Ray Anderson, CEO of the biggest carpet producing company in the world Interface, explains how shifiting a billion-dollar petroleum-based industry into sustainability is not only possible but it is economically and morally rewarding. Since the adoption of its zero-impact goals in 1995 the firm’s use of fossil fuels and water, its greenhouse emissions and waste generation has fallen dramatically, while sales have increased by 2/3 and profits have doubled. Interface has diverted 74000tons of used carpets from landfills, while 1/4 of its materials are renewable and recycled.
The 400$ million Interface saved in costs avoided through the pursuit of Zero Waste has paid for all the costs of transforming its practices and facilities.
As he says in this video the Interface example: “dispels de myth of the false choice between the enfironment and the economy… if we, a petro-intensive company, can do it, anybody can. And if anybody can, it follows that everybody can”.
Organic waste –the substance that come from living organisms- represents the biggest fraction of our municipal waste in Europe; between 30 and 50% depending on local conditions. As such, we would expect it to be taken good care of; the carbon present in all organic waste can be very good if brought back to the soils but it can be very bad if it is released to the atmosphere where it worsens climate change. More concretely, if treated properly, biowaste in Europe could improve 3 to 7% EUs depleted soils, could subsitute 10% of phosphate fertilisers, 9% of potassium fertilizers and 8% of lime fertilisers.
The European Union has a contradictory policy regarding treatment of organic waste. On one hand, in the Soil Thematic strategy it acknowledges the need to replenish the carbon-depleted soils and to increase nutrient retention and soil productivity.
On the other hand, in the renewables directive the priority is to move away from fossil fuels and contemplates biomass as a way to achieve this goal. The carbon contained in organic waste, green waste or paper is “young carbon” –as opposed the the old carbon of fossil fuels- and although all carbon, regardless of its origin, is equal when emitted to the atmosphere the EU considers burning “young”carbon as climate neutral. Hence, preference is given to burning organic waste in biomass and municipal solid waste incinerators in front of bringing the carbon back to the soils.
Finally there is the Waste Framework Directive where there is the waste hierarchy expressing the priority in treatment processes for waste: first prevention, then reuse, then recycle and compost, then energy recovery and finally disposal. Therefore, in theory, composting has priority to burning the biowaste with energy recovery as waste treatment. The waste hierarchy is supposed to be legally binding with only deviations allowed in concrete cases.
As we can see European law is pulling carbon in opposite directions: carbon should go back to the soils but at the same time other directives and most importantly the market incentives go in the direction of releasing the carbon to the atmosphere…
Firstly, a narrowminded short term vision that prioritises energy generation before environment, climate and future soil productivity whose benefits, albeit a lot more important, are not immediate.
Secondly, the value of of compost is low and the cost of collection and separation of biowaste is seen as too expensive. This is because repleneshing the soils, albeit recognised as very important, has no market value and because the view on waste management is not wholistic. In a wholisitic Zero Waste approach all the costs and benefits are considered. That is; the sometimes higher costs of separately collecting and managing the organics is compensated with the higher benefits of recovering value in the other waste streams thanks to the increase in its quality and the reduction in disposal costs of having a higher recycling rate.
In reality, when we look at the short and long term costs and benefits bringing the carbon back to the soils is and will be a lot cheaper than releasing it to the atmosphere.
What could be a solution?
The solution to get the priorities right would be to create a Biowaste Directive that would stablish:
– Minimum separate collection targets for biowaste
– Biowaste prevention, collection and recycling targets
– Market incentives to prioritise composting before other options
– EU standards for compost
– Harmonisation with the European soil strategy
Why is it not happening?
The issue of creating a biowaste directive has been in the pipeline since 1998 but so far the European Commission, despite the overwhelming evidence and claims from many NGOs, industry and countries such as Germany or Spain, has refused to draft such a directive.
The most likely reason for this stubborn oposition to a biowaste directive is that the EU counts on burning biowaste as a mean to achieve its targets of 20% renewable energy for 2020. In other words, the non-written decision happens to be the most important: producing energy has priority before the quality of the european soils and the future costs and sustainability of the resources management of the EU.
