Plastic pollution is the 21st century's most concerning environmental issue. 2018 seen numerous reports on the unparalleled levels of microplastics found in the sea and the life-threatening damage they’ve caused to animals. It’s on our minds now more than ever.
For the sake of clarity,
“plastic pollution involves the accumulation of plastic products in the environment that adversely affects wildlife, habitat or humans” (SaveEarth).
The problem is that plastic never goes away:
“Plastic is a durable material made to last forever, yet 33 percent of it is used once and then discarded. Plastic cannot biodegrade; it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces (plasticpollutioncoalition.org).”
An estimated 8 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year. By 2050, this number will rise to 60 tons arriving at sea per minute.
In 1974 the global average per capita plastic consumption was 2kg. Today, it’s 43kg! That’s a frightening 2,050% increase in the last 44 years.
Plastic and waste are devastating our environment. It’s a big problem to solve, but small initiatives, like efficient waste management in organizations, help sustain our environment.
Many industrial processes produce hazardous waste. For example, in the heavy construction industry, waste includes asphalt wastes (widely recycled), petroleum distillates, and used oil. Industries generating the most hazardous waste are chemical manufacturing, paint manufacturing and paper manufacturing.
The most cost-effective way to minimize waste is to not initially generate it. However, many businesses are not willing to go down this road. Therefore, the next option is pollution minimization: reducing and reusing company waste.
Start re-evaluating waste management
Organizations must look for ways to reuse and recycle materials, decreasing waste in landfill. Asking the following questions:
- How much waste do we generate?
- How can we generate less waste?
- Reuse or recycle more?
- Buy and/or sell used materials?
- Utilize materials and equipment more efficiently?
- What do the legislation/policies say?
Companies can reduce waste in many ways. One is by using fewer and more sustainable materials for packaging. Reducing excess packaging is a simple option.
An efficient waste management system helps businesses:
- maximize resources
- reduces waste disposal costs
- meet environmental obligations.
Efficient waste management has huge economic benefits. Rather than simply reacting to waste, manufacturers should utilize it.
Switching to materials management
As science advances, sustainability onus will shift to prevention. David Stead, the Principal and Vice President of RRS has put it well:
“Stop Thinking Waste Management – Think Sustainable Materials Management”.
Include waste management in the materials management strategy. This means that by looking into what materials can be bought (used or new), what materials can be reused within the organization, what materials can be sold to another company for reuse, and what materials can be recycled and sorted, an organization can better manage the cycle and reduce the waste they generate.
If businesses focus too much on achieving the requirements for diversion from landfills, sending poorly sorted materials towards recycling, these might eventually end up in landfill anyway (contaminating their batch of recyclables in the process).
So, by detecting opportunities to reuse, recycle and recover materials before they are selected for operations, organizations can make use of their resources and minimize the amount of waste they generate.
The economic benefits of waste management
It goes without saying that investing in good waste management benefits the environment. However, in addition to this, having an effective waste management plan is also a cost-efficient solution. General Motors generated $1 billion from recycling and reusing waste streams. In 2015, 53% of the company’s manufacturing operations and 41 of nonmanufacturing operations were landfill-free!
Waste management can result in sustainable and cost-efficient processes because:
- Materials are cheaper when they’re bought used;
- Finding points for reuse will reduce the need to buy new materials;
- And the costs of waste disposal will be lower if less waste leaves the premises.
Such economic benefits are a powerful tool when translating the need for an updated waste management strategy to the board.
How waste management software can help
Waste management software regularly falls under the responsibility of Environmental Management. The software allows businesses to track and report on both hazardous and non-hazardous waste, thus helping to meet compliance with environmental regulations.
Waste management software helps businesses to minimize the damaging impact of hazardous waste on the environment by enabling them to optimize the way in which waste is recovered, reused, stored, transported and disposed. In addition to this, the system will help to meet compliance with standards such as and will keep your organization up to date on your performance and objectives.
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Local and global initiatives
It is sometimes difficult to get your head around the impact your organization’s waste management efforts can have on our globe. To help you understand how you can make a difference, let’s look at some successful initiatives and developments that demonstrate the power of local efforts.
There are means by which governments, communities, and organizations can reduce the amount of waste going to landfill. With efficient waste management solutions and policies in place, its damaging impact to our environment can be reduced; for example, in 2016, Mexico recycled 57% of the PET plastic it produced (up from 9% in 2002), making it the unlikely leading country globally for recycling PET.
In 2016, France became the first country to prohibit supermarkets to throw away unused food. France is not the country that wastes the least food, however, they have become an example to follow. According to a report by Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition Foundation (BCFN), the French waste 234 pounds of food per person per year, whereas in the U.S. the same number is 430 pounds (csmonitor.com).
