Does waste need a new language?

The terminology around waste is a much debated issue and as the language surrounding it evolves, this throws up some interesting dilemmas for society at large, ponders Mike Tregent

A question has been asked recently, about the relationship between language and activity. The question centres around whether or not the the word describing what we discard (in this case waste) supports the activity (recovery of resource) and does it justice in the modern context.

This has turned out not just to be an academic exercise in linguistic evolution and the history of waste, it has opened up the wider issue of how we define a more complex system and draw defining lines that can be clearly understood by all.

The debate has been stimulated by a need to move waste up the hierarchy, taking it full circle from cradle back to cradle. There are however, a number of subtexts too, with the language around co-mingled collections for sorting and waste collected at source having evolved their own terminologies, which is not helpful.

I see it thus: If paper be paper, wherever it sits in its lifecycle, then just maybe, it needs to be recovered separately at source. The same would apply to any other rejected material that seeks rehabilitation back into the language of use.

This is what the revised Waste Framework Directive appears to require, so in regulatory terms, the regulation is on the right track! The only minor fly in the ointment being, that everything that is discarded, is legally classified as waste for the purposes of implementing regulation.

So for me, I can see that people will still regard their recycling collection (especially mixed dry recyclable material in a wheelie bin), as something more akin to waste, than to its constituent materials. This is most likely because it is collected co-mingled and sorted away from the eyes of the producer.

This loss of connection could be a critical factor in reconciling both the value and responsibility represented by the waste, to the holder (producer) in relation the valuation and effort that is put into pre-cleaning and sorting of that waste. Kerbside sorting can offer a better connection, especially if residents can observe their waste being placed into separate compartments as paper, metals, plastics etc.

There have recently been a spate of name changes, by companies, consultancies and collectives, where the term waste has just been supplanted by the term resource. This probably only serves to confuse people and does not do justice to the processes involved.

If material is being collected for onward treatment, then we should at least try to describe that step, as it will help indicate that a process of transformation is being undertaken. If we are happy to call thermal treatment (in its many guises) energy-from-waste (EfW), why can we not describe materials recovery facilities (MRFs) and mechanical biological treatment plants (MBT), as waste-to-resource facilities (WtR)?

I’m sure that the public would understand these terms and relate them to a process akin to rehabilitation of their discarded resources. I do not believe that an over simplification of the language helps the cause, in fact it could even lead people to be suspicious that something is being hidden from them.

Mike Tregent is a chartered environmentalist working in waste and resource management

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