Yet, regardless of the financial incentives in favour of burning biowaste it is still up to the competent authorities to chose which treatment to give to their biowaste. In Germany for instance, more than 2/3 of biowaste from households is separately collected and there are plans to extend mandatory separate collection of biowaste to all municipalities. At regional level there are also initiatives; in Catalonia for instance a new law mandates to separately collect biowaste. On the other hand, countries such as France prefer to burn the biowaste mixed with the rest of the waste.
A Zero Waste strategy for Europe implies proper biowaste separate collection and a treatment that can be sustainable in the long term. Energy can be produced through anaerobic digestion but most important is the long term energy savings of bringing the carbon back to the soils and educating the population about the need to respect the cycles of nature. Zero Waste is about eliminating waste in order to share resources with the future generations and recycling organic waste is the best way to feed the future of our children.
No Zero Waste policy is possible without waste separation.
Waste doesn’t exist “per-se”, we create it when mixing our discards. If our discards are separated they are not waste but a resource. This is why the second step in waste management (after having done everything possible to prevent waste) is waste separation.
Waste can be separated at source –i.e. the citizen sorts out the waste- or at the end –i.e. a waste company separates the waste after it has been mixed-. When comparing both options source-separated systems not only significantly out-perform commingled collections on both material quality and diversion rate but also cost less.
For example, in order to re-melt glass into new containers, a high level of purity and colour sorting are required. Mixed or crushed glass is of no use for re-melting and is usually sold much cheaper for use as aggregate, which has no climate benefit. There is a big environmental benefit to recycling glass – each tonne of glass re-melted in the UK saves 314kg CO2 – so if possible glass should be separated by colour as it is collected. This is why the new Waste Framework Directive of the European Union requires source-separated collection except when it can be proved that it is not “technically, environmentally and economically practicable”(art.11).
But when it comes to source-separate collection there are ways to optimise the process and achieve the highest diversion rates together with the highest purity of materials. In this sense, door-to-door separate collection provides a lot higher results than separate collection in containers. The European best practices in waste management use door-to-door collection.
Right now Flanders separately collects 75% of their waste and some municipalities are above 80% recycling.
In Italy more than 1500 municipalities have adopted “door-to-door” separate collection and are already above 55% source separation. 20% of them (300 municipalities) are over 80% source separation.
Door-to-door collection takes place in all kinds of communities; the whole of Torino province (2,5 million hab.) has achieved rates above 50% separate collection. Downtown Torino in only 3 years since the start of door-to-door they have jumped from 25% to almost 60% separate collection. Other cities such as Trento (110.000hab) or Novara (100.000hab) have achieved impressive separate collection rates and even Milan is starting to use door-to-door collection.
Economic impact: The cost of moving into door-to-door system were entirely covered by the savings of recycling 16000tons of waste instead of sending it to disposal. In total a saving of 2.348.000 million € for 2007 which allowed to reduce the bill of the citizens by 20%.
Environmental impact: only looking at the effects of recycling the 6000 tones of paper and cardboard that was being burnt and now is recycled: it avoided logging 100.000 trees, the consumption of 2.85 millions of liters of water (enough to provide water to 31000hab) and the emission of 9.100 tones of CO2 (equal to the emissions of 680.000 oil barrels).
The system is also starting to be used elsewhere in the country, more concretely in Mallorca (30 municipalities) and the Basque Country: In the Basque Country Usurbil was the first Zero Waste municipality in the Basque Country and hence the first one to adopt door-to-door collection in 2009 and in 7 months managed to jump from 28% to 82% of separate collection and achieved 36% of waste reduction. The success has encouraged other municipalities (Hernani and Oiartzun) to join the Zero Waste strategy and source-separate waste and they are both currently recycling more than 80% of their waste whilst reducing their waste generation with measures such as home composting.
Right now in Spain the percentages of separate collection for those municipalities with door-to-door collection almost triple those with containers.
Throwing bottles and other beverage packaging in the bin? What a waste of resources and money! In a Zero Waste society all beverage container would be refilled many times before it would be recycled into a new container.
Not many decades ago beverages were generally bottled in refillable containers with deposits. Deposits are a sum of money we give as security for an item acquired for temporary use, once we give back the item we get back the money. In the last decades and years, this has changed; the trend goes towards throw-away one-way packaging. This is a very inefficient way of using resources.
