Thematic Essay

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Waste management

Henning Wilts, Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, Germany

Although waste management has always been described as a key sector for sustainable management, over the last decades research has focused more or less on technical aspects of waste treatment. Only recently the fascinating complexity of waste – the political economics of waste infrastructures or the social aspects of waste generation ‒ started to raise attention and demand new, interdisciplinary research approaches. The following wants to highlight the magnitude of change waste management is undergoing, the expectations related to these developments and the often still sad reality of waste management. It ends with a very preliminary idea of closed material loops on multiple scales – looking at waste as a resource, not an environmental threat.

Towards a “circular economy”?

Waste management is undergoing a fundamental transition process: historically, waste infrastructures have been established in order to ensure the disposal of waste in a cheap and reliable way. Traditionally, waste has been seen as a potential threat to human health and it was regarded as a public task to take care of it – by landfilling it outside of the city walls, or in later times by burning it in waste incineration plants (the first ones established in Germany and the UK after the last outbreaks of cholera in urban agglomerations). This socio-technical regime of waste disposal with all its technical infrastructures, governance structures and behaviour patterns was and still is focused on this purpose: to prevent society from drowning in waste. In the public opinion, large-scale systems based on municipal waste collection schemes and end-of-pipe technologies like waste incineration, shredding or other volume-reducing waste treatment procedures seem to have completely minimized these sorrows – in most developed countries and especially in the EU, waste seemed to be a “solved problem”.

Only recently has this perception has been contested, and the idea of a circular economy has raised increasing interest in the public debate, e.g. in the European Commission´s Communication on Zero Waste: “Since the industrial revolution, our economies have developed a ‘take-make-consume and dispose’ pattern of growth ‒ a linear model based on the assumption that resources are abundant, available, easy to source and cheap to dispose of. It is increasingly being understood that this threatens the competitiveness of Europe.” (European Commission 2014)

High expectations…

The roots of circular economy go back to the 1970s and are based on the principles put forward by many thinkers and business innovators, including Walter Stahel and his conceptualisation of the performance economy (Stahel 1976), John Lyle and his work on regenerative design (John T. Lyle) or the cradle to cradle models of Michael Braungart. Nevertheless, the narrative of a circular economy is increasingly gaining the support of business and enjoys increasing recognition from policy makers worldwide.

The expectations linked to this aspired transition from securing disposal towards a sustainable resource management in a circular economy could not be higher – especially in Europe: “Moving to more circular economic models promises a much brighter future for the European economy. It would allow Europe to rise to the current and future challenges of global pressure on resources and rising insecurity of supply. Pumping resources back into productive use again and again, cutting waste and reducing dependence on uncertain supplies is a direct route to improving resilience and competitiveness. By helping to decouple economic growth from resource use and its impacts, it offers the prospect of sustainable growth that will last.” In addition, circularity is also expected to have a significant impact on innovation, employment, and capital productivity. In its reports “Towards the Circular Economy”, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates an annual net material cost saving potential of a rapid scale-up of circular business models up to USD 630 billion (EMF 2012).

Disappointing reality

But although the public debate seems to focus on zero waste, design for recycling and closed material loops, the discourse shows a significant disparity between rhetoric and actual concepts of how to initiate, steer or support this transition. Obvious trade-offs between waste prevention as top of the waste hierarchy and job creation in the recycling sector as one of the identified green lead markets are neglected, waste infrastructure planning is still focused on regional autarchy – based on a polluter pays principle and not on the perception of waste as a resource. But especially indicators and targets that clearly set incentives for R&D and innovation patterns in the waste sector still refer to waste as something to be disposed of and not to a potential secondary resource. Despite all the on-going initiatives to transform Europe into a “recycling society”, the reality still shows a clearly different picture. In 2011, total waste production in the EU amounted to approximately 2.5 billion tons. But only a limited share (40%) of the municipal waste generated in the Union was recycled, with the rest being landfilled (37%) or incinerated (23%), of which around 500 million tons could have been otherwise recycled or reused (EEA 2013).

