Landfill mining – an insight into the history of consumer society

10th October 2013 Posted by

Talking to Radio 4’s ‘Costing the Earth’ programme about landfill mining and the resources that have been embedded in landfill sites over the last 50 years, followed by a meeting where we contemplated the future of the waste sector in a sustainable resource economy, has given me an opportunity to reflect.

Looking back and understanding what we as a society have thrown away gives some fascinating insights into the history of our consumer society. Brilliant for radio programs and those ‘garbologists’ (archaeology for the waste sector!) among us, but when put in the context of planning services and facilities for the future far less valuable.

If we take a linear view of our sector, trying to analyse our customers’ waste and predict what they might produce or what we might help them reuse or recycle, we are always looking back, sometimes only days but in some instances for longer use items like televisions, over a number of years. SITA UK has invested significant amounts of time and money over the last few years getting data from our customers to help them on their journey to a ‘world where there is no more waste’ , so perhaps we can predict better than most, but there will always be limitations, however good we are at predicting the future. So what would be the best solution for us, how might we approach this problem in a better more collaborative way?

Firstly, let’s talk in circles. In municipal waste, householders throw away what they have purchased and most people would be unable to provide a detailed inventory of what’s in their bin. However, the shops which benefitted from their custom will have a detailed record of what was purchased, will know the approximate use by date and, shop by shop, have a good understanding of shopping patterns, be them daily or seasonal. So perhaps for materials that sit with the consumer for short periods (food etc.) the retailers could provide some useful information on what has been sold and therefore what might be coming back into the waste stream in the next few days and weeks? Perhaps this data could even be used to help us plan what facilities we need?

But what about the longer-life items? Those that don’t come back into the waste stream in days or weeks but may take many years to reach the end of their useful life. There are plenty – mattresses for example (when was the last time you changed a mattress on your bed and how old was it?!), electrical goods (what happens to your old analogue radio when we go fully digital?)

Take a mobile phone for instance and see how much they have changed in the last 10 years. Then wonder at the complexity of dismantling and recovering materials when you have an old phone from 10 years ago compared with a phone that’s only two years old. Knowing what is being sold today does not help when dealing with a range of waste that can have such a variable usage period. So if, on a resource recovery basis, all those items were leased and not purchased might we have more certainty about what will come back for recovery? I think we would. Many people have two-year phone plans and change their phone at or around the anniversary, so moving to a lease model is not such a big change but it does mean we can predict when products are likely to return to the recovery market. We can design facilities and services to deal with the expected return dates and have much more certainty on the product design and composition, which will help with repair or deconstruction, saving time, money and resources.

Will my wishes come true? I think to allow sustainable living at sustainable prices we must adapt to a collaborative, inclusive and circular relationship from producer through consumer to recovery and back to production. Working together will deliver more success than working in linear models. Like recovering resource from old landfills, we need to mine the consumer resource in a different way going forward.

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