This post is a really important contribution from my friend Martin Steiner (General manager of TBU Austria  – see www.tbu-austria.comand Ulrich Wiegel (Consulting Engineer, see I found the article very interesting and speaking frankly very close to my own perceptions about the difficulties in addressing climate change issues. It also fits a lot with my previous post

Please enjoy it (unfortunately this is just a two pages abstract of a very important article that is too long to be published in my blog – but I tried to keep the fruitful thoughts and key-messages of the authors).

The problem is not with waste, but with climate…-how perception influence behaviour

Both solid waste and greenhouse gases are “wastes” in a broad sense, one solid, the other gaseous. The first is perceived with our senses, the other not. Solid waste is accessible to all the senses: we see, feel, smell – and even hear it, once the garbage truck arrives. The essential greenhouse gases of methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide are outside our sensory capacities: invisible, odourless – and, moreover are disposed of at virtually zero cost, even allowing for the current European carbon trade system. We simply dump the gaseous garbage into the “air ocean” on the bottom of which we live.
About 250 kg of household and commercial garbage is generated per person per year. In addition, about the same amount of recyclable materials is separately collected, comprising: paper, glass, biowaste etc., altogether 500 kg of “waste” per person per year. The quantity of greenhouse gases (measured as CO2-equivalents, to which the various greenhouse gases are converted according to their relative impact) comes to about 10,000 kg of CO2-equivalents per person and year, or 10 tonnes, about 20 times the quantity of waste.
Although the green house management problem seems to be greater than the solid waste management problem, little attention has been laid on it.
Solid waste management became very quickly a major political and scientific issue in many countries worldwide, the last decades. In this sense, many technological achievements and policies have been implemented to minimize solid waste production and to limit adverse effects into the environment.
This quick response in the solid waste sector was a consequence of the following three factors: the negative impacts of improper waste treatment were quickly felt (e.g. groundwater pollution caused by dumpsites), and prompted action to be taken. Secondly, waste – through its sensory qualities – is present to some degree in everyone´s mind on a day-to-day basis – this increased the political priority to deal with it. Thirdly, the adoption of environmentally friendly waste treatment has enabled tangible environmental benefits to be quickly realised.
However, all these mechanisms do not apply to CO2-waste: damages occur only following considerable delay and are not locally connected to the source. This, together with the fact that CO2-waste cannot be perceived “sensorily”, has resulted in less intense countermeasures being taken.
It is clear that CO2-waste management depends on the existence of the problem in our perception. To be accustom this the following example is provided: If somebody throwing a noticeable piece of paper litter out their car window every two seconds for a minute, over one kilometre, resulting in 30 pieces of litter lying on the road, altogether maybe 150 g of waste that would be noticeable and annoying. If at the same time, the car has left behind 150 g CO2 over the one kilometre “on the road” via its exhaust that would not be noticeable and therefore not being annoying– so it does not exist in our perception.
On further reflection, if CO2 were solid, the greenhouse gases management problem would have already become a major issue some 80-100 years ago, with the rapid expansion of electricity production and industrialization. Surrounded by rising CO2-ash heaps from these activities, the notion to transport a human body weighing around 100 kg using a vehicle weighing more than 1,000 kg, thus a payload of less than 10 % of the total mass, resulting in more than 90 % energy loss, which is clearly too high as a proportion of energy inherent in the system, would have been promptly rejected.
We have after all direct experience of the banning of forms of energy consumption that produced atmospheric pollution which is obvious, we could see smell, and even taste it, and in terms of fatalities: in most of Europe in the middle of the last century laws were introduced to limit particulate atmospheric pollution (‘smog’) through smoke control. Within a few years people willingly gave up burning coal to heat their houses and water, because they could see both the problem and the benefits of action.
For these reasons CO2-waste management has been developed with considerable lower rates than the solid waste management sector. It is characteristic in the case of Austria that although a number of measures, introduced in a successive 10 years period, have already solved the waste ‘problem’ by nearly 100%, a reduction within 30 years of fossil-based greenhouse gas by 16% has only been announced.

Recycling is easy and makes us feel good – avoidance is hard and an annoyance

Another important difference between solid waste management and CO2-waste management is that the first is largely based on Recycling and the second is base on Avoidance. Recycling does not work with CO2-waste which final and only option is disposal-either by conventional dumping into the ‘air ocean’ or by innovative subterranean storage. So, a fundamental partial solution for reducing CO2-waste is avoidance and that means abstaining from consumption, which people are reluctant to do because they love convenience, and because they do not suffer enough immediately from the problem.
With over 100 years of increasing CO2 output, the unspoken assumption has been made that its disposal would not cause environmental damage. Until science could at long last agree that there would be any damage at all, technology and society developed into a state of enormous – because of its free-of-cost – CO2-waste production. The acknowledgement of the damage, and acceptance of the soon-to-be enforced CO2-levies will be, unlike for solid waste, clearly more difficult, as a) the damage is a future damage, is not clearly defined and not locally felt b) the existing social and economic system would be hit hard – one may imagine that all 10 tons CO2 per person per year would be charged per tonne analogous to waste treatment with say 100 € (which is the cost for one tonne of avoided CO2 for renewable energy technologies) and c) for this investment no reliable and auditable outcome can be assured.
At this point a philosophical consideration of the avoidance issue is necessary: Although technical innovations are important to avoid CO2-waste a society-wide ‘value change’ is rather critical to be achieved.
It is obvious that as humans – apart from the securing of our basic survival needs – we ultimately aim for one thing: to be happy (according to competent studies “happiness” is the least common human condition by the way, and not attainable by directly trying). Now, happiness is a condition that exists only in our minds and is generated in essence by ourselves and our emotional response to external influences.
In this direction ‘Low energy happiness generation behavior’ is consider a key factor leading to climate protection. This means that, if we can produce in ourselves the same level of happiness with reduced material and energy consumption, it can be referred to as climate friendly happiness. The initially noticeable satisfaction “loss” caused by abstention and effort is counterbalanced by the satisfaction “benefit” caused by the certainty of “doing the right thing”. This has already been achieved with waste. If we were able to imagine greenhouse gases “materialized” in solid form we would be able to create within us an increasingly greater sense of happiness from the initially unpleasant sacrifice associated with “doing without”.
On the other hand we realize that in the waste sector we have – with the participation of the broader community and developments in technology and organizational framework – been able to achieve something which, at the end of the seventies, was also unimaginable. In the area of climate protection, technology, while vitally important, will not provide the whole answer; the challenge remains to shift our philosophical basis and value set. Only then will meaningful and efficient outcomes be achievable.
The technical/scientific knowledge for implementing a climate-related change of values is available and is gathering momentum. It is now a priority to keep this change of values in our conscience, and to increase its perceived importance. In the area of climate protection, technology, while vitally important, will not provide the whole answer; the challenge remains to shift our philosophical basis and value set.”


1 Comment
  1. Jason Ken 9 years ago

    Enjoyable read indeed. At times, trash is much more than just trash and can be put to use. These days, companies like Everything Rubbish are rolling out innovative waste management techniques in which rubbish is disposed off in an extremely streamlined way which is also eco-friendly.

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