A global view on waste

A review of the reality of increasing waste shipments shows that waste is no longer just transported to the next waste processing facility where it is disposed of in an environmentally sound way. According to the Trade Council of the International Recycling Association (BIR), 68% of the global steel production is based in Asia; at the same time, about 60% of the steel waste is generated in the US, South America and Europe. Therefore, any attempt to increase the share of recycled steel needs to take into account the necessity of global waste exports. It becomes increasingly clear that from the perspective of a sustainable resource management, municipal and national waste policies have reached the limits of their capabilities.

While waste is seen less and less as an environmental burden, and more as a possible source for the production of secondary raw materials, the goal can no longer be to keep it within strictly limited disposal areas. Therefore the scope of future waste infrastructure planning has to be broadened and needs to take into account the resource efficiency potentials of recycling and closed material loops at different spatial scales depending on the value and mass flows: spatially short-cut for high volume flows with low value (e.g. construction waste), longer transport ways, and even internationally for high value flows.


EMF (Ellen MacArthur Foundation) (2012). ‘Towards a circular Economy.’ Report 1 http://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/business/reports/ce2012.

EEA (European Environment Agency) (2013). ‘Managing municipal solid waste: a review of achievements in 32 European countries.’ EEA Report 2/2013, Copenhagen.

European Commission (2014). Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. ‘Towards a circular economy: a zero waste programme for Europe.’ COM (2014) 398 final, Brussels.

Stahel, W.R., Reday, G. (1976). ‘The potential for substituting manpower for energy.’ Report to the European Commission, Brussels.

Case Study: New Life for Ocean Trash

Margaret Robertson

Vast swarms of plastic trash collect in the world’s oceans. According to a United Nations report, about 10 percent of that trash consists of abandoned fishing gear: gillnets, traps, lines, and net fragments (Macfadyen, Huntington, and Cappell 2009). Marine creatures become entangled in discarded lines and trawl nets, while gillnets and traps result in what is known as “ghost fishing,” trapping and killing fish, sea turtles, birds, and dolphins. Abandoned gear alters the seafloor environment and destroys habitat, killing more creatures.

The cause is not only industrial fish harvesting. In many poor coastal regions, fishers struggle just to survive, eking out a living by fishing with no incentive to dispose of worn-out fishing gear properly. These subsistence fishers leave behind thousands of miles of fishing nets every year (Witkin 2012). Meanwhile Interface, the global carpet manufacturer with a sustainability-driven vision, needs plastic to manufacture its carpet tiles.

Interface and the Zoological Society of London, a conservation group, formed a partnership called Net-Works to address these environmental, economic, and social problems. They launched a pilot program in the fishing communities along Danajon Bank in the Philippines, a richly diverse and ecologically fragile area of coral barrier reefs. Through this program, local people collect, clean, and bale old fishing nets, which they sell to Net-Works. The money they generate is used to finance economic development programs in their villages. The nylon fishing nets are processed by Aquafil, a nylon producer who uses fishing nets, carpet scraps, and industrial waste to make its Econyl nylon-6 using no virgin nylon (Davis 2013). These nylon fibers are made into new carpet fiber. It is a triple-bottom-line solution within a closed-loop cycle of a technical nutrient.

When used carpet tiles are recycled, nylon that can be separated from the backing material, known in the trade as “fluff,” can be reprocessed into nylon-6 and used again as carpet fiber (Davis 2013). Unlike most recycling processes, this is true recycling, not downcycling. According to the manufacturer Aquafil, nylon-6 can be reprocessed and reused indefinitely, with the same technical material properties (Aquafil Group). Some of the nylon fiber in carpet tiles remains bound with the backing material. This material, too, can be processed, but because of the backing material cannot become nylon-6, so this portion is an example of downcycling.

Net-Works performed life cycle assessments of this supply chain to determine whether shipping the nylon materials from the Philippines to Europe for processing, and then shipping the finished yarn from Europe to plants in North America or Asia, would generate enough greenhouse gas emissions to cancel out any environmental benefits. Their analysis showed that in spite of the transport, using recycled nylon from the Philippines still has 56 percent less climate impact than using virgin nylon (Davis 2013).

