President's Blog

21 Nov 2018 12:43 Age: 2 yrs

The End of Business as Usual for Waste Management!

Category: ISWA BLOG


The following text is the opening lecture of the ISWA President delivered during the Opening Ceremony of ISWA World Congress 2018.

We are here to talk about the most important challenges about waste management. So, let’s start with the China Ban on low quality recyclables.

We at ISWA made it clear from 2012 that the over-dependence on China’s market for plastic recyclables was too risky for businesses, misleading for policy makers and not sustainable. 

China’s Ban is a historical event that already creates global environmental and financial impacts. As several other neighbouring countries, such as Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia, followed, the western recycling industry is obliged to phase the end of recycling as we know it. 

We should only thank the Chinese Delegation, one of the biggest at this conference, for accelerating the collapse of the recycling virtual reality.  

We all recognize now that China was a convenient answer to a very inconvenient question: how we will deal with the low quality recyclables without affecting the dominant business models. Now, it’s time to recognize that quality recycling is the key. It’s time to rethink carefully what, how and why we recycle. 

It’s time to consider that the long-term resilience and the local adaptation of recycling programs should be considered of at least equal , if not higher, importance to the diversion rates achieved. We should carefully study the very interesting on-going adaptation efforts made mainly in the USA market and I encourage you to talk about it with SWANA members and the American participants, which also form one of the biggest delegation at our congress. 

But above any other issue, China’s Ban highlights the limits and the restrictions of recycling, it urges us to move faster beyond recycling towards Circular Economy models about plastics, and not only. 

But of course, we are here to discuss about Marine Litter. In 2018 we realized that the problem is much bigger than we considered. We discovered plastics in commercial salts, plastics in fish and sea turtles, plastics in the most remote part of the world in Marianna Trench, and finally, plastics in plankton and a huge part of the oceanic food chain.  

But what is the global response? Bans on single use plastics and clean-ups can serve only as starting points. Machines that remove marine litter from the surface are useful but their contribution is mostly symbolic. We say it clearly - we need much more than symbolic or fancy movements to resolve the problem. Trying to respond only with cleanups and sophisticated equipment that removes the floating marine litter is misleading because it does not address the root of the problem.

It is now well documented, and ISWA contributed a lot, that Marine Litter is directly linked with the absence of proper waste collection, recycling and disposal infrastructure in the developing world. 

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to say it clearly: Marine Litter is the direct result of political inaction, it’s the price we pay for allowing dumpsites to dominate the developing world; it’s the cost for ignoring or downgrading the importance of waste management in the global development agenda. 

We need to shut the tap of plastics off and the only way is to have urgently a new wave of investments for better waste management in the developing world. This is the only way to prevent marine litter and ensure that it will not become a dangerous planetary challenge like climate change. 

Allow me to close by highlighting that China’s Ban on recyclables and the challenge of Marine Litter have three common characteristics. 

They are both about plastics waste streams.

They both demonstrate the global environmental impacts of improper waste management practices.

They both highlight the end of the dominant business models in recycling and the plastic industry. 

We urgently need new business models, we need innovation and rapid adaptation to the new reality – the on-going fourth industrial revolution can catalyse rapid and radical innovations. But this will not be enough, because Artificial Intelligence, about which I will speak later today at the Plenary Session 1 at 10:30, is not yet capable to manage common sense problems. 

And this is common sense: we need to finish with the “business as usual”, “too small and too late” responses. This is a red alarm that can’t be ignored. Marine Litter has no border and makes no preference between the poor and rich. Either we will deliver systematically the required investments in waste management, or we will watch the systematic transformation of our oceans to wastelands. 

For that purpose, ISWA requests two things:

The first is that we need to agree that the share of waste management in the International Development Assistance should be at least double than the ridiculous low 0.5% it is today. If you want to really fight Marine Litter, invest 1% of the IDA to waste management that will also deliver health and environmental protection, as well as substantial CO2 savings.

Second, we will soon call all the Development Banks to open a serious discussion on the bankability of waste management projects and how we can work together to improve it. We are pretty sure, and we have written about it in our Roadmap for closing the world’s dumpsites, that there are modern tools and methodologies capable to resolve the problem and advance the financial flows in the waste management sector. 

The future is still there, waiting to be shaped by our actions or our inaction. As Confucius said for human beings, our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall!”.