Made to Measure…Waste

Who are you?: Dr Jade-Ashlee Cox.

What is your role?: Currently a Senior Consultant at Ricardo Energy & Environment. Formerly I was an EngD Researcher on the University of Surrey’s, SEES programme, sponsored by Surrey County Council.

What is your work about?:A decision making framework for the sustainable management of household waste.

I beg your pardon?: Every week we throw away food, packaging, things that we’re done with – waste. But is the stuff that makes its way into out bins really waste? Our consumer goods, clothing, food and everything that we trade, requires resources to be grown and manufactured as well as energy, water and time. The term ‘waste’ has long been associated with disposal, and this might be part of the problem, as only 44% of household waste in the UK is recycled. Yet, if we were to think of household waste as a resource, it may be possible to extract its ‘value’. Items that householders no longer require should not simply be discarded of as waste, but instead should be appreciated for the inherent value they possess and the new products they can become. However, implementing this paradigm is complicated by the variety of different materials in the waste stream, and the number of stakeholders responsible for its management. A central theme of the work presented in this thesis is the paradigm shift ‘From Waste to Resource’.

Why?: There are two key issues that need to be addressed. Firstly, we need to understand what is present in the resource stream, and in what quantities. This then allows waste managers to make informed choices about collection strategies and investment in reprocessing infrastructure. Not all constituents of the resource stream will be present in economically viable quantities – at least not in one collection authority. Sometimes it is necessary to pool resources with other councils, if you know how much of something you have got. Secondly, in some cases there is ‘more than one way to skin a cat’. For most materials that we would want to deal with there are multiple options, and the inevitable default of landfill or incineration. These different reprocessing options will have their own costs, benefits and implications: is it better to ship something across overseas to the most efficient reprocessing plant, or keep it local but get a minimal return? This is not always a straightforward question to answer.

And?: This is important both for issues of resource security and sustainability. Indeed, whilst the times of ‘make do and mend’ can appear to be in the past, there is a great deal of interest in reusing and recovering material resources, especially if components or assemblages can be refurbished or ‘upcycled’. This research has developed a decision-making tool, which can enable local authorities to assess the best way of managing their household ‘waste’. This takes the user through the identification and quantification of the materials of interest, the determination of viable treatment options, and an options appraisal.

Waste supply chain-1

Figure 1 – Complexity of the waste supply chain network. Direct relationships are represented by solid green lines. The dotted lines represent future relationships and solid black lines represents influences. (After Cox and Jesson, 2015.  Artwork produced by Materials World from an orginal diagram).

So what?: By understanding the composition, amount and value of ‘waste’ available to them, local authorities can take a more proactive approach in the ‘Waste Supply Chain’ to prevent the implementation of ‘sub-optimal’ management practices and the loss of valuable resources.

Final Thought: Using something once and letting it end up in landfill is the real waste. We can all do our bit at home like taking our old clothes to the local charity shop, but that will only take us so far. Crucially, we need to make sure that our resources stay out of landfill and remain in the cycle.

If you’d like to read more about assessing the resource stream, you might like to check out our award winning paper (ICE Telford Premium, 2016), here, for free.