What is the future of waste? It might not be a question you’ve ever asked of yourself, or if you’re a keen zero-waste enthusiast or circular economy supporter, it might be a question you ask yourself every day. Either way, the future of waste, or more importantly, how we deal with it, is a question that needs an urgent answer.
The amount of waste we generate is both shocking and unprecedented. In the US alone, the EPA’s 2018 report estimated that 292.4 million tons, or 4.9 pounds per person per day, of MSW was generated, with as little as 69 million recycled and 25 million composted. Today, those figures are likely to be higher, and while recycling rates are increasing, they are not keeping pace with MSW generation.
However, sustainability innovations are beginning to change the way we see waste, helping us to recognize that “there is no such thing as away. When we throw anything away it must go somewhere.” So, with this thought in mind, here we look at five new technologies and sustainable solutions to the ever-growing issue of where our waste ends up, helping us keep materials out of landfill through better recycling systems that reduce our environmental impact.
What Is Sustainable Innovation?
Before we get into the green alternatives that are attempting to innovate within the field of sustainability, it’s worth defining exactly what a sustainable innovation is. The term is loosely defined as an idea, product, or process that is designed to address a particular social or environmental challenge in a way that is economically viable, socially responsible, and environmentally friendly.
Sustainable products and ideas aim to create positive impacts for all stakeholders, including the environment, society, and the economy, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Put simply, sustainable innovation is associated with a shift away from traditional models of growth and development, which have often been caused by environmental degradation and social inequality, towards more sustainable and equitable forms of progress that prioritize the well-being of people and the planet.
Why Do We Need Sustainable Innovation to Address Waste?
Now that we have defined what a sustainable innovation can be, it’s important to understand why we need continuous innovation in this sector. As previously mentioned, our current waste generation is huge, and combined with the rapid increase in the production and consumption of goods, looks set to grow in the coming decades with global waste generation expected to increase by roughly 70 percent to 3.4 billion metric tons by 2050.
Today’s waste management infrastructure is already considered wasteful, with recycling rates as low as 20 percent and most of our waste being sent to landfill across the globe–sometimes shipped out of one country only to be dumped in another. This needs to change, and sustainable innovation must look to improve current waste management practices by developing new methods of collection, transportation, and disposal that are more efficient, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly.
Additionally, sustainable innovation must begin to address issues surrounding waste generation by introducing new products, processes, and technologies that have the potential to promote recycling and reuse and encourage sustainable consumption and production practices. In short, we must develop a more circular economy that puts a true cost of the products we consume and values waste as a resource rather than unmanageable trash.
5 Exciting Sustainability Innovations
There are countless new products and systems being introduced to global markets that claim to be sustainable. However, true sustainable innovation must also avoid greenwashing and strive for truly sustainable products and services that account for the entire supply chain. Put simply, if your clothes are labeled eco-friendly, that’s great, but if the cotton labeled as organic is in fact, not, then there’s a real problem—and that problem must be solved by the brands selling the goods to consumers.
With that said, there are exciting technological innovations and ideas that can be classed as sustainable, and here we look at five emerging trends that can make a real difference to the waste we produce and where it goes.
It’s not exactly new, or innovative on the face of it, but the explosion in home composting technologies in recent years is changing the way we engage with this ancient method of recycling compostable materials. Today, there is a broad range of compact, smart, automated composters that can deal with your everyday food waste, with some small enough to be placed conveniently on your countertop in your apartment.
Each works in a slightly different way, relying on processes such as standard composting with grinding and heating to increase speed, Bokashi and other anaerobic processes, and even simple compost bins that allow you to store food waste without it smelling before you add it to your outdoor compost pile.
Food waste in the US is staggeringly high, with nearly 80 million pounds discarded each year. The real innovation here is that now even those without gardens can compost conveniently inside their homes, significantly reducing the amount of organic matter going to landfill!
From ancient methods of recycling organics to the very latest efforts to harness the power of nature in waste management, biomimicry is a broad field that offers some extremely exciting avenues. From high-tech sensors designed to sort and separate raw materials within recycling machines, to bio-inspired digestion systems that mimic the microbial processes that occur in the digestive tracts of cows, learning from nature to improve waste management processes is a promising avenue of research and innovation.
Among the most important developments in biomimicry is designed to help address the pervasive issue of plastic waste, and with around 400 million tonnes of plastic waste generated around the world every year, biodegradable plastics that mimic the properties of natural materials, such as chitin from shrimp shells or cellulose from plant cell walls are true innovations.
However, there is one important point to reiterate here, and it is the specter of greenwashing rising once again! Certain bioplastics have been shown to either not biodegrade or release harmful emissions that impact climate change as they do, so it’s highly important that this sector is regulated by governments and other stakeholders to ensure its claims of sustainability ring true.
Precycling really began as a consumer-led movement that aimed to reduce waste by selecting products from sustainable business models, allowing them to avoid waste and reduce their carbon footprint through informed choices. However, as the call for things like reusable packaging has grown, many companies and start-ups have leaned into the demand for these types of products.
For example, it’s not uncommon to see water refill stations in supermarkets, where the consumer purchases a bottle once, and returns to the supermarket to refill it at a lower cost than purchasing a whole new bottle of water. Other examples include reusable produce bags that can be used for loose fruits and vegetables or grains.
However, these initiatives aside, precycling remains dependent on making informed choices, and to do this consumers need the right information. Thankfully, to achieve this, all consumers need is a smart phone and any number of innovative shopping apps that fall under the precycling banner. From meal planners that help reduce food waste to apps that list consumables that are about to be trashed and can be bought at a discount, these apps have the potential to change the way we consume and build a more resilient supply chain.
In the same way that precycling is all about information designed to cut waste at the source, waste tracking aims to help us see what and how we generate waste at end-of-life. Put simply, waste tracking technology monitors and tracks waste generation, collection, and disposal, giving us accurate data on waste streams, helping us identify areas for improvement, and helping both communities and businesses make more informed decisions about waste management.
There are number of innovations aimed at businesses, with new technologies playing a big role, including smart waste bins that are equipped with sensors that track the amount of waste being generated, RFID tags that can be used to track waste containers and monitor their movement through the waste management system, and blockchain technologies that can be used to create a transparent and secure record of waste transactions and movements—from generation to disposal.
Electronic waste is among the fastest growing types of waste in the world, and lithium batteries are a huge contributor to this issue. However, innovations in unconventional batteries that use natural materials for energy storage may form part of a renewable energy network that can dramatically reduce our reliance on lithium-ion and still reduce carbon emissions.
A number of proposals and designs have been suggested and even tested, with both water- and sand-based batteries capturing solar energy and releasing it as heat as required. These simple yet highly effective alternatives to lithium batteries offer the potential to help us remove fossil fuels from our energy production entirely, with the ability to heat homes directly or turn heat into electricity by using heat-driven turbines.
For more information on the future of waste and how your business can monitor, track, and reduce waste generation, contact RTS today for a free waste assessment. Additionally, for the latest insights into the waste management industry, stay tuned to the RTS blog.