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Sustainable waste management: Overdue for consideration?

Published on October 17, 2022

RSK’s Cities of Tomorrow series explores the sustainable solutions available to us to create resilient and future-proof urban centres and the ways in which our family of businesses is responding to these needs. As our cities and urban centres grow, so too does their need to effectively manage the waste humans produce. Exploring the importance of this, Nuno Lopes from RSK-IWS, an RSK group company that offers integrated waste management solutions, explains how the lack of forward planning will need to be addressed if cities are to meet their goals.

Cities around the world are growing faster than ever before: by 2050, it is estimated that 68% of the world’s population will be living in urban areas. As this growth occurs, so too does the volume of waste produced, meaning that sustainable waste management is a fundamental issue that we face in future city environments. A truly sustainable system needs to take into consideration environmental, social and economic challenges; it must balance increasing waste production with environmental health considerations while keeping up with rapid urbanisation. Using waste management to promote capital efficiency, innovation and growth is a critical challenge in ensuring quality of life, community outreach and education.

The future waste management challenge

Across many regions around the globe, there is no real infrastructure planning for waste management in the same way as there is for water, electricity, gas and telecommunications, for example. Waste management planning is the poor relative of infrastructure planning but keeping up with urban growth requires a huge effort on the part of the responsible authorities. This growth is usually met through traditional means that result in more lorries on the roads, more energy spent, more traffic, more people in low-skilled jobs, more waste streams (without considering the pressure these put on collection) and the degradation of urban space: in conclusion, simply a reaction to the current growth. Meanwhile, the impact on sustainability is not assessed. But as a key infrastructure for future urban growth, waste management planning is vital if that growth is to be sustainable.

So, why does waste management not get the same attention as other services?

Decision-makers have chosen to maintain a low-investment system, but this comes with high operating costs: as much as 50% of a municipal budget. These high costs prevent large infrastructure investments and some believe that such investments in refuse management would not be understood by the general population. Unfortunately, this means there is no long-term management perspective.

But this means the problem will only get worse. Waste generation is increasing, and it is expected to increase by 73% from 2020 levels by the year 2050. Addressing this growth is essential if cities are to be sustainable, and more attention is finally coming to the sector. With the current pressure to reduce emissions and energy consumption and to lower costs, the perspective on waste management planning is changing.

Cities should approach the problem by regarding waste management as a tool that also contributes to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions and local air pollution. Make solid waste collection more efficient and you reduce overall transportation costs, air emissions, energy use, truck traffic and road wear and tear, and this is the impact we are starting to see now.

How do we plan for that sustainable future?

Efficient waste management for a challenging future will have to consider a number of key aspects.

Equipment

Obviously, we need to look at the equipment used for waste collection – it must be updated. In the UK, 95% of waste collection is done with plastic containers created in the 1960s, equipment that reflects a past era. Cities must obtain modern equipment that is prepared for the challenges of the future. Equipment with a large storage capacity (respecting environmental health conditions), that fits aesthetically into any area in the city, which enables the registration of those who use it (whether that is waste producers or operators) and equipment capable of generating information and transmitting this to those responsible for the management of the waste system will be needed. Sustainable equipment can result in a substantial reduction in the use of non-skilled labour, fewer lorries in city centres and lower emissions from the use of only environmentally friendly (electric) vehicles.

Users

We need to engage waste producers, be they domestic or business. New sustainability challenges require changes in behaviour and a responsibility for the rubbish we produce: responsibility for how waste is separated, how it is stored and how it is transported. As is the case for electricity infrastructure management, consumers may need to adjust their consumption according to different tariffs during the day or tariffs may vary depending on the amount of waste produced. In this way, the waste producer can adjust their behaviour to the actual cost of waste management.

Information

It is inconceivable that we could create a sustainable model without information, especially real-time information. New collection models must be able to generate information and predict behaviours to anticipate events. This requires not only the ability to collect and transmit information, but also to process it. Examples might be bins that alert the collection agency when they are reaching capacity or route planning that automatically adjusts to traffic flow. Ultimately, any long-term, sustainable approach will need to use integrated information solutions.

A truly sustainable waste management model will be an integrated and multifaceted solution that involves users, equipment, information, media and more.

Then, how do we ensure we have resilient and sustainable infrastructure for the future?

We need a sustainable policy that ensures the equipment is adequate and that encourages the participation of all stakeholders, from policymakers and regulators, waste producers (domestic, commercial and industrial), collection authorities and companies to waste recyclers and processors – a policy that incorporates the whole of society. Everyone has their own role.

Each city has its challenges and there is no single solution that adapts or fits all urban environments. A collection in a suburban area with low population density will not require the same resources as the city centre. The same can even be said of the waste generated by businesses, be they food markets, offices, restaurants, etc. Through the work we undertake at RSK-IWS, we have come to see this at first hand: it is becoming increasingly apparent that the solution must be integrated into long-term strategies that will enable us to overcome the future challenges of waste management in cities.

Nuno Lopes, Business Development Manager, works at RSK-IWS, which offers integrated waste management solutions, including consulting and state-of-the-art equipment within sustainability criteria based on environmental, social and economic parameters, to provide an end-to-end service.

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ARTICLE AUTHOR

Nuno Lopes

Business Development Manager, RSK-IWS

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Nuno, Business Development Manager at RSK-IWS, has over 20 years’ experience working in the waste management sector. He has a particular focus on the field of sustainability and has worked on many projects involving sustainable waste management systems.

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