Waste management is the collection, transportation and disposal of rubbish, sewage and other waste materials. All businesses produce waste, so it’s an issue that all businesses face to some degree. However, it’s clearly a more crucial issue in some sectors than others, particularly in construction, manufacturing, agriculture and energy production; sectors that produce far more waste than, for example, the service industry. The issue of waste is of huge environmental concern, and cuts across several of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, giving greater impetus to tackling the issue.
Effective waste management is increasingly important as populations increase and become wealthier, and as more and more resources are used. When waste is not managed effectively, not only are resources squandered, but there can be significant harmful impacts on both the environment and people. Waste comes in a myriad of forms, some more hazardous than others. Decomposing organic waste can cause disease, including sickness and diarrhoea, dysentery and dengue fever. Leachates resulting from landfilled waste can pollute water supplies by leaking into groundwater, and currently contributes 4% of global greenhouse gases, with 16% of methane (the most harmful greenhouse gas) coming from landfill. Plastics in the ocean can destroy sea life, and, when rotting, can cause the production of pathogenic bacteria that can enter the human food chain through fish.
The global waste trade refers to the trade in hazardous and toxic waste between countries for further treatment and disposal. This is an unequal trade, where materials that can and do cause significant harm to humans, wildlife and the environment travel from wealthy OECD nations to countries in the Global South. Transporting hazardous waste out of the country in which it is produced is illegal in the European Union, and multiple international agreements have attempted to control this trade, beginning with the Basel Convention which has been ratified by 186 countries since 1989. Nonetheless, it persists, indeed the UN Environment Programme claims that 90% of global electronic waste is dumped or illegally traded, despite this being illegal in the EU and the OECD.
Waste matters to business not only because of the environmental and human impacts of poor waste management, but because waste is costly. Alongside the cost of disposing of waste responsibly or in compliance with legal requirements, waste costs companies the value of the wasted resources, the labour taken to deal with it and the energy used to transport it. Further, where waste does damage to the environment, it destroys resources that might have been used for production in the future. On the other hand, waste management is a massive and growing industry. The global solid waste management industry (i.e. not including water treatment or waste gas) is set to grow to $1296.04 billion by 2022 .
Alongside the harm of ineffective waste management, tackling the issue of waste also provides opportunities for innovation, creative business solutions and partnerships between the public and private sectors. Reducing waste could free up resources for other uses. For instance the value of global food waste is $750 billion per year. Oxfam estimates that it would take $60 billion to end extreme poverty throughout the world. It’s worth remembering that one company’s waste may be another’s foodstock - waste materials are used to create a wide variety of new products. Energy can be extracted by combusting waste and seemingly waste products can be reused again - for instance ash from incinerators can be used as building materials. P&G has used waste plastic washed up on beaches to make shampoo bottles.
The most common framework to tackle waste - and that around which companies can build their waste strategies - is known as the waste hierarchy. Essentially, at each stage of the hierarchy, some ‘waste’ is put to productive use, decreasing dramatically the final amount of waste that cannot be used for any productive purpose. These stages are:
- Prevent unnecessary materials being used
- Reduce the amount of materials used - through product changes and substitutions if necessary, through technological changes and changes in operational practice
- Reuse - putting materials that are no longer needed to new use - for instance reusing drinks bottles. Creatively using waste products for new purposes reduces the need for energy intensive recycle process, lowering the carbon footprint of the product
- Recycle - breaking down materials and producing new products with them. Design of physical products can play an essential role in reducing the amount of waste, or encouraging recycling. For instance, designing packaging using just one material can facilitate recycling
- Energy extraction - Products that cannot be recycled can produce energy. However processes for utilising waste products to make energy remain controversial - pyrolysis and gasification both extract energy from waste heated to extremely high temperatures - and are more environmentally friendly than incineration, but may cause perverse incentives against recycling and renewable energy technology.
- Final disposal should take care to prevent contamination - landfill sites should be carefully engineered to ensure they are safe for wildlife, surrounding communities and workers.