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Designing out Waste: The challenges to full circularity

Lead contributor: Dr. Hernan Ruiz Ocampo
Co-author: Vlatka Katusic

Waste generation is a product of urbanisation, economic development, and population growth. As nations and cities become more populated and prosperous, offer more products and services to citizens, and participate in global trade and exchange, they face corresponding amounts of waste to manage through treatment and disposal. Production and manufacturing of products follow a linear system in which materials are inputs to produce goods discarded after use within a brief time. This system generates 2.01 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) annually worldwide, of which at least one-third lack safe environmental management. The average European generates 5️ tonnes of waste each year. Worldwide, countries in East Asia and Pacific and the Europe and Central Asia regions account for 43% of the world’s waste by magnitude. These amounts generated create severe damage to the environment. A large part of it ends up in our seas, oceans and landfill, and their disposal is overwhelming cities and the planet. Globally, about 37% of waste is disposed of in some landfills, 33% is openly dumped, 19% undergoes materials recovery through recycling and composting, and 11% is treated through modern incineration. Therefore, the growing waste is one of the top 3 environmental concerns in Europe. 

The chapter explains two sectors of significant waste pollution: plastics and food. Global plastic production has increased 20-fold since the 1960s, and is estimated to double again over the next 20 years. Three hundred million tons of plastic are created yearly, and 8 million tons of plastic winds up in the ocean each year, endangering wildlife and polluting ecosystems. This number is expected to grow, and reports suggest that without improvements to waste management of plastic materials, 90 million tons of plastic could enter the world’s aquatic ecosystems by 2030. Recycling efforts are not enough, and the demand for recycled plastic only represents around 6% of the total demand for plastic in Europe. 

But food waste is a social problem with far-reaching consequences. The food system does not work for people or for the environment. Industrial farming has turned agriculture into a leading source of greenhouse gas emissions and pollution, driving species extinction. Food waste accounts for almost a third of the food produced.  The resource impact of producing wasted food is substantial; however, little is known about the energy and water consumed in managing food waste after it has been disposed of. 

The chapter explains the role of the circular economy as an enabler of the transition to a more sustainable way of producing goods. It provides the reader with a practical overview of the strategies addressing the complex matter of waste pollution: reuse/redistribute, refurbish/remanufacture, product design, and alternative materials to decrease waste produced (waste prevention), considering the entire life cycle of products and modernising the economy while also protecting the environment. Practitioners can recognise value creation for businesses and society by understanding the removal chain and therefore contributing to the promotion of behavioural change. 

What's inside

What is the link between waste generation and climate change?

Discover now the environmental impacts of waste generation and how they contribute to climate change. Learn how a large part of waste generated ends up in our seas, oceans, and landfill and how their disposal overwhelms cities and the planet.

Which are critical sectors of waste pollution?

Learn about the sectors of significant waste pollution: plastics, food, and packaging, and explore how the circular economy enables the transition to a more sustainable way of producing goods that considers its entire life cycle, modernizing the economy while protecting the environment.

Why is recycling not enough?

The best waste is the one that does not exist. Discover how waste is becoming a raw material and how our society is moving towards better waste management and a change in mindset reconciling economic growth and social progress towards a circular economy.

Turning challenges into opportunities

Explore opportunities to reduce waste generation, increase reuse, waste collection, and recycling in critical sectors and learn about the expansion of deposit-refund schemes, green public procurement (GPP), phasing-out unsustainable subsidies, supporting the development of circular economy technologies, and fiscal incentives for recovered or re-used products.

What is the role of the circular economy in waste management future strategies?

Explore how the shift to a circular economy is expected to impact waste management strategies and how it will help reduce waste generation and emissions of greenhouse gases, mitigating and preventing environmental degradation and creating economic and social value.

How to reduce the negative consequences of our consumption habits?

Discover how consumption habits lead to exponential needs to treat waste and learn how working on mindset and behavioral change through communication are essential in installing the idea of waste as a resource to achieve eco-citizenship in our society.

Which are the drivers of waste prevention and circularity?

Policy shifts can reduce waste pollution by incentivizing business and consumer behavior changes and product design, alternatives, and recycling. Discover how an enhanced waste policy supports waste prevention and circularity to recover economic value and avoid or minimize environmental impact and climate change.

Every action counts, no action is too small!

Discover how actions and contributions at citizen, professional, research and industry level are being prepared to reduce our consumption impact towards a circular economy pursuing the goal of preserving our resources and our planet. Moreover, explore how it will combat climate change.