‘Waste-as-a-resource’ is one of the key principles of the circular economy. It encourages us not to see waste as valueless rubbish that we must get rid of, but rather to treat it as a valuable resource with the potential to generate economic gain when used to create new products.
Heaps of waste is generated around the world each year – 2.01 billion metric tons of it, to be exact. But that figure only accounts for the amount of municipal solid waste produced, which is composed of everyday items discarded by the public, such as food, textiles, plastic packaging, aluminum cans, and paper.
There are in fact numerous more waste streams that this number does not take into account. These waste streams come from construction and demolition, mining, industrial production processes, sanitation sludge, electronic waste, and many more, each producing millions – if not billions – of metric tons of waste.
The increasing generation of such massive amounts of waste raises multiple issues, the most obvious of which is the negative impact this waste has on the environment. In EU countries, 45.7% (2016 figure) of waste goes to landfill where it starts to decompose, consequently emitting greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere and leeching toxic chemicals into our ecosystems. Not only that, much of the waste that is shipped to overseas recycling facilities in developing countries also ends up in landfill, as these recycling facilities simply cannot keep up with the increasing supply.
Not as obvious – but equally as deleterious – is the economic loss that comes with waste disposal. When something is discarded, it is not just the product itself that goes to waste. All the labor, materials, and resources (land, energy, water) that went into its extraction, production, and distribution are lost as well. In a time when the earth’s natural resources are becoming increasingly scarce, we cannot afford to let any of the resources we already have go to waste.
So, what is a way to effectively combat all of these waste-related problems?
By turning waste into a resource, of course.
Waste is transformed into resource when the components of discarded products are recycled back into the same material or processed into a different substance. Take, for example, the recycling of discarded copy paper into packaging paper, or the conversion of mining waste into building material.
When waste is harvested for use in new products, it simultaneously prevents it from ending up in landfills and provides large amounts of existing materials to replace limited natural resources in production.
Doing so also retains the economic value of these materials within the economy, not only by preventing economic losses caused by discarding waste material but also by stimulating economic gains from the production and sale of new products.
And finally, the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted during the harvest and processing of existing materials is significantly less than the amount that is emitted when mining virgin materials.
Curious about what the possibilities are? Here are three examples of how waste has been used as a resource .