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What is waste management?

What is waste management?

Before going into writing my very first post, I thought I should first look at how the term “waste management” is defined on the Internet. I thought Wikipedia would be the best place to start. There, it says: “Waste management or waste disposal includes the processes and actions required to manage waste from its inception to its final disposal.”

Wikipedia is great, but I just can’t agree with such a definition. I can stretch myself to agree with the first part: waste management starts with waste inception. You could probably argue that waste management starts before waste is even generated as we try to improve our consumption habits and reduce the impact of waste, but let’s not be too picky here.

So, what truly is waste management?

For now – to keep it simple – let’s just agree, it starts when the bin crew is coming to your door to collect your rubbish.

Until the ‘90s, waste management was a pretty straightforward affair. It was all about collecting and disposing waste, usually in landfills. Reusing glass bottles through a deposit return system was a thing (which sounds like a good idea when you consider the heat/energy required to produce glass), composting existed in rural areas mainly, and metal recycling made some people unexpectedly rich. But all in all, recycling was not mainstream, and was not very much talked about.

The emergence of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles in the ‘90s changed the landscape. You can hate plastic all you want, but the truth is that it was a technological breakthrough. Plastics have amazing properties and are less resource intensive to produce than other materials such as, for example, glass. On top of that, it can be recycled indefinitely through a mechanical process.

I’m not denying that we have a plastic problem, but it is a subject that deserves its own post, and I won’t cover it here.

Household recycling programmes emerged throughout the ‘90s, and plastics had no small part to play in that. It was also in the ‘90s that the optical sorting technology came out and opened the door to a new way for waste management companies to recover waste efficiently and to a high purity. It was a technological breakthrough, and plastic recyclers (PET recyclers at first) emerged around the same time this technology appeared.

The state of play of recycling today

Recycling is not a myth. If you live in a western country, it happens, and I dare to say it works. PET, polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) – which are the most common plastic packaging materials – are widely collected to be recycled. Paper and cardboard are also widely recycled, along with aluminium, steel, and glass.

The figures may not be all that impressive now. You will have heard that only 9% of all world plastics are recycled. This is not a technological problem, but instead a problem with the systems in place to capture the materials, the regulations in place to support recycling, our collective behaviour towards recycling and the companies involved with it who too rarely go beyond what is strictly required.

Plastic recyclers deserve a lot of credit, because they have always operated in a very volatile market environment. There were times where they had to sell their recycled produce for more money than virgin plastics, and all brand owners cared about was making their packaging as cheaply as possible. This is different now, and it’s in no small part due to how today, we’re much more sensitised to the waste issue and its environmental impact.

What I’m touching on here deserves its own post (and we will get there hopefully), but I realise I went on a bit of a tangent here. So, allow me to try to answer the question that is the title of this post: what is waste management?

Rather than correcting Wikipedia’s definition, I’ll give my preferred definition: waste management is the process and actions used to prevent the creation of waste, and to minimise its environmental impact through sustainable collection, recycling, energy recovery, and disposal – the latter ONLY when all other options have expired.

Are you interested in knowing more about how our team at SortFlow can help the waste and recycling industry be more efficient through the use of our waste management software technology? If so, please do not hesitate to reach out to us via email.

Luc Mallinger