The Future of Waste Management is 3D: Decentralized, Decarbonized and Digitized

On the 3rd of May Cecilia Gentile publised at the italian journal La Repubblica an interview with Antonis Mavropoulos  in which the ISWA President discusses how waste management fits into the circular economy and what is needed for a feasible zero waste system. You can read the original interview in italian at this link

Why the prices for waste treatment and disposal are rising?

I think that there are four main drivers for the increasing costs of waste management.

First, the increasing complexity of the waste management systems and the need to organize source separation and many different collection systems for different waste streams, e.g. organic fraction, packaging waste, e-waste, white goods, etc. Second, the continuous increasing recycling targets. Recycling more drives the costs higher, although it delivers other important but non-monetary benefits, such as resource efficiency, reduction of carbon emissions and savings in landfill capacity. It’s good to keep in mind that no recycling program for municipal waste can cover more than 15-20% of its cost from selling recyclables. Third, the EU increases the need for environmental protection, putting higher targets for landfill diversion, which means less waste landfilled. Treating waste in industrial facilities reduces substantially the environmental impacts but increases the cost. Finally, many EU countries are applying special high taxes to landfill and incineration as a measure that will make recycling and recovery activities more economically feasible.

What is the future for Italy and Europe? 

As EU’s official policy is the shift towards a Circular Economy, I think that we must make clear that recycling is not Circular Economy but rather a resource recovery activity linked with waste management. So, the first priority is to push the manufacturers of products and materials to redesign the products extending their life-cycles, providing repair and reuse opportunities and making recyclability a key-criterion. If we can’t do it, no waste management and recycling system can resolve the problem. A good example is the recent EU decision about single use plastics: it clearly demonstrates that those single use plastics can’t be captured and recycled in an efficient way, so they must be wiped out of our systems because of the damage they create. I also believe that if we want to consider the long-term viability of the systems, we need to rethink the role of recycling and make a very clear analysis regarding the targets required, the relevant costs and the benefits involved. We need to do it now, because the continuous increase in recycling targets is meaningless without the emphasis in the recycling markets and the purity of materials recovered.

So, in a single phrase: a wasteless future goes through the change of the dominant industrial economy and the consumption patterns and not simply through the upgrade of the waste management system.

Is it really possible to arive to zero waste and how mauch time we need? 

Let me reply using similar questions. Is it possible to have zero car accidents? Is it possible to have zero impacts from a new airport or a new highway? Is it possible to have a 100% healthy population that do not need any hospitals? Is it possible to have electricity without energy losses? In all the questions the answer is no, but still we are planning and designing the systems trying to minimize the accidents, the impacts and the damages.  So, if by “zero waste” we mean that we plan system trying to reduce waste as much as possible, to recover most of the recyclable materials and minimize the residual waste that requires treatment and disposal, then I am sure that this is possible and in some places in Italy (and not only) it’s already happening. If by “zero waste” we mean a system that literally has no waste outputs and everything is recycled, then we are not talking based on science and evidence and we mislead the decision makers and the citizens. There is no waste management system in the world without a proper infrastructure for final disposal (incinerators and landfills) because there is always a residual stream – 20-50% at least – that can’t be recovered. In all the cases this is ignored, for example in Napoli, a serious health crisis it’s a matter of time.

In Italy, there are already many good examples that involve advanced recycling systems with great results. Studying those examples, especially in the North, it’s easy to see that a serious shift towards advanced recycling requires 5-15 years, and that the smaller the community, the easier the shift.

What kind of technologies are needed to arrive at zero waste?

The main thing is not technologies but communication. The first requirement is to design a system that will recover whatever can be recovered. I insist a lot on the need to develop recycling programs for the organic fraction and food waste programs at least for the restaurants and the food industry. Although it’s necessary to recycle other materials too, organic recycling is the only activity that provides a local closed loop that demonstrates the benefits of circular economy to the population. Then a massive communication campaign is required: talk to people, build trust, inform and make people aware of the recycling system, its costs and benefits and its practicalities. Remember, recycling is a human activity that requires a little bit extra energy and effort and small changes to daily habits – this will not happen automatically, it takes time, effort and continuous feedback to shift the behavior of most of the population. Finally, we have to avoid the usual mistake: in the name of recycling we ignore or delay or underestimate to plan and build the infrastructure required for the residual waste stream that is not possible to be recycled. And do not forget that you need a disposal facility too. Here technology plays an important role. If you use a very good Mechanical Biological Treatment and advanced recycling systems, then you can come to a residual stream of 20-35% of the waste that needs disposal. With incineration technologies and recycling, you can go even less, maybe to 10-15% of the initial waste stream, but certainly with a higher cost and a most industrialized and less flexible system. The final decision is always a result of social and political interactions and the affordability of the population to pay the relevant fees.

However, with the rise of the IND4.0 revolution, new opportunities are opening to redefine waste technologies and drive towards a more sustainable waste management. Cheap sensors and the IoT mean that the digitization of waste services can deliver fully customized services per material and end of life object. The miniaturization process goes on for several technologies allowing the emergence of small decentralize facilities like anaerobic digesters for apartments’ buildings or neighbourhood MRFs.The result of the digitization and the decentralization will be also a further decarbonization and reduction of the CO2 emissions.

In Rome, the situation is near to a disaster According to you, wyy the capital of Italy arrived at this point?

Well, as far as I know, Rome’s situation became much worst after the recent fires in MBT plants. A lot of people consider that this was the result of a sabotage. However, it is clear that the waste management system in Rome is not in accordance with its role as a global attraction and its history, nor with the know-how and expertise available in Italy and the Italian waste management industry. I would consider three main reasons for the problems. First, we say the quality of waste management in a city is a very good governance indicator. The opposite is also true, so we are talking about a governance failure in Rome. Second, it is clear that many politicians and officers do not want to face the elephant in the room: Rome requires a new sanitary landfill and treatment facilities. Recognizing this need means that you have to find the political courage to deliver this missing infrastructure. This is really difficult but if you ignore it, as it was ignored after the closure of Malagrota landfill, then the only solution is to pay a two to three times higher cost to move your waste in Italy or export it. There is no magic solution with the residual waste stream, it has to be treated and disposed of. Third, it seems to me that there is an ongoing erosion of citizens’ trust against the authorities involved in waste management. This makes things even worse, because it affects the present and the future of the recycling performance.  Unless there will be an immediate response to those problems, a serious crisis seems inevitable.

You can read the spanish versión at this link




Telephone: +(00)34 94 662 01 78

Las Mercedes, 8-1ºA
Getxo – 48930
Bizkaia (Spain)