In other parts of the world, various groups are working to collect other marine plastic debris. Waste Free Oceans in Europe, led by the European Plastics Converters, and Upcycle the Gyres, a nonprofit organization in British Columbia, are developing what Upcycle the Gyres calls “marine plastic mining” technology, collecting floating plastic pieces and researching methods for reprocessing. In Hawaii, a partnership between Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii, Kahuku Hawai’i Foundation, and plastic manufacturers Method and Envision Plastics is using debris found on Hawaiian beaches to develop a mixed-plastic resin that is being used to make dark gray “Ocean Plastic” bottles from resin numbers 2, 4, and 5 (Lawson 2012).

The declining health of the oceans is telling us that it is past time to stop producing and consuming plastic, at least in the ways we have been doing. But efforts like Net-Works and Waste Free Oceans are valuable first steps in cleaning up the messes we have made.


Aquafil Group. “The ECONYL Regeneration System.” http://www.aquafilusa.com/index.php/econyl-regeneration-system  Accessed October 2, 2013.

Davis, Mikhail. “How Net-Works Fishes for a Triple Bottom Line.” GreenBiz.com, July 19, 2013. http://www.greenbiz.com/blog/2013/07/19/how-net-works-fishes-triple-bottom-line

Interface Net-Works program. http://www.interfaceglobal.com/Products/NetWorks.aspx

Lawson, Drummond. “Commercializing the Rising Tide of Ocean Plastic.” GreenBiz.com, August 23, 2012. http://www.greenbiz.com/blog/2012/08/23/commercializing-rising-tide-ocean-plastic

Macfadyen, Graeme, Tim Huntington, and Rod Cappell. “Abandoned, Lost or Otherwise Discarded Fishing Gear.” FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Technical Paper No. 523; UNEP Regional Seas Reports and Studies No. 185. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, 2009.

Witkin, Jim. “A Second Life for Discarded Fishing Nets.” New York Times, June 15, 2012.

Zoological Society of London. “Old Fishing Nets Make New Carpets.” June 8, 2012. http://www.zsl.org/conservation/news/old-fishing-nets-make-new-carpets,964,NS.html

Conducting a Waste Audit

Margaret Robertson

A waste audit is a physical analysis of an organization’s waste stream, which provides a snapshot of the contents of the waste stream, identifying the types of trash generated and in what quantities. Measurement is the first step in management. An audit lets coordinators understand how much waste is being generated, where it comes from, and how much of it is recyclable, helping them identify areas to target for improved recycling and purchasing practices. A waste audit is also a graphic and effective way to make often-abstract waste and recycling concepts visible. For many people, recycling is their first connection to sustainability efforts, and a waste audit gives them real-world feedback.

A waste audit should be done during a time that reflects average activity. For example, if an audit is done on a university campus, an audit done mid-semester reflects campus activity more accurately than one conducted during a quiet break between terms. If practical, multiple audits can be done at different times of the year in order to detect seasonal variations such as yard waste, holiday packaging, or annual reports.

Before the audit itself, a site is selected that is sheltered from weather, large enough to hold the entire waste sample, located away from vehicle traffic, and away from waterways, storm drains, and environmentally sensitive areas. A worksheet is developed that lists all the materials used by the organization, by category. Typical categories include recyclable paper; recyclable plastic, glass, and metal; batteries; compostable food waste; yard waste; reusable items; and true garbage, items that are not compostable or recyclable. Categories vary by site and auditing objective, and some organizations break down paper into further subcategories; some add categories for disposable items related to food service; and some add categories for such things as toner cartridges, electronics, and pallets.

Tools and materials are assembled: tables for sorting; bins or containers for sorting waste into categories, with empty weight recorded in advance; a large scale for weighing; calculators; copies of the worksheet; thick waterproof gloves; and waterproof aprons. A formal or informal risk assessment is conducted to review potential hazards and safety protocols. An orientation session educates volunteers about safety and confidentiality; workers must avoid sharp objects or other hazards, must avoid reading any documents during the audit, and must ensure that nothing leaves the auditing area. Some organizations verify that all volunteers have had tetanus shots.