There are three ways to deal with beverage packaging:
– Refilling (normally with deposit)– bottles/cans are used by the customer, transported back to the filler (producer), rinsed, refilled and transported back to the customer for use. Refillable glass bottles can be refilled over 50 times, refillable PET-bottles up to 15 times. The result is zero litter, minimum environmental impact and considerable cost savings for the municipalities.
– One-way deposit – bottles/cans are used by the customer only once, the producer can get back the materials or they will go directly to the recycling company that will produce brand new bottles which then need to be refilled and transported back to the customer. Zero litter but higher environmental impact.
– One-way without deposit – bottles/cans are used by the customer, the producer –in the best case- will pay a fee to an organisation to handle the waste or will just have nothing to do with their product once it becomes waste. The public authorities will bear the costs and a good amount of the beverages will need to be landfilled or burnt. High litter, high environmental impact but cheapest option for the producers.
Life cycle analyses (LCA) carried out by the German Environmental Protection Agency prove the significant negative environmental impacts of one-way systems regarding material (resource) consumption, energy consumption, global warming potential, acidification, ground level ozone and eutrophication compared to environmentally friendly refillables systems.
A recent LCA from the IFEU Institute shows that refillable bottles have 50-60% lower global warming potential than one-way beverage containers.
For instance, using only refillable bottles for all non-alcoholic beverages in Germany compared to the use of one-way packaging (100% refillables vs. 100% one-way packaging) could annually reduce the global warming emissions with 1.26 million tonnes CO2 equivalents (see figure).
The EU Packaging Directive (2004/12/EC) required recycling of beverage packaging of 50% of metal, 22,5% plastics and 60% of glass for 2008. Some member states decided to pass national legislation on deposit schemes which helped to largely accomplish the targets and reach collection rates above 80% (Germany, Scandinavia…) some others opted for other approaches without deposit which, lacking the right incentive, failed to deliver good results (Spain, France…).
Deposit systems allow for high collection rates and high quality of material which allows containers to be recycled into both food and non food applications – even bottle to bottle recycling. This makes it possible to use recycled instead of virgin material and reduces the need for extraction of new natural resources.
But deposit systems are not only good for the environment and an excellent tool to implement Extended Producer Responsibility, they also save lots of money to the municipalities by lowering the volume of household waste to be managed (in some cases up to 50%!), reducing the pick-up frequency, reducing the need for sorting and disposal facilities such as incinerators and landfills and by reducing the need for street cleaning. Less cost for the municipalities means less cost for the tax-payers! A win-win situation.
Good practices in Europe:
Germany had a well-functioning market for refillables until the 1990s when the refillable quota fell below 72% for the first time. This triggered the introduction of a mandatory one-way deposit system in 2003.
The deposit value was and is of 25 eurocent and it was applied to one-way deposit that included from non-carbonated to alcoholic mixture drinks, the only beverages excluded from the one-way deposit system being milk products, fruit and vegetable juices as well as dietetic products directly designed for babies.
The introduction of the deposit on one-way beverage packaging was a big success with 98,5% of refillable bottles being returned by consumers –highest in the world-.
The quality of the recovered material is good enough to guarantee that an old bottle will become a new bottle.
Zero littering of one-way beverages. The value of the containers has helped remove 1-2 billion one-way containers from Germany´s bins and streets.
Finally it had a good steering effect on some refillables’ markets such as beer containers.
SWEDEN The deposit system was introduced in 1984 for cans and 1994 for PET plastic bottles for one-way containers and it has reached recovery rates of 86% for cans and 77% for PET. The recovery company Returpack announced an increase in the deposit on metal drinks cans to 11 eurocents (1SKr).
As we can see in the picture the deposit system is being implemented in more and more countries in Europe and some are considering its introduction.
To summarise; modern deposit-refund systems for one-way beverage containers are working and can be designed to operate at insignificant cost (from €0c – €1c per packaging unit) while ensuring collection and recovery rates above 80% the challenge is how to move from one-way take-back system to a system that maximises refilling.
A Zero Waste system implies eliminating waste from beverage packaging and a system of deposit for refillable bottles is the best way to reduce not only waste but also the extraction of raw materials. If Europe is to be sustainable in the future we need to advance towards a system of refillable beverage packaging, just like it always worked!
– IFEU – Institut for Energy and Environmental Research. (2008). Life cycle assessment of refillable glass and PET bottles for mineral water and soft drinks.
