Value of waste: Why recycling guidelines matter

Traditionally we view waste as something excess that should be discarded, burned and buried in a landfill. The word “waste” in itself implies the loss of value we associate with it. And yet, everything man-made is going to end up as waste – that is: everything is at some point going to lose its original value.

What is left in the item after that is its raw material value. We are getting better at harvesting that value from waste, but on the global scale we are still burying or burning 95% of it.

Attitude towards waste

Take a look around. Your desk might be filled with gadgets, papers and office supplies. How many times do you use them before discarding them? How many years of lifetime do they have left? Look at the walls that surround you. They seem stable and forever, but at some point they will end up as waste as well. Nothing is forever.

On the street count the number of cars, bikes, lamp-posts, windows, doors, cables and tiles. It’s all future waste.

When you walk into a supermarket, repeat the exercise once more. Look at everything that surrounds you. Now imagine how many supermarkets like that exist on the face of this Earth. Are you getting a picture of where the waste and resource crisis is coming from?

But there’s no need for the feelings of remorse or guilt! We all live in a society that is the result of decades-long development. It hasn’t been any individual’s doing, but a slow process. Instead of guilt and remorse we need a solution, and that is a new attitude towards waste.

What are we doing wrong?

The value of waste materials differs from one fraction to another, and is related to the value of virgin materials, recyclability of the material, quality and purity of the materials, demand for the materials etc. Most Europeans receive recycling guidelines from their waste management companies. The guidelines are available online and are easy to search for. There is a growing group of people taking them seriously – which is fantastic news when it comes to the value of waste.

Incorrect recycling at source is one of the biggest reasons why more waste isn’t recycled efficiently – and why countries like China don’t welcome our waste anymore. Contaminated waste has a lower value than pure and clean waste. Paper, for example, can be recycled 6-7 times if it is clean enough, but contaminated paper cannot be recycled at all. Even its incineration value is lessened if it is contaminated for example with food or cooking oil.

The logic behind recycling guidelines

You would imagine recycling is good business since the companies get income at both ends of the value chain: people pay to get their waste recovered, and the companies can sell the waste materials at the end. But the waste goes through several steps where it is sorted and treated, and where value is added back to it before it can be sold again.

The more you recycle and sort your waste, the more expensive it is for your waste management company to handle your waste. There has to be separate compartments in the waste truck for different fractions, more pickups might be required, and organizing and maintaining recycling centers incurs costs. The technologies for waste treatment are also costly to acquire and maintain, and it also costs money to store the waste.

Sadly, households who do not care about the recycling guidelines and sort their materials in a wrong way, cause even more costs to everyone. It takes more effort to sort waste at the recycling facilities (often done by hand), and affects the value of the waste that potentially could be sold back into the system as raw materials. In some cases careless recycling at source is the reason why otherwise recyclable materials are good for nothing else but incineration or landfill.

Resource scarcity

Population growth and economic growth are setting some serious pressure on the natural resources we depend on. We are currently using the resources of 1,7 planet Earths – while we obviously only have 1. This is not only risky for us, but for the future generations as well. They will not have anything left after we have used up everything. This also calls for more efficient recycling of raw materials.

What is your attitude towards everything you have – and what happens to it after you no longer see value in it?

Waste management is a complex issue that spans from the global level to the waste bin at your house, and from past generations to future generations. Our practices with waste are often outdated, and in order to update them we need to revisit our attitudes towards waste.

You can start by reaching out to your waste management company and asking them what you can do to increase the value of waste materials they collect at your house. That way all the efforts they put into your health and safety, the well-being of our nature and the future generations, will be worthwhile and make it all economically more sustainable.

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