Consumers and chain or waste management
We asked The Father of Waste Hierarchy, Ad Lansink, to write his opinion about the future of Waste Hierarchy in relation to consumers.
Consumers and chain or waste management 1
Author: by Ad Lansink
Consumers play a crucial role in the management of the waste or material chain. They decide on the purchase and disposal of products and define the use and the lifespan of products. The way consumers experience any of the links is important. When purchasing products questions arise as: is acquisition necessary for reasons of employment, livelihood or recreation? Is it a rational or emotional decision? Has the buyer sufficient knowledge and understanding of the way products function? Is he informed about aspects of sustainability? What is the influence of friends or advertising? The answers to these questions provide a varied picture. But it is also clear that the decision on the purchase, use, and disposal determines the way in which society deals with sustainability. The gradual erosion of that concept, beyond environment and climate, in no way, diminishes responsibility for the careful management of resources and materials. The role of consumers also increases by reverse logistics, even directly to manufacturers and distributors in the case of lease constructions.
Figure 16.1: Consumers as chain manager (Scheme based on ‘The product and packaging sustainability chain as developed by INCPEN)2
Involvement of consumers in three links of the product chain – use, reuse and disposal – and the impact on the production link explains the responsibility of consumers in the waste management chain. Consumer responsibility increases at a higher level when they transition from ownership to lease concepts becomes important. However, the operational translation differs from the producer’s responsibility, not regarding the municipal obligation to collect separately, but still in the difficult field of consumer behavior. The responsibility of the consumer-citizen to prevent waste and to enable sound waste management is harder to enforce than the take-back obligation of producers. That it is very difficult to control litter illustrates the various responsibilities of consumers and producers. The consumer is responsible, but the blame is also put on the industry. The government can point consumers at their responsibility through:
- Legal duty of care, which is transformed into local regulations;
- Financial policy as disposal fees, contributions for recycling or deposits;
- Communication tools to encourage environmentally conscious behaviour.
Practical experience learns, that communication instruments and a duty to care should be sufficient. Nevertheless, the litter problem remains actual. Most citizens are in favor of a separate collection of household waste, especially if sufficient logistical support is offered, or a financial benefit can be achieved. On the other hand, influence on consumption is difficult to control. The same is true for the behavior of individuals, especially outdoors.
Figure 16.2: Outdoors litter (Photo: Pascal Vyncke – www.seniorennet.be)
Perspectives for consumers
Exemplary function and communication are essential, especially regarding properties, operation and use of products and related services. On purchasing and using goods, different facets must be discussed:
- First, the question of whether the product or service is necessary. Food is essential, stimulants are not or at least less so. For many products, the need is arbitrary;
- In how far are the products and the use of options known? This is often critical to the long run and the (possible) use of energy;
- The information available from the manufacturer to be able to use the product, clearing jams, or replace parts. Therefore, labeling is an important tool;
- The funds available for the purchase and use of a product. A bicycle needs a different regime than a car, musical instruments another approach than kitchen appliances;
- The sustainability, especially in investments, of which the material and sometimes intangible value is established (art, luxury consumer goods, home);
- The possibility of recycling the product or their components or materials after stopping to use them, even after any recycling.
Food necessarily belongs to the product category with a short lifetime. This also applies to alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. While glass containers sometimes have multiple-use, in many cases the factor also applies for molding of food products from the one-time use, and thus the short life span. Other home products, and product categories used in business as well, have a long lifespan: furniture, electrical and electronic appliances, refrigeration equipment, washing machines, computers. In that case, the usage concerns the question of reuse and recovery after the use phase, but also the lifespan (in business terms: (depreciation), operation in general and energy particularly. Consumers are relying mainly on:
- Their own experience, whether shared with other users. Striking is that even energy companies provide their customers with information on energy savings;
- General or special sources of information, especially the government or independent bodies;
- Municipal sources, which are particularly aimed at saving energy and the products disposal phase.
Consumers as pacesetter for source separation
The logistical possibilities offered by the municipal authorities through their collection, whether privatized companies or citizens and businesses, largely determine the outcome of waste collection and separation. Although financial incentives, through the pricing policy may positively affect environmental awareness, many consumers are still sensitive to factors that underlie the duty of care: hygiene, safety, quality of the environment, and – by the threat of climate change and resource shortages – the careful use of energy and raw materials. The unexpected success of the separate collection of plastic packaging is a clear signal from and to citizens and businesses who appreciate the consumer responsibility. Though some of the municipalities still opt for post-separation, the argument that source separation is almost always preferable to post-separation remains valid. For producers, quality and thus the market price of recovered materials is a decisive factor. That literally and figuratively source separation has still a world to win, is shown by the example of the recycling of cans.
Being wise with waste
The importance of consumer behavior also becomes clear through the special attention it receives in European waste policy documents. The paper ‘Being wise with waste’3 starts with a short explanation of the life-cycle approach, followed by a clear exposition of the well-known steps of the waste hierarchy. Following, ten tips are presented, in which consumers are urged to think twice before buying goods and before throwing away used products. Packaging, food, clothing, and batteries are the main products on that list. But the first steps of the waste hierarchy are also mentioned in the commendable, even universal list, which underlines the important function of consumers in sustainable chain management. (Table 16.1)
Table 16.1 EC Recommendations: Think before you buy and throw
Think – Before you buy
- Is the product recycled or recyclable? This will reduce the environmental impact as a new product has not had to be made from raw material
- Avoid packaging waste: food packaged into separate compartments or presented as a mini-kit is not only more expensive but also produces more waste.
- Buy the amount of fresh food you will use and enjoy your leftovers by turning them into exciting new dishes.
- Use reusable, high-quality batteries which last longer and produce less waste. Spent batteries in the household rubbish contain harmful chemicals. Collect them separately.
- Reusable products are better than disposables such as paper napkins, plastic razors and plastic cups which use more resources and energy than their reusable counterparts and quickly end up in landfill.
Think – Before you throw
- Old clothing has all sorts of innovative uses. As well as raising money for charity, clothing can also be shredded and turned into packaging, insulation or raw material for textiles.
- Paint and other waste can be taken to a specialized recycling center. If you do not have access to one then let the paint dry, add sawdust or cat litter, and place it in the dustbin.
- Non-meat kitchen scraps can become fertile soil. Build a compost bin either in your garden or even a small one in your house.
- Recyclable glass can be taken to your local bottle bank, but do not leave it in your car until your next trip as the added weight will increase both fuel use and emissions.
- If you cannot give away or sell your old furniture, recycle it. Check if your local authority collects furniture for recycling or there are charities in your area that will be happy to take it off your hands.
1 Prepublication of a subchapter from Challenging Changes – Connecting Waste Hierarcy and Circular Economy. This book will be published in October 2017
2 INCPEN: The industry Council for Research on Packaging and the Environment, Factsheet: The Life of Packaging, with special attention for consumers and politicians, www.incpen.org
3 European Commission: Being wise with waste: the EU’s approach to waste management, Brussel, (2010), ISBN 978-92-79-14297-0
About Ad Lansink
Ad Lansink is a former Dutch politician on behalf of the CDA from 1977 to 1998. Ad Lansink is international recognized for making the original waste hierarchy or ‘Lansink’s Ladder‘ and is often named ‘Father of waste hierarchy‘.
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By Recycling.com/ 17 July 2017