simon penney, waste hierarchy, circular economy, sustainable consumption, waste management, recycling, resources, resource management, dumpsites, solid waste, waste prevention, wasteless future

Today I have the pleasure to publish a short but thought – provoking post from my good friend Simon Peter Penney. You can find more about him at the end of the post and you can follow him on Twitter (@thewastethinker) and read his writings at his blog. I enjoyed his article because he questions one of the most elementary principles in waste management. Actually he doubts about the validity of the waste hierarchy as the right toll to stimulate sustainability. 

simon penney, waste hierarchy, circular economy, sustainable consumption, waste management, recycling, resources, resource management, dumpsites, solid waste, waste prevention, wasteless future

Simon Peter Penney

“The waste hierarchy has been the basis of waste management policy in the west for the best part of 30 years and more recently in other parts of the world.  It is a global philosophy. Intuitively it makes sense to order waste management decisions, preventing, reducing reusing and recovering waste and only when you have done all that dispose of the waste that remains.  More recently ideas like the circular economy and sustainable consumption have been gaining traction, both these concepts represent ideas that integrate well with the top end of the waste hierarchy.

However, the global waste management system is clearly not working.  Even according to our industry there are 3 billion without access to waste management services, some 50 million living on or next to 50 Mega dumps around the world.  Waste has a greater public health impact than Malaria world wide and we have a chronic plastic and toxin plague that can be found from the bottom of the ocean, to our own blood, to the slopes of Everest. As a global society what ever we are doing is not working, or at least not working anywhere near quick enough.

Whilst recycling rates have gone up of some materials in some parts of the world, the truth is recycling will not deliver sustainability, we are consuming more not less, extraction rates have increased not decreased and we are producing more waste than ever before.  The consumption itself is significantly uneven in its distribution both in terms of space and in terms of people.  Yet our collective perception of waste is largely that of MSW which is only 2% of global waste.

Out of sight and out of mind are other waste types, with military waste a a key manifestation of the dark underside of capitalism as well as expressing colonial oppression as seen in places like the Canadian artic this is not accounted for at all. In 2014, the former head of the Pentagon’s environmental program told newsweek that her office had to contend with 39,000 contaminated areas spread across 19 million acres just in the U.S. alone. The military is a key tool used to maintain power dynamics that allow consumption patterns to remain unequal.

On this basis there is I believe ample evidence that the waste hierarchy does not work conceptually or practically.  Why are landfills not engineered as long-term storage solutions so that there is literally no waste, only resources that are stored for future use? The reason is as hinted above is that the hierarchy itself is a product of capitalist neo liberal governance, which has an agenda which is diametrically opposed to the concept of reducing consumption, the only certain way in which we can achieve anything like a sustainable form of consumption is to redefine what consumption means and radically alter its distribution.  My argument is that our institutional, economic, social structures are set up to stop us from doing this. Whilst we pay attention to recycling rates and other aspects of flawed structural thinking, our collective imagination is not engaged to come up with alternatives to this because we are mostly unaware that it is not working.

We need to be fully aware of our actions and their impacts and then we need to re engage our collective imagination on a different basis in order to solve the global waste emergency, we need to think upstream, challenging the basis for a system that by almost any definition plainly does not work.  We need a new narrative in which waste management talks primarily about social justice, and not economic  considerations. We must understand that waste originates in a psychological space, it is a value statement that is individually and collectively projected onto materials, places or people and on that foundation our structures to deal with it need to be built.”

Simon Penney is now a PhD Candidate and Teaching Assistant at Queens University in Kingston ON, Canada, after working for over 2 decades in waste management and sustainability from the local to global level.  His PhD subject is over consumption.  Simon has 2 master’s degrees, one in wastes management and the other in applied theology.  He has been a member of many industry bodies and associations including CIWM, SWANA, Royal Meteorological Society and the Society for the Environment.  He has always been passionate about international development.  He founded the international charities WasteAid UK and inspired the foundation of WasteAid Australia.  He now supports work in Uganda and teaches waste and development on behalf of UN Habitat and other partners. 

  1. Derek de Bres 5 years ago

    Most waste can be recycled and if not incinerated to produce energy. As I manufacture pyrolysis machines that converts used oil, plastic and old tyres to A usable fuel I know one needs to look at the differentbwaste with open eyes and an open mind. A pyrolysis machine can pay for itself between 6 to 24 months. The fuels produced range from gases, patrols, paraffin, diesel, base oils and waxes. Each have value…However I have see plastics with nasty fillers in what the industry calls number 7…these need to be assessed and stopped as the gasses produced when incinerated are very toxic…certain products like these should be outlawed

  2. Simao Dias 5 years ago

    I was hoping for a little more considering the provocative title. We all know that our societies are locked in system of infinitive economic growth – which is not possible in a limited world – and decoupling (absolute) is still very limited. I agree that we need do more upstream but effective change will only be possible in a sustainable economic steady-state/degrowth scenario. So it’s not the waste hierarchy that is wrong but our society framework – which I believe is also the idea of the author…

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