Waste is then collected into trash bags and labeled by date and location. Each bag is weighed, and the total weight and volume from each location is calculated and recorded on worksheets. Volunteers then carefully lift out waste by hand and deposit it into appropriate sorting bins, one collection-site bag at a time. Waste categories are weighed and recorded on worksheets. Both weight and volume are recorded. In some cases it is useful to record count quantities as well as weight and volume. For example, learning that 500 pairs of gloves were discarded may have more impact that learning that 55 pounds of latex was discarded. Each category is calculated as a percentage of the total waste.

Results of the audit are shared with the entire organization. The percentages of materials being sent to the landfill that could have been recycled are particularly meaningful figures. A waste audit has the greatest impact if it can be done in a location that is safe but publicly visible, where it can provide positive publicity and launch further recycling initiatives.

For more precise auditing of waste generated during a particular time period, coordinators can flush the system prior to waste collection. For example, if the audit is to analyze waste for a 24-hour period, staff must empty all the garbage and recycling containers that will be sampled 24 hours before the waste is to be collected.

Both weight and volume are recorded and analyzed for two reasons: First, because weight figures can be distorted by spilled liquids which soak into other materials and add weight, recording volume provides another measurement. Second, both weight and volume are used in contracting of waste management. Waste disposal is billed by weight, and knowing the weights of waste and recycling categories allows costs and cost savings to be estimated. In addition, knowing the volume allows estimates of the number of dumpsters, roll-off carts, and on-site storage facilities required.

In order to understand how discarded trash relates to the organization’s larger waste stream as a whole, coordinators collect recycling and waste data and perform a separate audit of the recycling stream during the same time period as the waste audit, compile the additional data in a waste indicator report, and repeat the monitoring over time. One audit gives a snapshot; measuring the same indicators more than once over time allows trends and patterns to become visible. See Chapter 5, “Putting Sustainability into Practice” and Chapter 15, “Waste and Recycling” in the book Sustainability Principles and Practice for information about how to set up indicator reports.


Jensen, Marc. Lean Waste Stream: Reducing Material Use and Garbage Using Lean Principles. New York: Pro­ductivity Press, 2014.

Jensen, Marc and Andrew Sartain. “How Healthy Is Your Recycling Program? Performing a Garbage Audit at a Major University.” Sustainability: The Journal of Record, vol. 7 no. 3 (June 2014): 154–59. DOI:  10.1089/sus.2014.9790.

Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “Waste Audits.” Greening Advisor. www.nrdc.org/enterprise/greeningadvisor/wm-audits.asp

Stone, Michael K. “The Smart by Nature Campus.” in Smart by Nature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009: 65-67.

University of Oregon Campus Zero Waste Program. “Waste Audits.” http://zerowaste.uoregon.edu/waste_audit.htm

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. WasteWise. http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/conserve/smm/wastewise/index.htm

A source for information about waste management practices for municipal and industrial sites. The website offers numerous fact sheets and other resources. Organizations can become partners free of charge, and then have access to a technical assistance team who will help to conduct a waste audit and identify waste reduction opportunities.

Recommended Routledge Books

Supplementary Reading



Free Journal Articles

Russell, Rachel, 2014, ‘Waste Not, Want Not?: Evaluating the Urban Sustainability Implications of Decentralised Wastewater Treatment in Tijuana, Mexico’, Urban Geography (forthcoming)
Giovanis, Eleftherios, 2014, ‘Relationships between well-being and recycling rates: evidence from life satisfaction in Britain’,  Journal of Environmental Economics and Policy 3(2), pp 201-214
Grant, Richard and Martin Oteng-Abiabo, 2012, ‘Mapping the Invisible and Real ‘African’ Economy: Urban E-Waste Circuitry’, Urban Geography 33(1), pp 1-21
Tukahirwa, J.T., A.P.J. Mol and P. Oosterveer, 2010, ‘Civil society participation in urban sanitation and solid waste management in Uganda’, Local Environment 15(1), pp 1-14

Video Links

  1. FAO Food Wastage Footprint


    Duration: 3:41

    In 2010 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation published a report detailing how and where food is wasted in the world. One third of all food grown is never consumed, as this YouTube video clip demonstrates.

