Rethink waste: towards a circular economy

The current levels of production and consumption not only exert an undue pressure on the planet’s resources, but also increase the generation of waste and force to review our treatment and disposal systems. From the disposal as waste to the waste as a resource: a change that compromises all the actors equally.

«Nature works through two mechanisms that are constantly repeated: build and break. We strive to put things on it that don’t break», says Dr. Paul Connett, Professor of Chemistry at St. Lawrence University, United States. If there is something you learn in daily contact with nature is that it, indeed nothing is thrown, nothing is wasted. Each element is reused, recycled to, revalue in some way to meet the same or another function. Man, however, has always developed himself without this golden rule of nature and has created what many call a true «silent bomb»: trash.


The industrial development, the advancement of technology and innovation, the exponential population growth and urbanization, were the perfect ingredients for a recipe known to promote worsened in recent years: the invention of new needs, theoretically unmet, and growing production of goods and services to meet them. That equation, however, brought a negative conclusion: the excessive waste generation, the most visible result of our overconsumption.

The current lifestyle of buy-consume-throw is in crisis and future estimates are not encouraging unless we make a difference. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), if the American way of life is repeated by 9,000 million people estimated to be in 2050, we would need three planets Earth to live. And the garbage doesn’t go better way. As the «What a waste» World Bank study, in 2025 the municipal solid waste we draw each day from our homes will double.

Where the waste goes? Today, the main management mechanisms in the world are found in landfills that, unlike informality and illegality of open dumps, have control, infrastructure and the necessary equipment. Recycling plants are presented as a complementary to the correct treatment of recyclable waste protagonists, those whose materials can be reused again under restructuring processes.

«Over the past 150 years the industry grew remarkably away. Before there were only paper and cardboard, now there is heavy metals and synthetic plastics. Before there were consequences, we do not know what could happen now», says Vyvyan Howard, professor of bioimaging at the University of Ulster (England) regarding the difficulty that increased industrialization and innovation has resulted in waste. The industrialized countries are the ones that produce 78% of the toxic waste in the world, but also the ones who have promote the biggest change initiatives for proper treatment. Austria, Germany and Belgium lead recycling worldwide.

Switzerland was able to stand on waste from the landfill ban since 2000, from today by the corresponding restructuring process and from political education of citizens and slogan «polluter pays». «Often waste management is considered as an expense, but you must understand that in the long run, it’s possible to reduce the costs. For example, eliminate landfill islong-term  beneficial. Think further when one realizes the cost-benefit analysis», says Swiss Ambassador in Argentina, Hanspeter Mock.

Meanwhile, from the waste generated in Sweden, only 4% is sent to landfill, the rest is incinerated. Here a new controversy arises, is incineration the best alternative for the treatment of waste? Howard explains the consequences of this mechanism: «The cloud has a dangerous toxic chemical: dioxin, which is not removed by burning. If you install an incinerator in a rural area, a cow inspires toxins, then is killed for consumption. A woman receives dioxins by eating meat. When she is pregnant, dioxin accumulated over the years move to the fetus to a concentrated level, affecting his/her cognitive development and immune system».

In Latin America, an inhabitant generates 230 kilos of waste per year. Chile is the country in the region that produces more garbage: six million tonnes a year. The political-economy of the early 2000s had an impact on the region and indirectly promoted entrepreneurship  from waste collection. The «cartoneros» in Argentina or the «catadores» in Brazil were signs of that historical period, while showed the absence of proper management of recyclable materials and the ability to start doing something about it. Today there are more than 800,000 urban collectors in Brazil, 80,000 of which are organized in 1000 initiatives.


The 2001 crisis in Argentina marked a before and after in the treatment of waste, after the appearance of the «cartoneros» that in their desperate quest to obtain money to bring the bread home, found in the master (and then other recyclables) the opportunity to get off the street, while found on it their main workspace. After the crisis, the figure of the cartoneros continued, revealing the importance of waste separation at source and resulting in the execution of their work.

Improvements on waste management were based on investment in infrastructure and machinery. This exemplifies the leachate plant created in the Metropolitan Area of ​​Buenos Aires (AMBA), considered one of the largest and most modern in the world. Hugo Bilbao, president of the Federal Council of the Environment (Cofema) and director of the Provincial Agency for Sustainable Development (OPDS), highlighs the work of the Ceamse and its efforts to streamline the waste. But also recognizes the three great challenges that Argentina must still face in this matter: «Giving proper disposal throughout the country, promoting source separation system from the education of the different actors and have the capacity of reduction of waste generation». To do this, the engineer stresses the need for an assessment of the national situation of the waste to give a solution, according to the number of inhabitants in each locality and its climatic features. Last August, the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development announced the creation of the National Observatory of Municipal Solid Waste in order to be able to achieve that objective.

