Plastics – diabolic or fantastic?

In his October column for the CIWM Journal, Professor David C Wilson reflects on the dominant story of his CIWM Presidential year, how we respond to the crisis of plastics entering our oceans. Which plastic uses are diabolic and should be banned, and which do we really need? One of his starting points was a recent CIWM-sponsored report which proposed a five-fold use-based categorisation of plastics. The other was the July Klosters Forum, which gathered 60 stakeholders from around the World to brainstorm on how to stem the flow of plastics into the oceans.

DCW proposes a three-way classification. At one extreme are the unacceptable, pointless, and often very short term (or ‘diabolic’) uses, which should be banned. At the other extreme are necessary or sustainable (‘fantastic’) uses, such as infection control, light-weighting cars and aircraft, and reducing food waste. In between is the largest category, which he labels as ‘indeterminate’. This can be further broken down into problem plastics, and replaceable plastics, which should both be phased out; and hard to replace plastics, where the focus should be on redesign and consolidation into a smaller number of truly ‘easy to recycle’ plastics used for ‘higher environmental value’ applications, such as preventing food waste.

Tackling the global waste crisis through community waste management

According to the UNEP and ISWA’s Global Waste Management Outlook (GWMO), three billion people lack access to basic solid waste management (SWM) services; addressing this global waste crisis would not only vastly improve their lives but also halve the weight of plastics entering the oceans. Professor David C Wilson and Mike Webster of Wasteaid made the case earlier this year, in an open access editorial in the ISWA journal Waste Management & Research, for community waste management as a ‘bottom up’ approach, to run in parallel to traditional ‘top-down’ approaches led by donors and governments.

Community waste management aims to help local communities in the poorest countries, where the local authority often has no funds to provide a SWM service, to tackle the problem themselves through the resource value in the wastes. If, for example, food wastes or low-value plastics are kept separate, they can be turned into new, useful products. With simple tools and the right knowledge, people can become self-employed recycling entrepreneurs, providing a very valuable service for the health and wellbeing of their community, and the whole planet – as well as reducing poverty and creating sustainable livelihoods.

One of the gaps identified by the GWMO was for practical guidance on such low-cost ‘waste to wealth’ technologies which involve minimal capital investment and make products to sell in a local market. DCW’s CIWM Presidential Report aimed to plug that gap: Wasteaid prepared a Toolkit, including a dozen How-to-do-it Guides for simple technologies using organics and low-value plastics.

While preparing the Toolkit, we identified a parallel requirement, for the scientific underpinning of some of the technologies. This month sees the publication of a paper on optimising the technology for producing plastic bonded sand blocks, for use e.g. as paving slabs, from the low value LDPE film plastic, which is a major problem even in the least-developed countries. Our team at Imperial College London was led by Professor Chris Cheeseman, with the laboratory research carried out by Alexander Kumi-Larbi Jnr and Danladi Yunana. The technology was developed by another co-authors, Pierre Kamsouloum, a self-taught entrepreneur from the Cameroun.

Charge! – Paying for household waste services

CIWM President and lifelong waste policy and planning consultant David C Wilson reflects in his September column for the CIWM Journal on the challenges of devising the right policies to charge households for solid waste management services. Of course, we already pay for our solid waste services, but that charge is usually hidden within a wider charge or tax, which in the UK is council tax. Across Europe, many local authorities have been experimenting over the last 20 years with pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) systems, where the charge varies at least in part according to usage. The growing evidence base suggests that PAYT does work, in terms of reducing waste quantities and increasing recycling. But why should local authorities, and ultimately households, pay for all the costs of municipal solid waste management? Particularly in the context of Defra’s forthcoming Resources and Waste Strategy for England, DCW argues for real Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), with teeth, that will move the full financial burden of collecting, recycling and disposing of packaging and other products in the municipal waste stream from local authorities to the producers and supply chain. If we cannot have PAYT, let us at least have PAYB (pay-as-you-buy).

Hazardous Waste – Plus ça Change

CIWM President, and Chair of CIWM’s Hazardous Waste Special Interest Group (SIG), David C Wilson reflects in his August CIWM column on the challenges facing hazardous waste management in the UK and Ireland – past, present and future. His review with the SIG of current challenges suggests that not much has changed over the 44 years of his involvement with the hazardous waste sector. In particular, the UK continues to lack the ‘regulatory certainty’ which is necessary to secure the investment required in hazardous waste management infrastructure if such investment is left entirely to ‘the market’. And looking at the island of Ireland in particular, the uncertainties around Brexit do not help.


Don’t waste our climate

In his July column, CIWM President David C Wilson makes the case for more investment in resource and waste management as an ‘entry point’ to achieve significant climate mitigation. The sector already has a track record in developed countries, with methane mitigation from landfill since the 1970s, and both methane mitigation and recycling making a major contribution to meeting Kyoto Convention greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets between 1990 and 2010. But that early success also means that the IPCC’s 2010 assessment is that the ‘waste’ sector only contributes 3-5% to current GHG emissions. DCW argues that this is a gross underestimate which fails to consider: the current emissions from uncontrolled burning; historical reductions; contributions across the economy from recycling; and waste prevention (particularly food waste).  The results suggest that better resource and waste management has the potential for reducing GHG emissions across the World economy by 15, 20 or 25% or even more. Such numbers may be guesstimates, but whatever number we choose to use, the message is still the same. Further investment in this sector, in both developing and developed countries, is a major political priority in order to meet our climate targets.

This article was subsequently re-published by the National Solid Waste  Association of India (NSWAI) in their member journal Waste Monitor in July 2019.