on February 20th, 2012

As I looked down our street and saw the rows of rubbish (or garbage) bins neatly parked with military precision waiting for them to be taken away, I wondered at the millions of other examples of rubbish throughout the world. I am also acutely aware of the massive increase in packaging used from groceries to plastic bottles for everything. In the old days (yes!); we used to use paper bags for groceries. I insist on carrying groceries and items from the local corner side shop (where possible) without any bags used (resulting in the inevitable casualties much to the irritation of my lovely wife). South Africa, due to the ferocious amount of rubbish flying about, interestingly enough banned plastic bags many years ago (and I am sure there are some unpleasant unexpected consequences as a result; but it is seemingly a great idea) and you have to pay extra for the bag at the checkout till resulting in people re-using their bags. Good on them.

Is recycling worth the effort?
Does it have any relevance to me as an engineer? Where is all the waste going? Apparently some of it is going into some gigantic tip in China? I clearly remember as a child hearing the phrase: "Where there's muck, there's brass" (normally said in a broad Yorkshire accent). Unfortunately this is not always true and our consumer society drives frenzied growth and with it more rubbish. There are no widespread financial incentives for all of us to cut back on waste. So most of the stuff is buried. And we are fast running out of space in the highly populated countries. And there is the additional hazard of toxic waste leaching into our water table. Often many years later, the rubbish dump is converted into another housing estate with all sorts of interesting results with poisons appearing in one’s backgarden. The other option, burning or incinerating (which I initially thought was an ingenious idea), sadly has other risks. Cancer producing dioxins are a possible product. So the final practical option is recycling.

The numbers are daunting.

Since 1960, the amount of municipal waste being collected in America has tripled reaching (not, that this means much to all us numbed by these statistics) 245m tonnes in 2005. In Europe, it is now 577kg per person per annum. America recycles 10% of its municipal waste against Austria and Netherlands which are at a wonderful 60%. Is recycling worth it on environmental grounds? According to credible research at the Technical University of Denmark, it is definitely better for the environment. It conserves natural resources, reduces the amount of waste burnt or stuffed into dumps, and conserves energy. Recycling aluminium can reduce energy consumption by as much as 95% (against extracting it from raw ore). Steel is at a pleasant 60% saving.

Originally, kerbside collection programmes required separate collection of paper, glass and cans. But now it is single stream. I was naturally suspicious when I saw this happening, thinking that the authorities had given up and everything was being dumped again. But new technologies can sort without human intervention and it is more convenient for consumers. And it works.

And onto China. There are concerns about shipping recyclables to China - now the largest importer of rubbish (well, recyclable rubbish) in the world. Does this all end up in landfills? Van Beukering, a specialist economist in the area says:’as soon as somebody is paying for the material, you can bet it will be recycled’. So this is apparently not such a problem. It is being re-used. Admittedly, still significant problem with poor migrants being exposed to toxic waste in China. You only need to watch TV footage of kids lurching around on filthy waste dumps in third world countries; to know there is a fiendish problem here.

Finally, products have to be designed by us as engineers so that they can be recycled. A complete rethink of industrial processes. For example, sustainable packaging is not only good for the environment but cuts down your costs significantly. Walmart believes that in cutting the amount of packaging it uses by 5%, will save as much as $3.4 billion and reduce CO2 by more than half a million tonnes.

In conclusion, as engineering professionals, I challenge you to:

  • Work out ways to minimise the junk we produce - recycling and re-using as much as possible
  • Design products so that they can be recycled - this requires a rethink of our current design processes
  • Boycott products which are poisonous and non-recyclable
  • Design new technologies to process the garbage and make money from it
  • Use the waste tips to generate energy
  • Convince our peers to recycle, design for more sustainability and use less
  • And be prepared to pay slightly more to stick to our principles of looking after our environment and ultimately ourselves. The jury is out as to whether the free enterprise capitalist system is that attuned to dealing with waste and pollution (well; at least that is what our economics lecturer remarked – thirty odd years ago). So we have to take it on ourselves as engineering professionals.

There is no doubt that recycling protects the environment by cutting down on energy, raw materials and pollution. But where we as engineers come in - we need to recycle better.

My gratitude to The Economist and the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) for assistance in this article.

As The Economist remarked: ‘Waste is really a design flaw’. And that is where we as engineers are both culpable and have a key role in fixing.

Yours in engineering learning


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