Waste is no longer seen as merely a by-product of economic activity. Instead, waste is increasingly understood as a driver of economic activity, and one that has the capacity to facilitate progress towards some of the world’s greatest challenges, including economic growth, renewable energy and employment.
This conceptual and actual shift in society’s understanding of waste is indicative of a global uptake of the green economy by more than 60 countries, which positions waste as a resource to be managed in such a way that it can be continually fed back into a restorative and regenerative system. Making a transition to a green economy may bring significant opportunities and advantages to a country, and progression towards the green economy is seen as essential for shaping a sustainable and responsible society.
Sustainable waste management is seen as a ‘must’ for a prosperous economy.
Waste is becoming a priority in public and private policy, and strategies in the UAE, UK, Australia, Sweden, Japan, Egypt and the Philippines demonstrate the breadth of measures that can be taken by sectors, and the extensive opportunities that become available as a consequence.
Holistic application of the circular economy at the national level presents extensive opportunity for sustainable economic growth by generating employment, stimulating innovation, and preserving the environment’s capacity to provide goods and services. Targeted and discrete waste management strategies are seen to be effective in alleviating many local and small scale challenges and can lead to developing a world specialism within waste management.
Global society is undergoing an unprecedented transition which, while solving many challenges, is fostering new ones. The global population is projected to increase from 7.3 to 9 billion by 2050 and 11 billion by the end of the century. With population growth comes an increase in demand for resources, but with the world’s average ecological footprint – a measure of human demand for natural capital in contrast with the planet’s ecological capacity – at 2.6gha (global hectare) and Earth’s total bio-capacity at 1.7gha, society is consuming natural resources at a rapidly unsustainable rate.
Waste is produced at every stage of the supply chain, whether that be energy, water, organic or non-organic waste, and is inextricably tied to production and consumption patterns.
With the estimated three billion new middle-class consumers expected to emerge over the coming decades, demand of goods and services, and in particular, energy-intensive ones such as high protein diets and material goods, will rise, increasing the generation of waste exponentially. In 2010 alone, global society used about 50% more natural resources than the planet could regenerate, indicating the extent of the deficit within which society is living.
Developing strategies towards greening the waste sector may include:
- Constructing infrastructure and application of the 3R principles (reduce, reuse, recycle)
- Resource conservation, which involves minimizing resource consumption
- Waste reduction through optimization strategies
- Waste collection, segregation and treatment
- Energy recovery, which harnesses residual energy from waste
- Landfill avoidance, which conserves land and minimizes contamination
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