How do you measure success in a world of multiple threads that don’t have a starting or stopping place? I was reminded of this at the recent Washington State Recycling Council’s recent conference in Wenatchee in a presentation by Cascadia Consulting Group’s Amity Lumper on Measuring Materials Management and a Presentation of the MRF Material Flow Study Report. I thought about it a good deal more as I rode the rails from Amsterdam to Den Hague to kick off the Netherland Consulate’s (Toronto) waste and wastewater management trade mission (#nlwastemission).
In North America, waste management waste diversion rates have been the measure of choice. This measure’s weaknesses have been weathered away to reveal its flaws. Waste diversion does not measure reduction nor does it accurately capture the changes in material composition (e.g. light weighting of plastic bottles). The measure of per capita kilograms disposal is a much clearer measure because it is simple. The calculation only requires knowing how many tonnes went to disposal and the relevant population.
Under the auspices of the circular economy, where we strive to create a closed loop system bereft of new virgin inputs and residual outputs the relevance of this measure becomes even clearer. The circular economy aspirationally strives for true zero waste to disposal, rather than the Zero Waste meme and benevolent misnomer that has proliferated in recent years, but may be ebbing. As an industry we naturally only measure the back end of the system. The circular economy begs us to measure the front end more forcefully.
Within the circular economy waste is considered a biological nutrient (as opposed to a technical one). In its purest sense this nutrient is feeding people. In its fullest sense it feeds the system and then again the people. By its nature food must be recreated from scratch every time. Food waste residuals need to stay within this closed loop to minimize if not eliminate external nutrient inputs (e.g. fertilizers) that must currently be imported into the system. There will be some argument from the agriculture sector that there are enough nutrients available and that external sources (i.e. fertilizer) are required. It should be noted that chemical fertilizers have not been with us for that long.
To expand our measures and add a broader sense of success we need to consider developing a measure to assess a reduction of inbound virgin materials used to grow the food we eat. This multi-threaded hydra will be difficult to not tangle because it originates from so many disparate materials and places. We could start by quantifying and then consolidating estimates of all of the organic waste that is recycled in a jurisdiction. This would be measured at the various organic waste processing facilities and would include the products that are reintroduced back into the system (whether that be compost, energy etc.). This measure, from a food perspective, would ultimately be expressed as the amount of recycled nutrient content (versus virgin nutrients) consumed on a per capita basis.
Ultimately a ratio could be developed to serve as an index of success (i.e. recycled nutrient materials/virgin nutrient materials). Any result greater than one would mean that we have tipped the balance in favour of recycled materials. The other measure of success would be how much we consume. The circular economy favours sustainable consumption whereas our current system is set up for infinite consumption.
The realization of the circular economy, in the developed world, would be a paradigm shift to consuming what we need rather than what we want and in such a way that the component parts of all that we consume stays within this closed system. For food that means equitably matching up what we need to eat with what we eat in a way that leaves no one hungry. It also means not letting any residual food waste escape to disposal. While the environmental inputs to food are lost when it becomes waste at least we are not adding insult to injury by throwing away its nutrients.
**Graphics adapted from “Dutch government policy on resources and waste” Ministry of Infrastructure & the Environment. September 2014