November 2, 2020

Waste Hierarchy

“We’re so incredibly utterly devious” … The Wombles.


Much focus is rightly made on the upper echelons of the waste hierarchy, as society strives towards a utopian waste scenario where there is zero ‘waste’. I remember from my youth those recycling pioneers, The Wombles, had it right when they looked to make “the most of everything, even bottles and tins, pick up the pieces and make them into something new”. Try getting that song out of your head today!

The drive towards eliminating unnecessary single use items has to be the right one, demanding reuse and recycling is increased a sensible pathway, but spare a thought for those propping up the pyramid; lower down the rankings. Collins Dictionary defines a hierarchy as “a system of organizing people into different ranks or levels of importance” and it’s the word ‘importance’ that irks me slightly.

History teaches us of the dangers in looking down on those apparently less ‘important’ and there is an element of hierarchical snobbery at play, but there is still a need for lower tiered activities and in particular, deriving energy from waste.

I’ll declare my interest, pyrolysis.

Surely the aim is to do the best thing we possibly can as a society that not only has the minimum impact on the environment around us, but where possible, improves it. Apropos plastics, there has been much awareness of the global problem and moves made to cut production as well as deal with the scourge of polymeric flotsam and jetsam.

Pyrolysis is ideally suited to dealing with plastics, as with pyrolysis, hydrocarbon molecules can be manipulated rather than destroyed. This starts to get us into the realms of chemical recycling where there are logistical and scale challenges and a reliance upon homogeneous feedstocks, but it is eating into those currently non-recyclable polymers, and crucially can be recycled an infinite number of times. This is a real Pandora’s box (made from recycled cardboard of course!) and a subject for another day.

In the interim, with pyrolysis and energy from waste there is a focus on existing, already created and unmanaged waste streams that are not even on the hierarchy; they are not landfilled, they are land (and water) strewn. Something has to be done with these wastes until the generational sustainability effort gains purchase.

The increasing number of beach and ocean clean-ups is great, but what happens to the waste that is collected. Most is mixed plastic and generally coated with salt. There are only so many things that can be repurposed from plastics and so converting these into energy for community benefit offers a practical solution and waste issue prevention at the same time. Converting what is a local problem into a useable solution that also educates towards waste management has to be part of the solution … doesn’t it?

Closer to home, we have seen a worrying trend over the last year, whereby potential customers have expressed concerns about what happens to their recyclable plastic waste currently. The carbon footprint associated with shipping plastics across the country, let alone across the world, to then potentially not even be recycled, has given rise to thoughts of onsite conversion into energy. Local, onsite waste to energy could actually offer a cleaner solution when it comes to carbon.

At this juncture, whilst right ‘up our street’, this is not something that we are advocating, but shows the thinking of certain sustainability stakeholders and is at the crux of my point. If we are doing things for the greater good, then sometimes not adhering to the hierarchy is ok … isn’t it?

I get the ideological stance in terms of carbon, sustainability and rising up the hierarchy, I’m a supporter of it, but we have to temper that with practical solutions here and now. In a crusade towards zero waste there will be times when energy from waste and even chemical recycling are suitable and preferable options, offering solutions to remote communities, to islands, to existing waste.

In so doing, this also offers the scope for a decentralised energy system that cuts down fossil fuel emissions, prevents landfill and ‘waste miles’.

I suppose I’m hoping for a post lockdown ‘play nicely in the hierarchy playground’ mantra so we can share a common sustainable goal.

Failing that, bring back the Wombles!

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