– German Federal Government, (2008), Answer on a written question from the greens in the German Parliament
– Tomra – Deposit-Refund Systems, www.tomra.de
On August 31st it was constituted a new Zero Waste local group in Sicily.
The Zero Waste Association in Sicily declared its commitment to work for a responsible waste management system in Sicily aiming at increasing waste reduction, reuse and recycling and continuosly reduce the amount of waste send for either landfill or incineration.
The majority of municipal solid waste in Sicily being biowaste the organisation Zero Waste Sicily will focus on promoting separate collection of biowaste, composting and anaerobic digestion of this waste fraction.
Plastic bags, especially the single-use ones, are slowly leaving us. The good news is that this is happening, the bad news is that the process is too slow and they continue to harm our economies, health and environment.
Since their introduction in the US in 1957 they have expanded all over the world and now they can be found everywhere; oceans, rivers, mountains, fields, cities, homes… everywhere. The reason for their success was that they were cheap, light, higienic, resistant and the reason why they should be phased out is because it is not true that they are that cheap; it is just that their producers were not bearing the costs, people are. The costs of cleaning the cities, seas and fields, the costs of floods that plastic bags cause when they block the draining systems, the costs of fixing the machines blocked by plastic bags in the waste separation plants, the costs of loss of biodiversity because of death of animals by suffocation or contamination, the health costs of having more and more plastic in the food chain, the costs of tourism not wanting to come back to a country where there are more plastic bags than birds in the air… all these and many more are costs that the society is bearing and this is why the end of plastic bags is near. It doesn’t make neither economic nor environmental sense.
From the point of view of industrial design the pastic bags are a complete disaster; they are a product with a potentially high impact but whose life is very short and what’s worst is that they are absolutelly dispensable. We lived without plastic bags until some years ago and we will continue to live without plastic bags in the future.
The regulation on plastic bags around the world is increasing: in places such as China or South Africa there are outright bans on the thinnest, least durable plastic bags, in other places such as Taiwan they opted for taxes.
So, what are the experiences in Europe to reduce the consumption of plastic bags?
The most succesful example in Europe is Ireland which introduced a “PlasTax” in 2002 –law 605/2001 – of 0,15€ per bag and managed in only 6 months to reduce the use of single-use plastic bags in a 90% and which created a revenue for the state of 19 million euros. The tax is applied in shops, supermarkets and other public places and excludes the reusable bags sold for more than 0,70€, the small bags containing bulk meat, fish, ice, fruits and vegetables and the bags in planes and ships. Infringement of the norm is sanctioned with fines starting from 1905€. The BBC reported that in three months after the ban was introduced, shops handed out 277 million plastic bags fewer than normal.
On the last January 1st entered into force a ban on the selling of non-biodegradable plastic-bags, the fine for violating the law is of 100€. According to a survey from WWF in 2005, 83% of the french were in favour of banning single-use plastic bags in supermarkets.
As part of a larger packaging tax introduced in 1994, Denmark taxes plastic bags. The stated aim is to promote the use of reusable bags. However, the tax is paid by retailers when they purchase bags, rather than by shoppers, yielding less dramatic results than the Irish PlasTax, which charges consumers directly for each bag used. Still, consumption of paper and plastic bags has declined by 66%.
The region of Andalucia has recently approved the first-ever in Spain tax (5 eurocents) on single-use plastic bags to be introduced in 2011. With a population of 8.3 million people Andalucia could raise 100 million euros next year, and twice as much when the tak will be doubled in 2012. Other autonomous regions in Spain such as Catalonia have targets to reduce single-use plastic bags but no measures -tax or ban- as to how to make it happen.
In other countries such as Germany, Belgium, Italy, Netherlands or Hungary the big supermarkets charge for the plastic bags.
Several initiatives and campaigns are taking place in different parts of Europe in order to push the authorities to act against plastic bags. There is no concrete EU policy regarding plastic bags.
If you happen to know other campaigns or policies against plastic bags in Europe please let us know.
Phasing out plastic bags in Europe and replacing them with reusable bags is part of a Zero Waste Strategy in Europe; it reduces waste, it reduces costs, it promotes sustainability and is good for the environment and our landscapes.
To conclude we leave you with the video of the life of a plastic bag that is used to push the ban on plastic bags in California: