will talk about how our behaviours impact recycling.

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