Landfills are like Telephone poles: How the Circular Economy will allow low-income countries to leapfrog waste management
McKinsey & Company and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimate in their report, The New Plastics Economy, that 95% of the value of global plastic packaging material, worth $80-120 billion annually, is lost. This huge sum of money is being buried in the ground or swept out to sea.
The vision of this report – a global economy in which plastics never become waste – is bold and has the potential to bring transformative change to the entire world. I believe it will be low-income countries that lead the way to this new plastics economy.
The developed world, especially the United States of America, is notoriously inefficient, illogical, and wasteful when it comes to the management of our waste. We spend millions of dollars transporting trash from one place to another. Our recycling rates are dismal. We pay 10-40% of the retail price of a good to cover the cost of packaging that we immediately throw out. Even the name ‘waste management’ is misleading. It implies that our trash is useless and it needs to be managed. In some cases this is true – chemo waste, for example, is some nasty stuff – let’s manage that. But plastic packaging is not waste. It is a raw material. It’s a resource that we bury in the ground, while simultaneously drilling deep into other parts of the ground for oil so that we can make more virgin plastic, which we’ll use once before burying in the ground again. It’s so ridiculous it’s almost laughable. This data visualisation that depicts the growth of landfills across our country is startling:
Single stream recycling isn’t much better than landfills. It results in low-quality recycled content, requires expensive infrastructure to separate it, and encourages the self-fulfilling prophecy that Americans are too lazy to separate anything and therefore we must make recycling as easy as possible. Assuming bad behaviour is not an effective way to change habits. The apathy our country can afford around recycling is enormous.
This is why low-income countries are going to leapfrog us into the circular economy. Just like telephone poles don’t exist in places that never had landlines and instead went straight to cell phones, landfills are archaic and outdated infrastructure that low-income countries won’t have to invest in. I predict that they will directly implement more innovative solutions to ensure that resources stay useful.
In America, we are so far removed from our waste that we never have to think about it for longer than it takes us to bring it to the curb once a week. Do you know where your trash goes? Do you know where the closest materials recovery facility is to you? In America, garbage is out of sight and out of mind.
In places like Haiti, there isn’t the infrastructure or the money to move trash around for hundreds of miles to reach a landfill. In fact, there are only a few dumps for the entire country. There is no municipal recycling or single stream vs. separated. When you are left to deal with your own waste, you tend to give food scraps to animals, burn it, or throw it down a ravine away from your home. The buildup of waste contributes to an increase of communicable diseases, slum mentality, and harms ecosystems. Solutions for waste in these places are needed now. There isn’t time to wait for the government to find funding for a fleet of garbage trucks or to build landfills. Juxtapose this with a population that needs income opportunities and you have the motivation necessary to change behaviour and habits.
When the Thread team began working in Haiti, recycling was a foreign concept. It has been amazing to see how much easier it is to create a cultural shift around recycling in a place that had no preconceived notions of what recycling means. In Haiti, plastic = money. It’s not recycling, it’s livelihood. It is a product. If the market demands that plastic to be separated, or cleaned in a certain way, or to have labels or caps removed before being sold, that happens.
You encounter bias against recycled content in production in industrialised countries. Thread’s production team has had to negotiate and persuade vendors to work with 100% post-consumer recycled content. Virgin material is easier, but recycled material isn’t impossible, which is what you are often told. To qualify for Global Recycling Standard certification, a product needs only 20% recycled content included in its material makeup to qualify for certification. When will we start holding ourselves to the kind of standards that force real change and require ingenuity?
Participation in the circular economy will allow low-income countries to become global leaders in innovation. There are opportunity and money in waste. It’s going to be countries like Haiti that are going to pull the rest of us into a new way of managing it.