OPINION: Transforming the take-make-waste sector

Eva Zabey, CEO of Business for Nature, and Leigh Broadhurst, environment and sustainable development lead, Suez recycling and recovery UK, discuss how waste management can redefine itself as the resource management sector and secure a nature-positive future.

OPINION: We all create waste, more often than we think. Not intentionally, of course, but how our society and economic context have been shaped means we operate on a “take-make-waste” model. The World Bank projects that global waste generation could rise from 2.01 billion metric tons in 2016 to 3.40 billion metric tons by 2050. This linear, one-way, flow of materials, leads to overconsumption of the planet’s resources and causes significant pressure on nature.

Eva Zabey

We are currently consuming natural resources and generating waste 1.75 times faster than the Earth can sustainably provide.

For this to change, it’s not just the habits of consumers and businesses that need to adapt. The waste management sector must also adapt to contribute to a nature-positive future.

Through waste prevention, reduction, recycling and the adoption of circular economy principles, waste management businesses can support society in minimizing waste generation, maximising resource recovery, and reducing the world’s reliance on natural resources. What was once a sector primarily focused on ensuring public health and cleanliness has evolved into a pivotal player in the transition towards a circular economy.

From waste management to resource management

Sustainable economic models need to be circular, and the waste management sector must play a key role by shifting focus from disposing of waste to maximising its prevention, reuse, recycling and resource recovery and utilisation.

Applying circularity to waste management will create the conditions for protecting natural resources, improving both ecosystems and human health and drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This shift from waste management to resource management is a critical step towards a sustainable future.

For the past two decades, waste and resource management company SUEZ has been transitioning its business model to support progress toward a circular economy. SUEZ handles approximately 11M tonnes of waste per year in the UK, and in 2022 diverted 82% of waste from landfills for reuse, recycling or recovery. From supporting brands on waste prevention to operating over 30 reuse shops, Suez has many tangible examples of nature-positive practices in the waste management sector.

Leigh Broadhurst

Sustainability action plans, which include measures to boost biodiversity, are in place for almost all of Suez’s more than 300 sites. Since 2002, the company has restored over 2,000 hectares of land, which involved planting 287,000 trees and 13,000 metres of hedgerows.

Suez has also supported local initiatives to boost biodiversity and protect habitats for local wildlife. For example, in the summer of 2022, Suez saw peregrine falcon chicks hatch at its energy-from-waste facility in Suffolk, UK. Attracted to the tall, cliff-like building, the site has been home to a pair of returning adult birds since 2019. A local expert encouraged the company to create purpose-built nesting boxes for the falcons, who have experienced 80% species loss due to illegal hunting practices and contamination of food supply from the use of toxic agricultural chemicals. In collaboration with Suffolk County Council, Suez has been able to contribute towards the recovery of this protected species.

Benefits beyond biodiversity

Research shows that 83% of Fortune Global 500 companies have targets to address climate change, versus only 5% for biodiversity loss. Waste management companies are often situated at the heart of these challenges, with it being estimated that the extraction and processing of natural resources contribute to an alarming 90% of biodiversity loss and water stress.

Despite this, companies like Suez demonstrate how being conscious of the local landscape, listening to their local communities and taking actions to protect and restore biodiversity will have a positive impact on both the environment and your business.

The benefits extend beyond biodiversity and environmental protection. Reimagining waste management improves the quality of human life too. When waste itself becomes valuable, we unlock endless possibilities. For instance, diverting food waste from landfills and directing it into composting offers a decentralized solution that can reduce methane emissions from the sector by 62% and improve soil health. Food waste becomes healthy soil for us to grow nutritious food on, creating a closed-loop circular system that benefits both the environment and agriculture.

All over the world, waste management businesses are taking steps to mitigate their impacts on nature and take accountability for their greenhouse gas emissions and dependency on natural resources like fossil fuels. Massachusetts-based company LoCI Controls has developed a technology in landfills to enhance methane collection by 10-20%, converting it into natural gas. In one landfill, the company boosted methane sales by an annual rate equivalent to 180,000 mtCO2e (similar to removing 40,000 cars from the road in a year).

Reimagining the waste management sector into a champion for the environment will unlock a number of economic opportunities, creating jobs, technology and institutions. A report from Green Alliance has found that transforming the UK’s approach to repair, reuse, recycling and remanufacturing could create more than 450,000 jobs across the country by 2035.

The path to circularity

Sector-specific guidance from Business for Nature, with support from Accenture and organisations within the waste and resource management sector, outlines the priority actions companies should take to transform business practices and value chains to ensure the sector does its part to contribute towards a nature-positive future. Focusing on 12 sectors, this guidance forms part of a series of reports from Business for Nature, the World Economic Forum and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

The five priority actions outlined for the waste management sector are:

  1. Avoid and reduce the emission of methane at landfill sites.
  2. Avoid and reduce the use of energy and water throughout waste management processes.
  3. Restore and regenerate waste management sites and historically impacted ecosystems.
  4. Transform from waste management to resource management in a circular economy.
  5. Transform the sector through policy advocacy and collaboration.

Not every company will have the same path towards a circular economy – geography, policy and resources will all shape the ways in which businesses engage with sustainable practices. What may work for Suez in the UK, may not for a waste management business in the Middle East.

Even if they’re not the same, all businesses need credible nature strategies that deliver long-term actions to halt and reverse nature loss and contribute towards a nature-positive future.

Addressing the impacts of waste management on nature is a global responsibility, aligned with Goal 12 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.

The waste management sector plays a pivotal role in the transition from a take-make-waste economy to a circular economic model. By embracing these actions and encouraging collaboration within the sector, waste management businesses can create the necessary change and lead the sector towards a more nature-positive, net-zero and equitable future.

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