Our modern industrial society produces increasing amounts of waste. Yet many of these wastes might either contain useful materials (perhaps metals or nutrients) or could themselves be used as an input for another process (maybe as a fuel or raw material). Recovering these resources from wastes is an important part of waste management and normally involves collecting wastes from an industrial process, organisation or community and then carrying out sorting, reprocessing, recycling or incineration. All these activities have benefits and impacts in many different ways, for example:
- the economy: benefits come from selling the recovered materials, while the impacts are the costs of collection, processing etc;
- our society: providing reprocessing jobs is a benefit, at the cost of harsh rules on rubbish collection;
- the environment: preventing harmful materials from being dumped helps the environment, but reprocessing may involve carbon emissions or use of more resources;
- our health: keeping the streets clean prevents disease, but some recycling jobs may be dangerous.
When choosing which resource recovery system is best, it is difficult to weigh up all these factors. Often, we simply ‘bolt on’ a piece of technology to the end of the process, worrying mainly whether it is cost-effective and often assuming that because we are recovering resources, the environmental impact is automatically good. But many recovery systems have ‘hidden’ impacts that require complex analysis to untangle. Studies have shown that in some cases, collection and recycling of plastic bottles produces more carbon dioxide and uses more resources than simply making new bottles; a hidden environmental impact. In fact, much of our plastic waste is exported to the Far East, where it is reprocessed by workers in unhealthy conditions paid very poor wages; a hidden social and health impact. Until we have a method for weighing up all these factors, poor decisions driven by faith in simplistic ideas such as ‘the waste heirarchy’ will continue to be made.
In the C-VORR project, we will bring together scientists, engineers, mathematicians and economists to help build this method. Working with our industry partners and international experts, we will look at processes that produce waste; not just at the ‘end of the pipe’ , but upstream and downstream throughout the whole system. We will examine the flows of materials through these systems and see how their ‘complex value’ – the balance of their economic, social, environmental and health benefits and impacts – changes as we adjust the system. This will allow us to identify the adjustments – perhaps a change in the way a product is made, or a new recycling process, or using the waste from one system as the input to another – that give us the best value overall; not just in terms of money, but also in terms of the effect on our health, happiness and environment. To do this, we will need to combine scientific and engineering methods that measure flows with ways of measuring benefits and impacts, checking how these vary with time and space. We will have to completely redefine value, using unorthodox economic thinking to help us.
If we get this right, then we can completely change the way that we look at recovering resource from waste, and instead talk about preventing value from being dissipated into waste in the first place. We will have a tool that will not only let us decide which recovery technology – or change to the process – is best for society and the environment, but that can also identify business opportunities to recover previous hidden value. It will allow us to move away from simplistic ideas about recycling and reprocessing that may have unintended consequences, and give us all a more sophisticated understanding of how to best preserve our scarce resources, our precious environment and the quality of not just our lives but those connected to us; in this globalised world, that’s everyone.