Professor David C. Wilson
Waste & Resources Management Consultant
Visiting Professor in Waste Management
Imperial College, London

Revaluing Recycling

Europe and North America have a problem with sustainable recycling. China’s ban on imports has thrown the problem into sharp focus: where are the markets for the materials we are collecting for recycling to meet the targets? And how do local authorities balance their already curtailed budgets as prices for recycled materials plummet? DCW’s May CIWM column explores the history of recycling over the last 40 years, and concludes that our existing policy support measures, focusing on increasing supply rather than demand, are not fit for purpose. He argues that we need to rethink recycling to make it a sustainable foundation for our future circular economy; and makes the case for considering explicitly the embodied social, environmental and technical values alongside the market price.

DCW has for the last three years chaired the Steering Committee for an interdisciplinary research project at the University of Leeds, funded jointly by the Natural Environment and Economic and Social Research Councils, to develop a new analytical framework which considers all four of these dimensions of value. The new CVORR (Complex Value Optimisation for Resource Recovery) tool should facilitate future work in this area.

What sort of solutions are suggested by applying complex value thinking? Current approaches focus on increasing the technical value of the recycled materials, for example through separation at source of individual streams rather than co-mingled materials. They also place the risk of fluctuating prices squarely on local authorities and their contractors; and they in turn plead for Government support for new recycling capacity within the UK. But even with support, such facilities need to compete in a global market, and many UK reprocessing companies have failed over the last decade. The obvious place to look for answers is the companies who place on the market the products which become waste, particularly single trip packaging. The complex value framework would suggest that a fundamental rethink of existing systems for EPR (extended producer responsibility) is required. Producers need to meet all costs for collection, sorting and recycling of their products when they become wastes; and to ensure that markets exist for the recycled materials, for example by taking an ownership stake in the reprocessing facilities and using a minimum % of those recycled materials in their products.

Uncontrolled burning of solid waste as a significant contributor to climate change

To qualify for inclusion in the official (IPCC) inventory of greenhouse gases (GHGs), data for an emission source must meet a quality threshold. This currently excludes black carbon emissions from the open burning of wastes. The relative quantities may be small compared to carbon dioxide from fossil fuels or methane from landfill, but black carbon is around 2,000 more powerful than CO₂ as a GHG and has an even shorter half-life than methane. In the absence of real data, early modelling studies using broad assumptions suggested that black carbon from open burning contributes 5% of total global GHG emissions, causing 270,000 premature deaths a year. DCW’s PhD student at Imperial College London, Natalia Reyna, has been working for the last four years to provide real data which would meet the IPCC requirements. Our first paper, published this month in the leading journal Environmental Research, presents field data from Mexico on how much solid wastes are disposed of by open burning, either by households or at uncontrolled dumpsites. The results suggest a GHG contribution from uncontrolled burning in backyards in Mexico fifteen times larger compared to methane released from the decomposition of equivalent amounts of waste in a disposal site. This suggests that urgent action is needed to reduce domestic open burning of waste and that this would have a significant impact, both on improving local air quality and respiratory health, and on reducing climate change. A future paper will present data on emission factors, i.e. how much black carbon is produced by burning a kilogram of waste.

China: Coming Full Circle

China - coming full circle v3

China’s recent import ban has thrown Western recycling systems into disarray. DCW has participated as CIWM President in three regional open meetings to address the ‘China recycling crisis’. His April column for the CIWM Journal has written up his presentation, providing a personal perspective on how he has seen China’s internal resource and waste management systems develop over the last 40 years. Arguably, its 1970s system could be viewed as an early example of a circular economy. The transition to ‘market -oriented’ operations led to economic growth being prioritised over environmental protection. But the current ‘National Sword’ campaign is just one symptom of a fundamental change, suggesting that, going forward, perhaps China really could lead the world in transitioning to a circular economy.

Let’s Skip ‘The Tip’

Language matters. DCW’s March column for the CIWM Journal celebrates the dramatic improvements in waste and resource management that have been achieved since he first entered the sector in 1974. This is largely due to changes in public behaviour, which have enabled the UK, for example, to increase recycling rates over the last 20 years from just 6% to 46%. However, he questions how we can expect people’s mind set to change permanently when some local authorities, and both professionals and politicians, continue to refer to modern recycling facilities as ‘the rubbish tip’.

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Turning the Tide

DCW’s February column for the CIWM Journal focused on the topical subject of marine plastics. He reported back on ‘Oceans 21’, the latest Development Finance Forum organised by the German Development Bank KfW, where he led a workshop on marine litter. The conclusions were clear: the amount of plastics entering the oceans is at least an order of magnitude greater than estimates of the visible quantities in the oceans or on beaches – so the first priority is to ‘turn off the tap’. And the most effective way to do that is to extend municipal solid waste collection in developing countries to all people and to eliminate uncontrolled dumping and burning; our best judgement was that this could reduce the weight of plastics entering the oceans by 50-70%.

Inspiring Reuse

DCW’s January column for the CIWM Journal showcases the five shortlisted entries for the Best Reuse Project at the CIWM Sustainability and Resource Awards 2017. As the judge for this category, DCW was inspired by the quality and sheer variety of the five very different reuse projects. He hopes that the projects will inspire others too, as we try to ensure that reuse, sitting near the top of the waste hierarchy, receives the same priority as has been given to recycling.