In order to save energy and resources, and to prevent waste from harming the environment, recycling is not enough. Cities should try to avoid waste production altogether, argue URBANET authors Carina Koop, Jennifer Schinkel, and Henning Wilts.
Currently, more than 50 per cent of the world’s population lives in cities. It is estimated that this proportion will rise to 70 per cent by 2050, with consequences on further industrial development and consumption patterns. Most likely, it will also lead to a steep increase in waste generation: A recent report by the World Bank concludes that without urgent action, global waste will increase by 70 per cent compared to current levels by 2050, often making traditional disposal methods insufficient and landfill sites inadequate.
The situation is even more critical where no appropriate disposal structures have been established, or waste is disposed of illegally. Poor disposal facilities affect the quality of life as well as the cityscape and lead to pollutant discharges into soil and water as well as emissions into the air. They can have a negative impact on the health of the inhabitants and eventually also decrease the economic development of cities. In order to improve and secure the quality of life for the citizens, cities need to create functional and sustainable structures. With regard to the waste system, this implies improving or implementing sustainable waste management systems where they are inadequate or do not exist.
We Need to Reduce Waste to Save Energy and Resources
The best solution from an environmental as well as socio-economic point of view is to avoid waste in the first place, as this minimises the need for energy and resources. Even countries and cities that already have highly developed waste management systems need to make an effort to avoid waste.
First studies show that, on the one hand, an enormous return potential can be found in the prevention of waste, which can be achieved by measures such as standardized date labelling or packaging adjustments. On the other hand, how much the ratio of costs and savings can differ depends on the respective measure. For instance, waste prevention can provide financial benefits. In a study from 2016 by ReFED, researchers calculated that an investment of US$18 billion in 27 food waste solutions could reduce food waste in the United States by 20 per cent, while generating US$100 billion of societal economic value.
Municipalities Play a Key Role for Waste Prevention and Waste Management
When trying to transform the waste management system in cities, the municipalities have an important role to play in the area of waste prevention. On the one hand, the municipality is an important provider and supplier of sewage and waste disposal services, in form of local public utilities and waste collection. On the other hand, it has to be considered as a waste producer itself. Municipalities can determine how waste is treated in administrative buildings and municipal real estate such as school buildings and kindergartens. With waste prevention measures or a suitable separation system, they can serve as good examples.
A first step could be simple measures such as using recycled paper, double-sided printing, no disposable dishes, and tap water instead of water from plastic bottles. A further step could be give-away shelves and repair cafes. In addition, municipalities can support innovative consumption patterns and business areas and thereby sensitise consumers to the issue of waste prevention and create market incentives for better product design. However, the responsibility lies not only with the municipality. Public and private authorities need to work together to ensure that waste is managed in a systematic manner and that its potential is fully exploited for the benefit of citizens, the economy, and the environment.
Zero Waste Cities
A city that has made waste prevention a priority is Kiel in Germany by setting itself the ambitious goal to become a “Zero Waste City”. Kiel intends to set up and implement concrete targets for waste reduction. It is planning to reduce packaging waste, promote reusable systems, and optimise the recovery chain. Information campaigns are rolled out to motivate citizens to take part in the measures. Waste prevention measures are set to be established in all areas of the city, such as households and leisure, companies, the administrative level, architecture and education.
Kiel’s overarching goal is to comprehensively transform the entire city. One specific idea to approach this goal is to regulate the city’s waste concept: the quantities of waste could be invoiced to motivate citizens to better separate their waste, or to avoid it in the first place. As a result, waste prevention would have a direct financial impact on citizens. Besides Kiel, cities around the world have announced that they want to become Zero Waste Cities. Well-known examples are San Francisco (USA), Vancouver (Canada), and Kamikatsu (Japan).
On-the-Ground Initiatives Offer Small-Scale Solutions for Waste Prevention
There are also many initiatives that implement waste prevention measures on a smaller scale and thus contribute to making their cities more sustainable and climate-friendly. For example, “botanoadopt®” takes care of giving orphaned houseplants a new home with adoptive parents, “RESTLOS GLÜCKLICH e.V.” wants to increase the appreciation of food by showing that vegetables which do not meet the norm still taste great. ReCup introduces a comprehensive deposit system for returnable cups in order to reduce the waste from to-go drinks.
Another example for waste prevention on the city level is the Brazilian city of Curitibas that has turned its waste management upside down. A municipal exchange system has been set up in the marginalised districts under the slogan “lixo que não é lixo” (garbage that is not garbage). People can separate their organic and non-organic recyclable waste, bring it to waste stations and exchange it for bus vouchers, food, and school books. That way, the systems links the topic of waste with social issues, and increases access to e.g. education and mobility for disadvantaged citizens.
The programme has also created new jobs in the waste management sector and significantly improved the cityscape, as there is hardly any waste left on the streets. This is an inspiring example because waste avoidance has not only reduced environmental pollution, but has also helped to improve social welfare.
In order to learn from such examples, a good understanding of the urban metabolism, i.e. the way and the reasons waste is generated in a specific city, is crucial: Cities are often incredibly different from each other, not only between continents or countries but often even within small regions. “Copy and paste” approaches do not work to prevent waste successfully in a given locality. Waste prevention system need to be carefully designed in close interaction with local stakeholders. Only then can a city tap into the potential to reduce waste, and to avoid it altogether in the long run.