Life-Cycle Management to Replace Waste Management
from Socolow, Andrews, Berkhout
& Thomas (eds.), Industrial Ecology and Global Change,
“eco-restructuring” commences, new elements in our waste management
infrastructure should be created. These include a redefinition of
product types to acknowledge their life-cycle environmental impacts;
reallocation of responsibilities between producers and consumers for these
products; product redesign for environmental compatibility; source-separation
sites or “waste supermarkets,” and accessible repositories or “waste parking
Need to Go
traditionally focused on production rather than waste management. Over time this has led to the creation of
chemicals and products for which no environmentally sound method of disposal
exists. Large-scale production has led
in turn to significant waste disposal problems.
In order to shift from a primitive, low-efficiency type I industrial
ecology to something more sustainable, a new infrastructure for waste management
Marketplace norms today define
products on a spectrum from “consumable” to “durable,” depending on their
useful lifetimes. However, to give prominence to environmental factors, it is
useful to classify products according to their life-cycle, cradle-to-grave
impacts. The crucial distinction is
between consumable products and service products.
Consumable products, such as washing
powder or food, are purchased to be consumed, i.e. converted by chemical
reaction into energy and by-products.
They are normally put out into the natural environment after only one
use. Service products, by contrast, are not consumed; rather they provide some service over and
over again. Automobiles, television
sets, and washing machines are examples of products providing the services of
transportation, entertainment, and cleaning.
Thinking prescriptively, an “eco-restructured” economy should
differentiate its treatment of consumable products and service products. All consumer products should be biodegradable
or abiotically degradable, non-bioaccumulative, non-carcinogenic,
non-teratogenic, non-mutagenic, and (in used concentration) non-toxic to human
beings. By contrast, service products
could be less tightly constrained in terms of constituent materials, but more
tightly constrained in terms of disposal.
A consumer requiring a service product would lease it from its producer
or put a refundable deposit on its purchase: consumers would not own service
products. When a service product has
served its function and needs to be renewed, the consumer would return it to
the producer. The producer, not the
consumer, would be responsible for disassembly and recycling.
“Waste supermarkets” would provide
centralized locations for disassembly and recycling. These could be expanded versions of today’s
“buy-only” shopping markets: when shopping for new goods, the consumer would
also do a “de-shopping” by returning used service products—including packaging
as well as the automobiles, television sets, and washing machines just
mentioned. A waste supermarket would not
be a dump site but rather a source separation warehouse.
By giving products back to producers
in a closed loop, aided by a deposit-return system of financing, incentive
could be provided to maximize product disassembly and recycling and minimize
expensive toxic waste.
already exist for certain service products, such as glass and paper. And some consumable products such as food
already are biodegradable, so that their dissipative use is not alarming. However, many products,
both service and consumable, are menaces after they are used: ultimately they
will be judged “unmarketable.” But they
are part of current society and must be dealt with.
“Unmarketable” products—those that
cannot now be consumed or used in an environmentally sound way—are of at least
three kinds: (1) Service goods for which
no appropriate recycling technology currently exists. Present recycling for most materials is often
a “down-cycling” because the materials and the products are of a lower quality
after each recycling process (e.g. park benches or sound-proof barriers made
out of recycled plastics). (2)
long-lived service goods, such as lead pipe, that outlast their producers in
useful service, and thus need government involvement in their safe disposal
because no firm is now left to be accountable.
(3) Consumable goods with toxic constituents, such as nickel-cadmium
batteries, that society does not want to dispose of in a dissipative manner.
In an eco-restructured economy,
unmarketable products would not be manufactured. In a period of transition, however,
institutions would be needed to store such products safely and
retrievable. One can imagine a “waste
parking lot.” The waste parking lot would
eliminate the current practice of dumping waste in irretrievable locations,
where it is subject to leaching and high recovery costs. Waste parking lots would have to be part of a
larger restructuring program that would greatly reduce waste volumes;
otherwise, storage would become unmanageable.
Following the parking lot analogy,
the government would build and maintain the structures, and the owners of waste
would pay for renting the space within them.
The lots would be organized for homogeneity, so that identical wastes
from various products could be stored together.
The owners of waste would remain responsible for the safety, stability,
and maintenance of the stored items.
Some advantages of the waste parking
lot concept include enforcement of the “polluter pays” principle, clear
realignment of responsibilities, rental costs as an economic incentive to
develop new environmental technologies, and simplified reclamation of useful
waste constituents in the future.
elements of the future waste management infrastructure involve industry,
government and the consumer. With the firm, consumable products should be
designed for safe dissipative use, and service products should be designed for
easy disassembly and recycling.
Governments should re-align responsibilities, encouraging leasing and
other mechanisms, to ensure that producers have incentives to design products
for lower life-cycle environmental impacts.
Governments should also encourage both waste supermarkets (to promote
and simplify source separation and recycling) and waste parking lots (to store
problematic wastes retrievably). These
are transition steps until the economy is able to produce sustainable