This blog post was written for WasteAid by Heather Troutman in Accra, Ghana

Cities everywhere are beginning to have a hard time justifying recycling in purely economic terms. Providing the infrastructure and logistics to collect multiple streams, or the workforce or technology needed to separate commingled wastes are expensive. Unfortunately, right now, the market prices for virgin materials are close to and often lower than the costs needed to recycle. Governments and communities have to decide that the environmental and social benefits of recycling are worth paying for.

In reality, the true costs of producing many virgin materials, such as plastics, are not included in their price tag. These costs are externalized to the rest of society. The costs of depleting crude oil reserves, the costs of carbon emissions and climate change, the costs of Sulphur and particulate matter and the lung cancer these emissions cause; these costs are not paid by manufacturers. They are paid for by the citizens who get sick, by vulnerable people that lose their homes and everything that they own in a massive storm.

These realities become even more daunting to overcome in cities that are still struggling to just collect all of the waste that is generated, or to build a sanitary landfill that does not pollute the environment and the people living around it – the people drinking from the groundwater it contaminates. For these cities, it seems logical to first worry about getting enough trucks to collect all of the waste and a place to dump it before worrying about buying a bunch of fancy equipment to recycle. This is logical.

But, if we think about all of the resources that have gone into making any item that eventually becomes trash we should ask ourselves if we can recover any of that value, rather than paying money to just dump it somewhere, especially if the act of dumping it is going to create more costs that all of society has to chip in to pay with the price of their health.

Labadi Beach, Accra's most pristine beach - seriously.

Labadi Beach, Accra’s most pristine beach – seriously.

Think of a banana peel. How much water did the tree require? How did it get the water? Did someone have to carry it in a bucket, or build a water line? How much energy went into that process? How much energy was needed to power the people that took care of that tree, to drive those bananas to the market? Now, how much energy and water is left in that banana peel once the banana has been eaten? Plenty! Not only is it full of carbon that will be released as methane – either as a greenhouse gas or a renewable energy, depending on if we utilize it – but it is also full of micro- and macronutrients that are essential for soil health.

If we just throw it into a landfill it becomes a climate pollutant that is twenty times more effective at changing our climate than carbon dioxide, and a soil and water pollutant as is chemically reacts with other compounds released from papers, metals and plastics. If we decide to utilize this material, there are a number of ways that we can recover the stored energy, water and nutrients, without producing more pollutants. We can turn it into bio-char that can be used for cooking and boiling water. We can compost it and put fertile soil back on our depleted fields. We can digest it anaerobically and capture the gas for renewable energy while also producing clean water and compost for our crops.

Which solution is best depends on the unique characteristics of the city: the infrastructure, the policies, the tax base, changes in urban demographics, the composition of the waste streams, the density, the culture, peoples’ attitudes towards waste and sense of civic duty. People’s wastes are as diverse as our skin types. It depends on what you eat, how much time you spend outdoors or inside, what types of products you use.

Each of us learn our bodies and which soaps and creams and routines and even diet keep our skin the way we like it. It isn’t complex, it just requires attention and thought. Managing our wastes in a way that optimizes resource efficiency and minimizes costs is the same. It requires that we become informed about the characteristics of our cities and our wastes, and we learn about the various technologies and management processes available, and then work together as a community to create a customized solution that fits best to you.

From the banana peel example, now think about plastics. They start as crude oil, requiring hundreds of millions of years to form, then millions of dollars in investments to find it and drill it out of the ground, transport it all over the world, refine it in immense industrial complexes and then mix it with likely dozens of chemical additives, all of which required similar or exceeding levels of complexity to produce. These virgin plastic pellets are then shipped all over the world and then again sent through massive production facilities to make the final products that we all bring home to throw away. 40 percent of all plastics produced are used to make packaging, which becomes trash as soon as the intended product has been opened or used.

It is hard to comprehend that such a globalized and sophisticated process is cheaper than paying for people and trucks to sort out plastics from the waste stream and recycle them back into pellets for new products. But, this is the reality. Understanding this is the fundamental step into understanding why we have to begin thinking more creatively about what recycling means: what the process could be and what is the real value, including all the invisible environmental and social costs.

Why is it that virgin plastics are cost competitive with recycled plastics? Is it because most governments subsidize crude oil and petrochemicals? Is it because the market for recycled plastics is much more narrow than the market for virgin plastics because of toxicity concerns arising over thousands of plastic additives mixing together and reacting during the recycling process?

While the former questions are complex and opaque, buried beneath intertwining systems, understanding the market value of recycled plastics versus virgin plastics is not. This data is published by multiple sources several times in the month and tracked for the past two decades.

Designing a sustainable recycling system for plastics, or any other material, could mean looking for new, more secure markets for secondary plastics. Can these materials be valuable in other ways than just turning them back into pellets to down-cycle them into another plastic product?

To answer this less complex yet more esoteric question, we can investigate the innate properties of any given plastic grade or product application. Are these properties valuable for other uses? A researcher in India found that plastic performs better than bitumen as a binder in road construction.

Engineers in Ghana found plastics to perform better than cement in concrete as a binder. Architects all over the world are using wastes as load-bearing building materials and insulation. These building are cheaper and faster to build and superior at regulating indoor temperatures passively.

Waste production occurs at the community level; so does resource efficiency and material recovery. If some other city’s conventional recycling system doesn’t work in your city’s context does that directly mean that it is impossible to recover the resources embedded in your wastes? I don’t think so. I think it means that it is time to get together, to get creative and explore superior options.

Recycling in itself is not necessarily always the best option; at least, not conventional recycling in the way we often think about it. Resource stewardship, the complete utilization of potential benefits, is an end-point that will always be rewarding, regardless the global market price of secondary commodities.

Heather Troutman is studying an M.Sc. in Resource Efficiency in Architecture and Planning at HafenCity University Hamburg.

 

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