In terms of recycling, the systems were ranging between different municipalities and provinces, and some of them historically dind’t consider them on their policies. Therefore, Bilbao emphasizes the importance of «working seriously on waste legislation, not just forone area but applicable to the entire country».


This November marks the 10th anniversary of the popularly known «Zero Waste Law» (No. 1854). Its objective? «Setting the set of guidelines, principles, obligations and responsibilities for the management of municipal solid waste generated within the territory of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, sanitary and environmentally sound manner, in order to protect the environment, alive and real beings». Time passed and several were critical of the lack of compliance with that rule.

Juan Carlos Villalonga, head of the Environmental Protection Agency of the city government, explains why: «The law is being fulfilled, but was very late. Only since 2011 began to work with a higher emphasis. Before there was no action that will impact on the amount of waste sent to landfill by lack of vocation and determination». This delay was a shift of the goals posed by the law, but in recent years found a recovery. According to Bilbao, after intense negotiations between the Nation and the City, they agreed in 2012 to start to reduce more effectively the amount of waste sent to landfills located in the province. Villalonga exemplifies such an action: «In the period 2011-2012, 6,000 tons per day were sent. Today only 3,000 are sent. It is not that the city generates less waste, it is still producing the same or more. It is about continuing efforts to make possible arrive to zero».

Today, those remaining 3,000 tonnes per day enter a circuit of recovery and recycling, that not only helps the environment but also promotes employment generation in other social and economic activities, both for those who collect and recycle. The challenge is, as Villalonga says, to make these centers more efficient after its professionalization.

Regardless of the current government, the citizen is a key player in all these processes: the one who has in his/her hands the power to consume less, buy better rewarding those who develop more sustainable packaging, to take responsibility for their waste, separating and recycling. The figures speak for themselves: one person, through the practice of recycling can reduce 150 tons of waste throughout his/her live.

«Recycling is a planetary action» By Diego Arguedas Ortiz, environmental journalist at Semanario Universidad de Costa Rica.

When we think of controlling our emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs), usually we imagine more efficient and bicycle lights, but forget another key ally: the trash cans.

Handled improperly, solid waste can actually be harmful. According to the World Resources Institute, 7.7% of Argentine greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming, come from waste (more than the world average of 4.4%). Mostly methane released is mismanaged landfill where our waste ends.

If we want to be consistent and sustainable, it urges us to start here: our waste have a clear, quantifiable impact on global warming. Choose glass over plastic recycle cans and acquires a global significance; separate our waste can save lives. The energy saved by refusing plastic bags, or arrange a product rather than buy a new one, it is also saving. It all adds: less waste, less gas. Climate change can only be overcome by an overall change in attitude: less conspicuous consumption and local awareness. The transformation begins at home.

«Designing trash». By Dafna Nudelman, founder of FADUVerde and Yo Reciclo.

We talk much about reduce, reuse and recycle as if the consumer is the only actor of generation of waste. This is true, in part. But also is important to make visible the design processes behind the products. Whether a car, a magazine or pants; the waste generated throughout life are actually determined from before arriving at our hands, since they are a pencil sketch.

As the designer determines the shape and color, it is on their hands to think the variables of production, distribution, consumption and disposal, to reduce waste to a minimum: Use renewable resources? Does the mold optimizes the use of the material? Can I make the same with recovered materials? Have I reduced to a minimum packaging? Is it recyclable? Does the design allows use of space in each transfer or last many years?

All these decisions define how much waste is generated by the product and are the key factors for sustainable design. However, today there is no academic training that emphasizes the importance these aspects. It is necessary to incorporate these concepts to form conscious design professionals, who also designed the residue of their products.

«Recycling, from theory to practice». By Marina Pla, designer, visual communicator and co-founder of Reciclario.

When we buy a product almost always we are also buying inadvertently waste: the disposable container. In the best case we look at the label, and with relief, we find a symbol indicating that it is a recyclable waste. But for some recyclable «in theory» be effectively recycled «in practice» it is necessary that a series of linked events occur together. First, the consumer must separate the clean dry residue of the organic materials. Then, that separated material must reach to the hands of an urban recovery, who classifies and collects. Urban recovery or cooperative needs to put together a sufficient volume to sell material and there has to be a recycling industry interested in buying it. In turn, there must be a market interested in buying the recycled material as raw material.

Recycling depends on this complex chain link chained together, which generates green and social employment for thousands of urban garbage, and allows the use of resources and saving virgin raw material involved. Without either of these links, there is no recycling and us, the consumers, are the first of all.

| Article published on newspaper La Razón (Spanish version)

Tais Gadea Lara • 5 octubre, 2015

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