A recurring piece of advice about waste that I give to businesses and members of the public is that “the waste you can’t see often has a greater impact than the waste you can”. It’s a message that needs explaining (so bear with me) but it’s important because it helps to show the true nature of things, and how often do we get to see that? The phenomenon is known by waste experts as “the iceberg effect”, which is an obvious analogy: more of an iceberg lurks ominously beneath the water’s surface than sits proudly above it.
Watch out for the hidden impacts...
But what do we mean by “waste you can’t see?” The answer, as with most things, depends on your perspective about what matters. This is because disposing of waste encompasses a huge number of environmental, social and other factors and any or all of these could be perceived as negative depending on who’s involved. I told you it needed explaining.
Let’s look at some of the main factors:
Environmental / Social
Energy – it’s obvious but well worth stating that disposing of materials as waste involves huge amounts of energy. Mining the earth to extract materials; producing and transporting materials and their packaging; storing them and finally transporting the unused or leftover materials to landfill (or for that matter a recycling plant) all takes energy. When you see the carbon footprint on the label of a product in the supermarket, which is increasingly common, it generally looks at the embodied energy of an item (i.e. the energy required over its lifetime) which is the main reason why fresh orange juice has a higher overall footprint impact than ambient (aka long-life) – put simply the former requires a fridge. Here is an example of the footprint of a bag of crisps, showing the various stages of production and consumption. The key point with regards waste is that it is clearly more of a problem if we waste materials that could have been used (or reused) because the embodied energy to make new items is proportionally massive.
Water – An amazing amount of water is used in every single item we use. Again, the term “embodied” crops up because we need to consider the water involved throughout a product’s life-cycle, not just in its end use. Embodied water is also commonly referred to as “virtual water” although it is, of course, very real and has to come from somewhere. A fascinating water calculator of common items was produced by the BBC recently which shows, for example, that a chicken breast contains 683 litres of embodied water! So, if you don’t finish your dinner tonight and throw some chicken away, the waste also contains a proportion of this embodied water. I dread to think how much embodied water is connected to everything deposited in an average landfill site, but it’s safe to say that the volumes involved would be far greater than the waste itself. It’s just that we can’t see it. Other examples include nearly 11,000 litres of water for a pair of jeans.
The Natural Environment – In other words, the nice bits of where we live like forests, green areas, natural habitats etc. These are areas we lose whenever a landfill site or quarry is put there or when a river is polluted or trees chopped down. Equally, we lose part of our natural environment whenever someone decides to put, for example, a bauxite quarry nearby. Admittedly this is more likely to happen if we live in Vietnam or Guinea than Scotland, but you get the idea.
Quality of Life – This is a difficult one to quantify but there is a certain sense of pride for a clean and tidy area which we lose when waste is scattered about. For some people, litter and waste regularly tops the list of things that bother them. So their life is genuinely affected by other people’s waste.
Other Hidden Impacts – A hidden effect of landfilled organic waste is that it will emit methane as it breaks down in landfill which is a highly potent greenhouse gas. It’s a big reason for trying to avoid organic waste in landfill and supports the argument for composting waste. Another hidden impact is the potential for pollution when chemicals from products and packaging escape into the surrounding environment.
If you own or manage a business what matters most is likely to be money, so wasting money is something you would most try to avoid. Coupled with this is wasted time because for most businesses the old adage holds true that time equals money. Disposing of waste has many costs associated with it over and above the invoice you receive from your waste service provider. In fact, it is estimated that the actual cost is 10 times higher than these upfront, obvious costs! Here are just some of the reasons for this:
- Over-buying – the cost of buying too many materials in the first place is wasted money. A lot of what businesses throw out is actually unused or poorly used materials, particularly in some industries, like retail or catering.
- Time – the staff time involved with emptying bins is a significant factor for some industries.
So what can be done to minimise these impacts? Fortunately, quite a lot. If you buy recycled products or products with recycled packaging then you minimise the embodied impacts because you remove the need to mine the earth for materials, which is one of the most energy intensive parts of producing materials. If you buy products produced locally then you help to remove even more of the energy involved (transportation) and also the amount of water used (stats show that local products tend to involve less water than those imported, for a variety of reasons.
Above all, if you can reduce the amount you buy you will necessarily reduce the waste created as well as minimise all the impacts mentioned above.
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