  2. Petcoke: Toxic waste in the windy city


    Duration: 14:37

    This is a well-produced 2014 video focusing on community concern in south Chicago about the storing of petroleum coke ‒ a toxic byproduct of petroleum processing ‒ near their neighbourhood before it is transported to countries with lower environmental protection laws. The environmental hazard is predicted to increase.

  3. The Love Canal Disaster: A Retro Report by the New York Times


    Duration: 11:05

    The undisclosed dumping of highly toxic waste at Love Canal in Niagara Falls triggered a globally significant protest movement in 1978. This 2013 report by the New York Times reviews the disaster and considers its consequences.

  4. Following ships of rubbish value: A photographic essay


    Duration: 5:37

    This is a brilliant set of images without sound; very good for background to a lecture or talk.

  5. Everything must go: Featuring the travels of a red coat


    Duration 2:24

    This slide show ‒ without captions ‒ examines what happens to clothes donated to ‘charity shops’ in the UK. It features the journey of a particular red coat.

  6. Recycling in India


    Duration 2:48

    This short video explains that recycling has been a part of Indian culture for centuries. Now the country is importing waste material from other parts of the world for a rather unorganised waste recycling industry. The video provides links to other presentations on waste recycling in India.

  7. Mutilation and Mutability: The destruction of clothing in India and its reclamation


    Duration: 0:56

    A very short slide show with captions about the reprocessing in India of used clothing sourced from the UK.

  8. E-waste view on Bangladesh


    Duration: 14:18

    This is an informative 2013 documentary made in Bangladesh about the emergence of the electronic waste recycling industry in that country.

  9. Amazing Eco House: Recycled materials, Cebu, Philippines


    Duration: 14:09

    As with India, there are many videos and images showing poor people being forced to eke out a living by reusing or recycling waste materials. This video focuses on the positive side of the recycling culture by focusing on an inspirational ‘eco-house’ project in Cebu.

  10. Sprouts Food Rescue Program


    Duration: 3:34

    This is a 2014 video presentation on a very impressive food rescue program in USA.

  11. Food Rescue in Action


    Duration: 4:04

    This is a lively slideshow with upbeat music on a wide variety of food rescue projects across the USA.

  12. Dumpster Diving


    Duration: 4:26

    Dumpster diving ‒ rescuing goods that have been dumped into large waste bins ‒ originated in the USA. This is an Australian television report on people rescuing dumped food from supermarket waste bins.

Blogs and Websites

  • The Story of Stuff Project blog ‒ originally based on a short 20-minute film (still probably the most convincing visualisation of the need for better waste management), the Story of Stuff project brings together ideas, articles and comments from more than 500,000 "changemakers" from all over the world

    Story of Stuff http://storyofstuff.org/blog-cat/

  • The EIONET Waste Prevention Hub ‒ this project website offers more than 100 documents, reports, articles etc. on waste prevention in the EU member states. It gives an overview on waste prevention activities including a regular newsmail

    EIONET http://scp.eionet.europa.eu/facts/WPP

  • The ISWA Knowledge Base ‒ provided by the International Solid Waste Association, partly restricted for ISWA members, but with plenty of interesting documents on waste management

    ISWA http://www.iswa.org/media/publications/knowledge-base/

  • The Basel Convention to control transboundary movement of hazardous waste was established in 1992. This website provides information on the operation of the convention, networks and projects. It also provides access to relevant publications. It is possible, for example, to compare the global movement of electronic waste in 1996 and 2012

    Basel Convention on Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastehttp://www.basel.int

  • The European Union has committed to the principles of resource efficiency and waste avoidance, as captured by the concepts of the ‘circular economy’ and the ‘waste hierarchy.’ This website explains the policy initiatives and provides links to the regulatory framework provided by the European Commission Waste Framework Directive 2008/98/EC

    European Union policy on waste management http://ec.europa.eu/environment/waste/index.htm

  • This website provides access for paid subscribers to a magazine and other resources on international waste management projects and programs

    Waste Management World http://www.waste-management-world.com/index/contact-us.html