Today I have the honour to post a piece by Ad Lansink, the famous inventor of the waste hierarchy principle, who has served as a prominent Dutch political too. In 1979 he submitted to parliament a motion containing what would come to be known by some as ‘Lansink’s Ladder’: a simple schematic presentation of the order of preference for waste management options, with disposal at the bottom and prevention at the top. The motion was adopted and the ladder became a critical tool in shaping Dutch waste policy. The waste hierarchy as we know it was born.
Before Ad’s post on waste hierarchy, I would like to say few things about his book. I had the privilege to meet him in person twice and I was honoured to make a small contribution in his great book “Challenging Changes – Connecting Waste Hierarchy and Circular Economy“. The book is also sold through ISWA as Ad Lansink was so kind to offer 5 euros for each book sold through ISWA for the ISWA’s Scholarship Program in Nicaragua. Almost 45 years after Ad Lansink presented for the first time the waste hierarchy at the Dutch Parliament, his new book details a roadmap to make circular economy a reality and explains the crucial role of waste management in this roadmap. It’s a must-read book for every decision maker, for everyone involved in the waste management business and policies, for every researcher that tries to demystify the challenge of circular economy in real life conditions.
Having the previous in mind, I am sure you will enjoy his post as a great contribution to the discussion on waste management and circular economy. Here it comes.
Waste hierarchy and circular economy
In a provoking but also badly argued post on the blog of wastelessfuture.com, Simon Penney doubts about the validity of the waste hierarchy as the right tool to stimulate sustainability. He asks: Is Waste Hierarchy a misleading principle? The answer is as follows : no, not at all. On the contrary, the waste hierarchy is a leading principle for the transition to the circular economy. Moreover, the waste hierarchy is an important framework for circularity because of more reasons.
First of all: the waste hierarchy is no longer a linear concept with equal steps, but a clear preference order, with the highest step – prevention or reduce – as the most desired option. Also, the second and third steps of the waste hierarchy – often referred as Lansink’s ladder – plays an important if not decisive role in resource chain management: the foundation for circular economy. Closing the loops in technical and organic systems require efficient and effective recycling of used material streams, resulting in high quality secondary materials, which may be used for new or even the same products as the original ones. Of course, not all secondary material streams meet the highest quality. Especially, in the field of plastic a lot of work has to be done. But in classic areas of metal, glass, paper and even textiles, reuse without down-cycling is technically and practically proven business.
Furthermore: the technical, economic and even political scarcity of raw materials requires a strong resource policy, all over the world. Therefore, the first steps of the waste hierarchy – prevention (or reduce), life extension and reuse of products – contribute to a careful product and material policy, with an important side effect, namely using less energy, resulting in achieving firm climate policy. Another point also is noteworthy: the relation between the highest steps of the waste hierarchy and the significance of product design. Both designs for life extension, and design for recycling can no longer be ignored in developing new products and materials. The development of sustainable products by innovative eco-design has been stimulated by the waste hierarchy, not as a misleading but as a steering principle.
Time and function
Indeed, in waste management incineration and landfilling do not speak in favor of careful and sustainable environmental policy. Therefore, in developing the framework of the waste hierarchy, incineration and landfilling got the last places on the Ladder of Lansink, however with the firm condition of sufficient energy recovery and functional application. My answer on Penney’s question ‘Why are landfills not engineered as long-term storage solutions?’ is simple: it’s the addition of the factor time to the waste hierarchy without changing the preference order. Otherwise, factors time and function strengthen the significance of the waste hierarchy, also in relation to circular economy. Moreover, modern waste for energy plants produce electricity, industrial heat and deliver CO2 for greenhouses. Increasingly, bottom ashes are recovered and separated in functional materials. In European legislation, especially the Framework Directive, these conditions have got a legal basis. The same is valid for the highest steps of the waste hierarchy. Till up now, legal instruments have been put in place to reach the higher steps of the waste hierarchy, in accordance with the chain management for circular economy.
Looking for the experience and results in Europe but also elsewhere, Penney’s statement, that ‘there is I believe ample evidence that the waste hierarchy does not work conceptually or practically’ lacks any basis. Insiders in the field of resource management and circular economy will be astonished by the term ‘misleading’ in the above mentioned rhetorical question. Simon Penney makes another slip in the otherwise not convincing article. His statement ‘that the hierarchy itself is a product of capitalist neo liberal governance’ does not make any sense. The waste hierarchy was proposed before the coming up of neoliberal policy, in the Netherlands and Europe. Afterward, liberal politicians and some industrial companies resisted the waste hierarchy.
New narrative not necessary
So, sustainable waste policy is not obstructed by the waste hierarchy but by the political struggle between economy and ecology. The latter often tasted defeat against economic and social trends. I share the view of Simon Penney, that institutional, economic and even social structures hinder in solving global waste problems. We must build a bridge between ecology and economy, by telling the people what should be done in a sustainable future. But a new narrative for waste management is not necessary, while we already have the waste hierarchy, with two challenging sides: the top with prevention and reuse, and the bottom line, abolishing or diminishing land filling, and reducing or changing incineration as much as possible. Meanwhile, new ideas and remarks are welcome, such as ‘precycling’ of James Greyson, or the meaning of the fourth industrial revolution, as pointed out by Antonis Mavropoulos.