While the circular economy saga is becoming mainstream (I have already written my concerns regarding circular economy in this blog), the future of waste management is somehow blurred between circular economy and zero waste concepts. And there are many people that believe that there is no future for the waste management industry as circular economy approaches will be gradually expanded and cover the most important economic sectors.
There is nothing as misleading as this belief and allow me to explain why. First of all, the circular economy concepts, as well as the zero waste approaches, require much more and not less waste management. Their implementation requires advanced management of multiple streams of materials, before they become waste but after they have been discarded from the main production. Those streams must be as clean as possible in order to have high added value, so advanced treatment for removal of residuals will be required, in one or another way. And of course, there will be always residuals looking for appropriate final sinks, including energy recovery where this is possible.
A second reason is less obvious. Circular economy concepts are fueled (besides other) by the problems and challenges that were identified during decades of waste management progress, especially in developed countries. Gradually, through positive and negative experiences, we realized that no matter how advanced would be the waste management and recycling progress, it is the production and consumption of products that finally determine the waste management dynamics and the increasing waste volumes. But no matter how circular the economy will be, since production and consumption of goods as well as their diversification will continue to rise, there will always be new waste management problems and a permanent dynamic towards cleaner, more efficient, faster and safer waste management. I am sorry but waste is simply a daily product of the urban metabolism…
If those reasons are not enough to persuade you that circular economy needs more (but also better and different) and not less waste management, have a look at Veolia’s contribution to circular economy’s discussion (see at http://www.veolia.com/en/veolia-group/media/news/circular-economy-sustainable-opportunity ). It is more than clear that one of the biggest waste management multinationals faces circular economy as an opportunity and not as a threat. And it is not the only one, because there are more good reasons for such an approach.
Circular economy concepts, if successfully applied, will create a landscape where waste and resource management will be integrated not only on global, national or regional level but also on each and every supply chain. This means that waste management will be internalized in the relevant industrial processes, as a key-component of them. This is a new business challenge for an industry that knows how to make money from residual streams. And for some people, the business case will be similar to the software. Software development and applications are required in each and every modern industry and they are becoming a core element of it – this is a blue ocean for the software industry, despite the fact that most of the big companies have internalized their software applications and they have their own IT departments. A similar case should be expected for waste management too.
Last but not least, it is always good to remember that the waste management sector makes already an important contribution by delivering closed loops for specific materials, recovering energy potential and ensuring safe disposal for the non-recyclable part. We are far away from being “as good as we can”, but I believe that the sector’s resource added value is rather underestimated. It is time to justify it in a better and more integrated way.
So keep your eyes open, because within next months, ISWA’s Task Force on Resource Management will publish its report on resource efficiency and the role of the waste management sector. For a starter have a look at http://www.iswa.org/iswa/iswa-groups/task-forces/task-force-details/tf/show_detail/task-force-on-resource-management/
For the main course, join ISWA 2015 conference in Antwerp (http://iswa2015.org)