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Waste Recycling: Some Issues for Consideration

Hari Srinivas

A rising quality of life, and high rates of resource consumption patterns have had a unintended and negative impact on the environment - generation of wastes far beyond the handling capacities of local governments and agencies. Cities and towns are now grappling with the problems of high volumes of waste, the costs involved, the disposal technologies and methodologies, and the impact of wastes on the local and global environment.

But these problems have also provided a window of opportunity for them to find solutions - involving the community and the private sector; involving innovative technologies and disposal methods; and involving behaviour changes and awareness raising. These issues have been amply demonstrated by good practices from many cities and towns around the world.

There is a need for a complete rethinking of "waste" - a rethinking that calls for waste not to be called waste at all! There is a clear need for the current approach of waste disposal that is focussed on municipalities and uses high energy/high technology, to move more towards waste processing and waste recycling that involves public-private partnerships, aiming for eventual waste minimization - driven at the community level, and using low energy/low technology resources.

It is within this larger continuum of waste management hierarchies that the issue of recycling can be advocated. One of the critical issues we need to understand in order to promote recycling is the de-linking of waste generation from economic growth. We are fully aware that waste generation has been increasing at a rate greater than economic growth. This calls for a greater emphasis to be placed on reducing waste generation at source, followed by recycle, recovery and disposal. Such an approach also highlights the importance of cleaner production processes and technologies that produce less wastes in the first place.

Another de-linking that we have to undertake is that of economic activities and consumption patterns. Currently, improvements in resource use efficiency through source reduction and recycling are being more than offset by increase in consumption levels. To overcome this situation, there is a fundamental need for shifts in attitudes from product ownership for "need satisfaction" to "utilizing services" that the products offer. Ultimately, sustainable consumption patterns is not about consuming less but about consuming rationally.

Current global initiatives on recycling issues has brought forth a number of lessons, which we are all quite familiar with. Recycling can be promoted by increasing the content of recycled and recyclable materials in the products, which, in turn, can be stimulated by actions such as public procurement regulations, product standards/specifications and research/development on the uses of recyclate. Producer responsibility measures have been quite effective in promoting recycling of packaging material. Regulations restricting landfill or incineration promote recycling. Mandatory requirements for kerbside recycling and providing requisite infrastructure promotes involvement in recycling schemes

A quick analyses of recycling policies has highlight a number of features that can be used as justification for furthering the objectives of recycling. These features can be clustered around recycling policies -

  • economic impacts, for example, reduced product cost, and competitiveness;
  • employment generation, for example, legislation on electrical and electronic waste alone is estimated to create 12,000-15,000 new jobs in OECD countries;
  • product/technology innovation, for example, development of mercury free batteries;
  • development of recycling infrastructure, for example, setting up of exchange centers and
  • reduced risks to health and environment.
But the path to increased recycling has not been easy. There is still much we need to do. Listed below are a number of issues for consideration listed under three headings - conceptual, systemic and strategic.

Conceptual Issues

  • Is recycling the most preferable waste management solution? What will the role be of source reduction or adoption of cleaner production strategies?
  • Are there contradictions between technology development and recycling?
  • Is growth of recycling industry the desirable policy target?
  • What should the nature of policies be to promote recycling - regulatory or voluntary?
Systemic Issues
  • Is the utilization rate of recyclables compatible with collection rate?
  • Are we exploiting maximum recycling potential
  • Is reliable and accurate base line data for generation, treatment and disposal of all wastes available?
  • Is there methodological consistency in different regions/countries? Is there a need for trans-national harmonization of national legislation?
  • Do we have adequate information on the use and effectiveness of economic and market based instruments?
Strategic Issues
  • Why is recycling of industrial waste lagging?
  • Is recycling mostly applicable to packaging waste only? Have we considered all types of wastes in the entire life-cycle of a product or process? What about hazardous wastes, construction wastes?
  • Where is the role of environmental awareness and consumer participation recycling?
  • Is recycling increasing because of government pressure with lesser drive from consumer?
  • Should the design approach be: Design for Recycling or Design for Environment?
  • Are all materials that are recyclable, being recycled?
  • Do we need to consider the profitability of recycling ? Should recycling be limited to econo-enviro optimum?
  • Should recycling levels be determined in comparison with other waste management solutions?
  • How do we promote shared responsibility between various stakeholders?
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