Sophisticated Machinery Does Not Solve the Waste Problem

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No longer is waste a muddled, stinking pile of garbage. With evermore refined technology, the waste management industry has finally come of age. The most recent technological hubbub in waste management has been made by a Finnish company called ZenRobotics. Their only marketable product, a robotic recycling arm, purportedly utilises a variety of sensors to distinguish different types of materials in a waste stream and then separates them accordingly. Whilst technological advances are impressive in their own right, increasing technological sophistication does not provide an all-encompassing solution to the global waste problem. The real issue that needs to be addressed is that of human behaviour, simply because it provides a more cost-effective avenue to deal with the waste issue.

When considering the waste management problem, one could very roughly highlight three separate processes, viz. collection, separation, and recycling. On top of this, it is equally important to distinguish between the different types of waste, namely MSW (municipal solid waste), industrial, electronic etc. The focus here will be on MSW, since other forms of wastes require different approaches. Out of the aforementioned processes, the first, and arguably the most pressing issue is that of how we collect garbage.
Where garbage collection services exist to begin with, they tend to be limited to solid waste, and perhaps recycling cans, papers, and bottles. The solid waste is taken to an EFW (Energy-From-Waste) plant in the best case scenario; in the worst case, to a landfill. A 2010 EPA (the Environmental Protection Agency – a federal U.S. body) study estimated that around 60 percent of all MSW in the U.S. comes from household garbage. This highlights the importance of already targeting the waste stream at the household stage. The same EPA study estimated a recycling rate of 34 percent in America, highlighting the need for more effective recovery of raw materials already at the collection stage. Luckily, the EFW accounted for 12 percent, which, however, still implies that 54 percent of MSW is being discarded.

Image: ZenRobotics’ Recycler is a complete waste processing system that is designed primarily for construction waste (Source: Arctic Startup).

One of the main difficulties of recovering materials is that the waste streams that we produce are often so poorly separated that they can include everything from batteries to plastics. This creates a bottleneck as it is more difficult to recover materials from mixed waste streams. By changing human attitudes, we could append the first procedure of collection to include the second of separation. In simpler terms, if we, as individuals, could be encouraged to do the separation ourselves, this would obviate the need for expensive and complex technology to separate materials from waste streams. Whilst the human separation process would unlikely be perfect, technology such as that developed by ZenRobotics could then be applied to separate undesired products in the final process of the waste stream, rather than at the beginning.

Once purer waste streams have been created, we can finally address the complexities involved in recovering the actual raw materials. Material recovery has come a long way, most notably showcased by the American firm MBA Polymers. They have built state-of-the-art plastics recycling facilities around the world that are able to sort plastics by type, grade, and colour. Hitherto, one of the most difficult materials to recover, MBA Polymers has managed to create marketable products out of their recovered plastics. But regardless of the sophistication of their recovery procedure, they still face the problem of where to source the actual recycled plastics from. Whilst they utilise traditional technologies to separate other materials from the waste streams that they receive, this process could be downscaled significantly if we, the consumers, were to do the initial separation process for them.

So instead of demanding ever-more complex machinery to do the separation for us, an arguably more cost-effective method would be to start the separation at the source, i.e. at the household level. Whilst it may be cumbersome (and this is, speaking from personal experience) to have a multitude of baskets and bins for a wide assortment of recyclables, it is nevertheless a question of what one is used to. Even though this may add some time to your weekly chores, it is only by turning it into an individual problem as opposed to a societal one that we can surmount the waste problem. To use economic jargon, we would be taking about both the free-rider problem, as well as an incentive problem.

Currently, in many parts of the world, there are no individual incentives in place to sort waste, thus the problem is transferred to the municipality. Furthermore, for those who are sorting, there are no real rewards for their behaviour or actions, since all the costs are shared through taxes. This implies that someone who is not sorting is effectively free-riding on the accrued benefits from sorting, since they are not paying their fair share – most noticeably through effort.

If we wanted to encourage individuals to start the recycling procedure already at the household stage, we could employ a classic economic solution to this problem that would entail encouraging, through positive or negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement could come in the form of charging people for negligence when not separating properly. Or perhaps more effectively, positive reinforcement could be created by making individuals pay for their own garbage disposal, taking the accountability away from what is traditionally the municipalities’ responsibility. Thus, instead of individuals being taxed by the municipality to dispose their waste, waste disposal firms could charge people different fees depending on how well individuals have pre-sorted the materials – the better the sorting, the lower the fees. This is already happening, as economic incentives with garbage collection have already been employed in Swiss cities (for German speakers, St. Gallen would be a great example).

Whilst waste streams are already a valuable source of raw materials, in the not too unforeseeable future, we should be able to capitalise on this untapped resource much more effectively. At that point, it will be possible to sell your waste streams directly to the highest bidder, and once this monetary incentive has been added, the original separation problem will be much easier to solve. Whilst companies like MBA Polymers have shown us that we can already sell recoverable materials to recycling companies, this option is neither easily accessible nor very feasible for the average household. Since we are not quite there yet with fully functioning waste markets, it is important to consider other policy steps in the meantime. One solution would be to develop private markets further as proposed in the aforementioned paragraph. This could provide an environment where individuals are incentivised to sort more accurately. And if that is not palatable to the general populace, we can at least sleep a little better knowing that waste management technology is nevertheless constantly improving.

This is the first article in a series on waste recycling and consumer behaviour. Andreas Slotte will delve deeply into the issue, exploring the issues associated with different types of waste, its past and future, the technologies, and what solutions the market has to offer.  Follow him at the 2012 World Resources Forum in Beijing this October, from where he will be reporting live and meeting with some of the world’s top waste-management companies.

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