Guest Post | Planning a Sustainable Future - Waste, Circular Economy and Life Cycle Thinking

Since their adoption in 2015, the process of translating UN Sustainable Development Goals into actions has faced many challenges. From too narrow focus on the areas addressed by SDGs to not considering how solutions to individual goals overlap and even interfere with one another. In this guest post written by Dr. Fritz Balkau and Alberto Bezama the authors consider the complexity of waste and SDGs.

30 Apr 2019 -

We live in a time of constant evolution and the waste world is no exemption, being subject to new technologies and a volatile social, political and economic climate. Public policy is now strongly driven by sustainability issues, with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as guiding principles.


Nevertheless, translating the SDGs into action programmes has been a challenge, with some successful outcomes but also many disappointing results. Many materials and waste management concepts ‘cherry pick’ the SDGs to focus only on pollution, or energy, climate or other amenity issues. In fact, the resulting ‘solutions’ often have hidden impacts on other SDGs that deal with for example biodiversity, water and land quality, social and territorial issues. A second common shortcoming is the neglect of life-chain issues, such as resource exploitation or the end of life of products and infrastructure. 


The above issues have already been aired at different times within ISWA, suggesting to consider waste as only one part of the materials cycle, with as much emphasis on upstream action as on traditional waste disposal. But actualising such a vision has proven complex for the waste industry, locked into business models with hermetic boundaries between materials and waste, and recognizing only a few sustainability issues. For better outcomes we need to link the materials and waste management sectors into a more synergistic collaboration.


Such synergy requires a more life cycle approach and we need to understand the tools available for this. Some such as classic life cycle assessment (LCA) are already mature but need to reach out to additional constituencies to have a full impact, as stakeholders still hesitate to use such tools to their full potential. Moreover, we see some expansion as for example through Social and Organisational LCA, Extended Life Cycle Costing, and regionalized LCA approaches. 


For practical applications these assessment tools are combined into life cycle management (LCM) initiatives that integrate for example sustainable supply chain management and green public procurement, with also sectorial life cycle materials management arrangements. Waste management remains an important component of such a holistic approach. There is now a lively international community discussing LCM systems with successful case studies in both industry and public sectors (for example our Life Cycle Summer School, which takes place this year in Berlin).


The use of life cycle approaches is particularly relevant to Circular Economy (CE) initiatives (see diagram, first from the top). Contrary to the common view that CE is a waste recycling system, we reiterate that it spans the entire life chain of materials, products or wastes, integrating them into a single programme perspective. 


Through LCA we ensure that the CE ‘solutions’ are indeed more sustainable that our current practices, that all relevant SDGs are addressed, and that both upstream and downstream impacts are adequately considered. 



The waste sector is increasingly considered as an integral part of a larger materials cycle, with circular economy models attempting to close the loop to bring about a greater degree of resource efficiency (and reduced impacts).  The complexity of managing materials flows, coupled with the multiple sustainability goals now imposed, requires a more systematic use of life cycle approaches in decision-making in both industry and in the public sector.  Creating meaningful life-chain feedback loops and building wider and more effective stakeholder partnerships based on a more integrated vision is essential for a sustainable future.


Image references, starting from left:

About Dr. Fritz Balkau

Sustainable solutions



After holding professional positions in UNEP, OECD and the Australian environment ministry, Fritz Balkau is now undertaking international advisory work in sustainable development with a focus on sustainable production and consumption practices, enhanced resource efficiency, and risk reduction in society, including the promotion of life cycle management procedures.  His professional experience includes hazardous waste management, disaster planning, and cleaner production and consumption issues.  He has published extensively on the above subjects, and was co-editor of the ISWA/UNEP training resource pack on industrial waste for the Hazardous Waste Working Group. To contact Dr. Balkau, please e-mail him directly.

About Dr. Alberto Bezama

Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ

Alberto Bezama is a Chemical Engineer and has worked for over 15 years in the areas of “Contaminated sites management,” “Waste Management,” "Cleaner production" and, for over the last 10 years, in the field of “Sustainability Assessment.” Since 2012 he is a Researcher at the Department of Bioenergy at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig (Germany), leading the Working Group on “Systems Analysis of the Bioeconomy.” Main focus of his current research is the development and application of life cycle-based tools to assess the effects of implementing bio-based technologies in a regional perspective, under the framework of the bioeconomy and circular economy strategies. To contact Dr. Bezama, please e-mail him directly.



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