In Sweden, thousands of homes are being heated by waste incineration. In fact, Sweden had to start importing waste from other countries because they ran out of burnable waste to power the incinerators. In case they run out of burnable waste again, they will use biofuels to cover the gap (mnn.com).
Also, individual companies such as Tetra Pak have made steps to reduce their environmental footprint on the globe. The company is developing a paper straw for its portion-sized carton packages, and is using renewable materials and recyclable paperboard in their packaging. Why don’t you float this idea at your organization?
The future solution for plastic recycling?
One of the latest breakthroughs in plastic recycling has been the plastic eating enzyme discovered in Japan. The enzyme is produced by a bug – which may set alarm bells ringing for zombie apocalypse movie fanatics, but scientists are hoping that this enzyme could be safely used to break down PET, the plastic used for water bottles, back into its original component. In this state it would be much easier to recycle back into plastic: currently clear plastic bottles can only be turned into opaque fibres, whereas with this new biotechnology clear plastic bottles can become, again, clear plastic bottles.
It is likely that companies continue to buy virgin PET because of its low price, and with 1 million plastic bottles sold each minute, this hungry enzyme could be hugely beneficial in reducing our plastic waste.
Waste as global business
Recycling has been around for thousands of years, and during World War II, recycling increased for economic reasons and the lack of materials. However, it was in the 1970s that recycling centres were established and the universal symbol for recycling was introduced. Since then, the recycling industry has gone global.
In low-income countries most spend goes towards waste collection whereas in high-income countries the focus is on disposal. Urban areas produce the most waste, and according to a report by the World Bank, it’s the increasing urbanization in developing countries like India that will drive the increase in global solid waste.
So, despite the great initiatives and innovative solutions, the numbers that show high-income countries improving and lowering their environmental footprint can be deceiving. By outsourcing their production and manufacturing to developing economies, the problem is basically moved to another location (Guardian). As they say: out of sight, out of mind. Whatever the solution, it has to be sustainable and affordable in every geography.
China and the business of foreign garbage
China has been affected by the global waste business. In 2016, China took in more than half of the world’s exports of scrap copper and waste paper. The recycled waste has been a way for China to get raw materials cheaply; however, the imported recyclable materials tend to be dirty, badly sorted and/or may be contaminated with hazardous substances such as lead or mercury. In 2017, China notified the World Trade Organization (WTO) that it would stop taking in foreign garbage.
The U.S. and Japan are the biggest sources of plastic waste, with both countries accounting for around 10% of volume each.
There are laws and regulations that enforce the proper management of waste and the minimization of its risks to the environment. The main aim of environmental and waste legislations is to help reduce environmental damage, such has been achieved in Mexico. However, businesses have their own objectives which don’t always necessarily address waste management issues, so if there are laws put in place companies may be more inclined to change their processes to comply.
Setting laws is out with the average Environmental Manager’s hands, but don’t forget you are also an individual; if pressure is kept up on governments to legislate sustainability, we’ve already seen what can be achieved. For example, the UK government recently took the step of banning microbead plastics in products such as face wash and are facing strengthened calls from the TV-viewing public for more action after the award-winning documentary Blue Planet II highlighted the severe damage that plastics are causing to marine life.
For laws and policies to work, they must encourage the desired behaviors. In addition, appropriate infrastructure (waste collection etc) is needed to make it easier for companies to follow best practice.
In the UK, there are laws around the disposal of business and commercial waste.
In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates household, industrial, manufacturing, and commercial solid and hazardous wastes under the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).
Other bodies that enforce and develop regulations for the protection of our environment and health are the Carbon Trust (an independent, expert partner of leading organizations around the world) and The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that promotes policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world.
At the time of the initiation of the Earth Day in the 1970s, recycling centres and the universal symbol for recycling (we all know it!) were introduced. Since then the global consumption has increased to unprecedented levels, threatening our environment. Urbanization and the use of non-renewable materials is contributing to global climate change, with solid waste being a major source for greenhouse gases.
Many industrial processes generate hazardous waste, which is why organizations carry a huge responsibility, and with the choices they make, they can play a significant role in the future of our planet.
Waste management is not only environmentally beneficial, but also cost-efficient; and being recognized as a sustainable/green organization is good for a company’s reputation. With the help of waste management software businesses can track and report on waste movements, meet environmental obligations, and make the most of their materials.
Every positive initiative helps to sustain the environment, no matter how small, and with local infrastructure supporting businesses’ efforts sustainable management of waste can become the norm.
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