No amount of technology is going to solve the world’s waste crisis

David Newman says developing countries especially must focus on basic waste management, to curb open dumping and clean up streets, before looking to sophisticated solutions

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 June, 2016, 4:10pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 June, 2016, 6:05pm

New technologies are changing the waste industry in many ways. An increasing array of new materials are entering our waste streams. Carbon fibre, for example, is being used to make cars, planes and bikes. When this material becomes mainstream, will our recycling systems be able to adapt quickly enough?

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Waste management systems worldwide got caught out when vast quantities of electronic waste suddenly required treatment, so we need to think now about recovering new materials.

Bioplastics will change the way some plastics are recycled. Are composting companies ready? And nanoparticles are already found in many products, from medicines to shampoos. How we deal with these in waste water streams is a matter of some concern for the environment and human health.

Product designers and companies jumping on new technology bandwagons need to look at the long-term impact of the materials they use.

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Collection and sorting systems will soon see the introduction of robotic machines to handle certain functions. What will happen when almost every piece of waste is traceable, once microchips are so cheap they can be fitted into everything? We will know in real time where that bottle, phone, chair or diaper came from, and where it is, both when being used and when discarded. This will be a revolution for collection and recycling systems.

Nevertheless, waste management today faces a real and growing emergency which technology cannot solve: billions of people still have no waste collection services, 70 per cent of all waste is dumped into our environment and some 20 million tonnes of plastics are floating into our oceans this year alone.

No amount of technology applications is going to resolve these emergencies. The basics of waste management are still as vital today as they ever have been: clean streets, ubiquitous collection, safe disposal and intelligent recycling.

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For developing countries, there is a greater need to get these basics right first rather than focus on sophisticated technologies.

Once you have ubiquitous collection, safe disposal and clean recycling, once the towns and cities are clean, open dumping and burning are stopped, then you can move on, and think about waste to energy and other issues.

At all levels, technology on its own is an entirely insufficient solution. It’s great to own a fridge or a microwave oven – but what use are they if you’ve got no electricity?

David Newman is president of the International Solid Waste Association and managing director of Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association (UK). He will be speaking on smart solutions to maximise the value of waste at the CleanEnviro Summit Singapore next month