The Father of Waste Hierarchy Talks About the Current Status of Waste Management Worldwide
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Ad Lansink is a former Dutch politician and the father of the waste hierarchy. Isonomia’s Steve Watson conducted an interview with Ad Lansink based on questions submitted by be Waste Wise’s community. This is the first of two installments of the interview. In the second installment, Ad and Steve talk about circular economy and zero waste. Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.
1. How has the way we think about waste changed in your lifetime, and what further changes in thought can we hope for in the future?
During my first contact with the waste problem in the 70s, a substantial amount of waste was still being landfilled. With the phenomenon of consumerism, the Club of Rome report, and unsafe landfilling, in 1979 I found many reasons to develop the concept of a waste hierarchy. The waste hierarchy is a preference order from prevention, to recycling, to useful incineration and finally functional landfilling. This order of preference (later called the Ladder of Lansink) received public attention, and finally in 1993 a legal basis in Dutch regulation.
Between 1985 and now, landfilling of waste virtually disappeared in the Netherlands. The burning of waste has gradually improved and run by optimal systems with a maximal yield of energy and an extremely limited release of hazardous substances. In the last few years, there has also been an increase of fermentation of green waste (biomass) with production of energy, heat and biogas for transport purposes. Classic incinerators are being phased out and even closed. In the recycling sector, mono-currents of secondary materials increasingly lead to high-quality raw materials. With prevention, the advances are less visible—except for the fields of sustainable products and the lifetime extension of buildings, equipment and vehicles.
For the future, I predict more emphasis on eco-design and supply chain management, as part of a move towards the otherwise difficult concept of a circular economy. Therefore, in the field of materials policy more attention will be paid to secondary raw materials.
Furthermore, I expect the gap between the domains of organic and inorganic (technical) materials to be bridged, for instance by research and development into the less explored field of phosphates. Avoiding food waste will also be an important issue that might be addressed with spare food recycling. Again, I already mentioned that the driving force for sustainable energy policy is composting and digestion of bio-waste.
Continuous research on prevention and recycling is also important. Measuring is knowing. Our measurements will tell is what is going to happen—especially in the field of raw materials and energy. I’d predict developments in bio-, info- and nanotechnologies towards this end. Finally, the undisputed tension between the free market and government will lead to new, versatile instruments, including instruments in education and awareness.
2. Is there currently too much emphasis on end-of-life solutions and not enough emphasis on prevention? For example, recycling and energy from waste are often thought of as complementary, while prevention is left out of the picture.
Indeed, in many countries there is too much emphasis on final or end-of-life solutions, such as land filling and incineration. Little attention is given to prevention. Cost is usually the reason. Dumping waste in countries that have adequate space is by far the cheapest solution. Incineration is not so cheap, especially when the facilities meet the toughest emissions requirements. Still, incineration is easier for countries and cities with little knowledge of source separation.
In the Netherlands, there are still companies and some municipalities that prefer post-separation because of the easy logistics. But with post-separation, recycling waste into high quality raw materials becomes very difficult. In addition, placing recycling and energy-from-waste together under the generic label of “recovery” diminishes the drive to work on high-grade recycling projects and prevention strategies.
European Waste Framework Directive still pays plenty of attention to prevention. States are even required to prepare prevention programs. But with more and more emphasis on economic development, prevention remains a difficult challenge. The profits of many businesses are simply rooted in a huge turnover of their products, i.e., consumption.
3. Waste prevention sits at the top of the hierarchy, but is hard to achieve through policy. How do we align taxes, incentives and other instruments in order to achieve waste prevention?
My preference is to follow two different paths. The first is the (international) alignment of taxes on primary raw materials, together with general or specific taxes on products, decreasing with increased sustainability. In other words,society pays less with an increasing lifetime or durability index. Undoubtedly, it’s a difficult approach, but worth a try. For example,we can lower taxes on added value for building renovations, or lower taxes on fuel-efficient or electric cars.
The second path concerns enhancing society’s awareness through education and information. The success of this approach in Belgium shows that interesting results can be achieved—especially among young people. Of course, financial incentives can also play a significant role.
4. Are developed nations currently burning too much waste?
Yes, at least most of them. From a cost perspective waste incineration is explicable. Historically, other motivators have been volume reduction and improvement in public health. But many components of municipal waste are useful for a second, third and even longer life through recycling and reuse before incineration becomes the only alternative. This is, of course, closely linked to the major global issues of climate policy and the increasing shortage of some raw materials.
5. What do you think would be the best drivers to stimulate waste sorting in developing nations? For example: landfill tax, regulation, targets?
Like in Europe, each developing nation differs in terms of social behaviour and economic possibilities.Therefore, there is no obvious general answer, and a combination of strategies tailored to the social and economic possibilities of each nation seems necessary. Generally speaking, however, I prefer an educational approach of increasing awareness without setting specific targets, since targets can backfire.
Using targets as a driver is more suitable for nations that already have some experience or know-how. In terms of regulation, the polluter pays principle may be a useful driver, especially when trying to avoid landfills. Driving safe energy production without harmful emissions is also essential.
All in all, the best incentive is probably regulation combined with education. I also advocate the transfer of proven separation techniques including hardware to developing nations.
6. Do you think it’s possible for members of the European Union to recycle 70% of their municipal waste?
The European Waste Directive classifies the production of energy from waste within the scope of recovery. Since this recovery remains classified as recycling, EU states should certainly be able to recycle at least 70% of their municipal waste. But because incineration with energy recovery must be considered a form of single reuse, this method of treatment may not actually be seen as recycling. In the case of strict recycling, I don’t consider 70% to be feasible, but a figure of 50–60% may be more feasible. The large differences between Member States should already serve to signpost the risk of too high expectations.
7. Do you think that the UK should build more energy-from-waste infrastructure or instead make more use of spare capacity on the continent (e.g. Netherlands, Sweden, and Germany) instead?
My preference is building more EfW (energy-from-waste) infrastructure, especially in densely populated areas with good infrastructure and capable facilities for separating municipal waste. Separating the collection of green waste also provides opportunities for fermentation facilities whichproduce biogas, which, in turn, can be used for transport, heat and energy.
While research has shown that transporting waste to the continent does not significantly increase environmental burden but it would still increase CO2 emissions in the Netherlands, Germany or Sweden—even when only half of the emissions are allocated to the incineration plants.This is caused by the partial uptake of CO2 by fast growing plants. Moreover, the UK’s self-supply of facilities inspiresthe higher rungs of the waste hierarchy—provided that the waste is diverted from landfill with sufficient energy recovered.