The latest edition of the Journal of the Commonwealth Human Ecology Council is out now. Read it here or continue reading the introduction of the issue written by CHEC Hon. Secretary Eva Ekehorn and Trustee Ian Douglas below.
Introduction: There is no Such Thing as Waste
Eva Ekehorn and Ian Douglas – Commonwealth Human Ecology Council
Waste – something that could be discarded, of no use, and mostly quickly forgotten. Out of sight, out of mind! But our waste has become so enormous and so complex it can’t any longer be ignored – and it isn’t ignored.
If you throw a half-eaten apple into the woods it usually does no harm to the woodland ecosystem because decomposers will break it down and recycle it into new plants. But if you throw your plastic water bottle away in the woods, it becomes a problem. Artificial materials made by humans do not easily become part of ecological nutrient cycles. They have to be disposed of more carefully.
When we lived as hunters and gatherers all food waste was organic. Early farmers lived along the same lines – all waste was organic and could be returned to ecosystems and contribute to new life. Modern industrial farmers have added chemical compounds to the ecosystem, making waste itself less organic and with some poisonous side-effects. Today, most of us live in a truly global food market, where food is packaged and transported across the world. Plastic has become necessary as packaging to keep food fresh but it does not decompose readily like organic compounds and has to be dealt with separately. Our houses are no longer only built from wood, reeds and straw, but also from bricks, concrete and steel. When houses are disused and demolished the construction materials have to go somewhere else. We don’t communicate by sending messengers from place to place, but by mobile phones and radios. Our clothes are not solely made of natural fibres or leather, but of oil based polyester and nylon. Somewhere, all the new manufactured materials that are used in the daily lives of the world’s 7.5 billion people have an impact, especially through the mountains of waste our present lifestyles and consumption patterns produce. Nowhere is this problem more pressing than in our expanding towns and cities in which more than half of the world’s population now lives. Waste management, treatment and disposal affect the way the natural ecological processes can handle liquid and solid waste.
Many of the articles in this issue of Human Ecology both highlight these problems with waste, and point to possible solutions. The classic notion of ‘Reduce – Reuse – Recycle’ is a first step, especially for individuals, but we can go further. Industries can do, and are doing, much to turn scrap into useful new things, and some industries use the concept of industrial ecology: a parallel with the recycling of nutrients in biological ecosystems. Action can be taken at various scales, from the firm to the nation and to entire continents in order to ensure that efficiency in the use of materials is increased.
National and local governments have waste management policies that aim to prevent the worst side-effects of waste disposal and to control the disposal of dangerous substances. Many governments are endeavouring to reduce the amount of waste being dumped in landfill sites and to increase the re-use of discarded materials. In Europe, such actions are now described as implementing the ‘circular economy’ (see article by Ian Douglas, this volume). First proposed as a concept in the 1970’s, the circular economy is an alternative to the conventional and unsustainable linear manufacturing process, where the majority of products are made, used and then disposed of at the end of their life with very few materials recycled or re-used.
The advantages of the circular economy include: the reduction of the environmental impact of production and consumption; less waste; a more competitive economy; practical solutions to our resource problems; improved resilience to changing markets; and new job opportunities.
Logically, the curricular economy can lead to Zero Waste, a philosophy that encourages the redesign of resource life cycles so that all products are reused. It promotes sustainable practices to emulate natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use. Zero Waste involves designing and managing products and processes systematically to avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, to conserve and recover all resources, and not to burn or bury them. No trash is sent to landfills and incinerators.
Conclusion: the reasons for this special issue of Human Ecology
The paragraphs above indicate: the diversity of waste issues; the need for improved waste management; the scope for further increases in recycling; the value of thinking not of waste, but of experienced or potential resources; the potential of applying industrial ecology; the importance of developing the circular economy; and the value of the goal of Zero Waste. In many Commonwealth countries the circular economy and Zero Waste concepts have been adopted in planning and strategic management goals. In practice, in many places, potentially useful materials are being dumped or taken to landfill in 6 increasing quantities. Waste generation per capita is getting larger, particularly in expanding urban areas.
Many impacts of waste are felt away from where that waste is generated. Plastic debris in the oceans is affecting fish stocks and is being washed up on distant beaches (articles from Canada, Australia, Belize, USA and the Mediterranean, this volume). Demands for aggregates and crushed rock are leaving voids in the landscape close to National Parks and expanding towns (Lawson, this volume). Discarded electronic materials that have been exported to other countries for dismantling are polluting drainage and are often causing ill-health among children involved in the dis-assembly process (Douglas and Kalra, this volume). However, for every problem area there is an alternative if people, businesses and governments are willing to pursue it.
In part two of the volume, we set out alternatives, giving examples of current good practice and achievements in applying the ‘reduce, re-use and recycle’ elements of the waste hierarchy. The way in which European countries have cut the quantities of waste going landfill and have successfully recycled increasing amounts of municipal waste shows what can be done with determination, soundly implemented legislation, and appropriate financial incentives. The important element in all this is the thinking at multiple scales from the individual household to the global impacts of discarded materials.
All sectors of society have a role to play: from actions at the household level; to good practice in business and industry; responsible, active and caring governance at municipal, regional and national levels; and international collaboration and responsibilitysharing to mitigate the impacts of waste on the global commons. All concerned have to recognize their individual responsibility in caring for the ecosystems and human ecology of our planet.