Has the waste hierarchy had its day?

Given the phenomenal rise of circular economy thinking in recent years, the waste hierarchy as it stands may no longer be a valid starting point for business. Maxine Perella reports

The circular economy is arguably the most transformative force to hit the resource management business agenda in years. Its objective of designing out waste from the outset so that no materials ever leave the industrial cycle means that some experts in this field are now starting to question whether the traditional cornerstone of waste minimisation – the waste hierarchy – is in need of a fundamental overhaul.

With its famous pyramid structure, the waste hierarchy is a classification of waste management options in order of their environmental impact – reduction or prevention at the top, followed by reuse, recycling, energy recovery and disposal (to landfill). It serves as a basic signpost tool for any business that is looking to extract the maximum amount of value from its products whilst generating the minimum amount of waste.

The circular economy however presents a direct challenge to the hierarchy as it considers the practicalities of material optimisation, rather than waste management. Consequently, it opens up a more imaginative space for business – one based around materials flows rather than waste arisings. If there was a popularity contest, it would seem the circular economy is currently winning.

“It has a more engaging feel for many in the business world than the waste hierarchy, which although punchy and very easy to understand, for some now has a rather functional and nagging feel to it,” notes Nick Brown, associate director for recycling at Coca-Cola Enterprises.

This view is echoed by circular economy consultant James Greyson, who argues that the waste hierarchy has been around since the mid-1970s and to some extent, has had its day.

“If it was going to do what it says, it would have done it by now,” he asserts. “The waste hierarchy is well intended, but in practice it’s used backwards, directing attention and funds to further entrench the dumping of waste to air, land and water. Circular economy tells us to phase out all waste dumping so we should take care if the waste hierarchy seems to be telling us, for example, to phase out landfill and abandon more materials into the atmosphere [via energy-from-waste].”

Likewise, Tracey Rawling Church, director of brand & reputation at Kyocera Document Solutions, feels the model as it stands is no longer ambitious enough for those businesses that are looking to adopt more circular thinking.

“A more sophisticated model would be a good thing for business,” she says, adding that the waste hierarchy might be better employed as a public educational tool. “It is a realistic starting point for the consumer when it comes to use and disposal, but when it comes to designing a product or service, it doesn’t go far enough. Innovation needs to come from business and the model needs to be more challenging to help with that.”

Rawling Church suggests to make it more business-centric, the model could be revised by adding more layers at the top of the hierarchy – examples which have been already been publicly mooted include terms like ‘closed loop material recycling’, ‘disassembly and refurbishment’ and grading various forms of energy recovery.

“Once you have a model that is fit for purpose, you need to put some thought into how you make that easy to engage with and I think a lot of that is around commercial relevance and being very clear about the business risks and the business advantages of this kind of thinking,” Rawling Church adds.

While Brown acknowledges that the current model has its limitations, he feels that widening its scope and terminology to encompass circular economy thinking could prove a delicate balancing act. In a recent White Paper published by edie, the language associated with circular economy concepts was cited as a key business barrier in terms of engagement.

“There is a risk that in trying to develop a compromise you lose the excitement which comes from a broader economic model and the simplicity of the waste hierarchy. I would suggest that people pick the right [language] to engage their audience,” he says, adding that for Coca-Cola Enterprises, terms like ‘landfill’ ‘energy recovery’ and ‘recycling’ have been immensely useful as a sustainability driver.

“The concepts of the waste hierarchy, circular economy, zero waste and resource security all help to drive us on, as does an understanding of our true cost base,” he maintains. “The waste hierarchy is a great model to challenge some individuals and organisations on material stewardship, but then the ideas within the circular economy models can provide a different challenge which might be more relevant to others. Neither is right or wrong – they just have different applications.”

However Greyson believes that if business and society is serious about working towards a circular economy, it is imperative that a new model is adopted to guide decision-making.

“This [model] should focus attention on the key question of ‘What will we do now to stop resources later becoming waste in ecosystems?’ This opens an imaginative space that has been absent with the default question of ‘What will we do with all that rubbish?’,” he argues.

According to Greyson, a viable update for the waste hierarchy would be the introduction of ‘precycling’ – a term coined in the 1980s by US social marketer Maureen O’Rorke, it focuses on waste prevention by taking action now to prepare for resources to remain as resources within the industrial cycle or ecological cycle.

‘It basically throws away the concept of disposal, in favour of setting up whatever is needed to ensure circular flows of materials,” he explains. “Everything can be precycled in some way, whether by substitution, redesign, new business models or setting up systems for return or recycling.”

Greyson also advocates using it as a tax whereby precycling premiums would be paid by waste producers in proportion to the risk of their product becoming waste. “The breakthrough will be when governments use it to make markets account for the risk of products becoming waste in ecosystems,” he says.

While precycling is great in theory, Rawling Church points out that its success would be dependent on how well developed the UK’s material recovery infrastructure is. Kyocera designs its printers and copies for disassembly so that they can be taken apart with a single screwdriver – however, once they are channeled through the WEEE (waste electronic and electrical equipment) compliance framework, they are bulked up with other equipment from different manufacturers, meaning reprocessors can’t differentiate. The result is that most of the equipment ends up shredded with precious metals lost.

If the waste hierarchy were to be overhauled to take account of circular economy thinking, it would present a significant challenge – not least in terms of reaching a consensus on what the revisions should be. But there is an increasing appetite among business now to reflect upon and re-examine what resource management really means. It could be that the ‘three Rs’ – reduce, reuse, recycle – will soon be consigned to the trash bin.

Maxine Perella is a freelance journalist

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