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From waste management to waste prevention

Closing implementation gaps through sustainable action nets

This project deals with the principle formulated by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency that sustainable waste policy should be oriented toward waste prevention and not only waste management. National authorities can steer through decisions and legislation, and introduce incitements and control mechanisms. But practical responsibility for a sustainable waste reduction is given to a non coordinated mix of local actors.

The aim of this research project was to identify and explain gaps between planning and implementation for sustainable development based on the case of waste prevention. Waste prevention illustrates the gaps that tend to appear between plans and outcomes when local authorities implement a national policy in collaboration with actors (corporations, associations,citizens) with diverging interests and priorities. Providing a theoretical understanding of implementation gaps is necessary if planning is to be effective. The project combined action net theory and sociological new institutionalism to show that planning can be conceptualized as the envisioning of actions aimed at building new nets of relations among actors and stabilizing these relations into action nets that stand for new behaviors. The project rested on case studies and a series of interactive workshops where actors involved in waste prevention and researchers gather to identify obstacles to plan for waste prevention in order to better prevent gaps between planning and implementation. Budget: 7,9 MSek, about 910 000 Euros Period: 2014-2017 .Final report available here

Popular scientific summary: Reframe Waste as a Moral Issue

Waste prevention has been on the EU agenda since 1975, and preventing waste is a top priority objective. Far too little has been done in this area, however, and our waste production is still high and rising.  One explanation is that waste prevention focuses on household waste. We know up to a few kilos how much waste a Swedish household produces and what everybody should do with a tin or a drinking straw. On the other hand, the large waste streams, such as industrial waste and mining waste, fall outside our waste prevention policies despite the fact that they are responsible for five to twenty times more waste, as does household waste found in our water and sewerage, as well as radioactive waste and CO2. To summarise: one or two gnats, but no camel. As long as waste prevention is not based on a holistic approach any waste prevention policy is bound to fail.

Our waste prevention policy, i.e. disconnecting waste production from economic growth, is based on two main principles: teaching households to reduce their waste and providing market incentives for reducing industrial and commercial waste. Both these principles are not particularly well anchored. Swedish households have shown themselves to readily sort their waste, but not more than that. The industrial and commercial sectors handle their waste following the simple formula of choosing the cheaper of two alternatives: preventing generation of waste or producing waste and letting someone else take care of it in return for payment. Since waste disposal services are cheap, this is the alternative that is selected.

In addition, the policy overlooks the fact that when talking about waste, industry and commerce refer to waste generated in their own production processes, but not to waste generated after the consumers are done with their products and services. There is little incentive for the producers to reduce post-consumer waste. On the contrary, it is rather profitable for producers to package their products in protective covers, or to produce articles characterised by a short life cycle, and even products with built-in obsolescence, i.e. design features artificially shortening the products’ lifespan. The responsibility and cost for waste is transferred from one party to another, which makes it impossible to use a holistic approach during the lifecycle of the products and services, which falls outside the market logic. At most, there will be some decrease at each stage, but no real reduction in total waste volume.

While the politicians concentrate on getting consumers to use more second-hand articles, and rent or repair things if possible, and above all to recycle, there is little incentive for developing a range of low-waste products and services. Reducing the generation of waste is left to the good will of companies, hoping they will develop low-waste products even though this is unprofitable for them and inconsistent with entrepreneurial logic.

What can be done about it then? A whole lot! Making waste production less legitimate and more prominent so that it is perceived as an environmental and resource problem; making waste management more expensive, so that searching for preventive measures pays; making waste production an ethically charged issue so that everybody realises it is their responsibility if waste ends up in our soil, water and air when we burn it in our power stations – which is then called green energy – one of the waste policies most hypocritical euphemisms. The consumers must understand that waste is a result of a long chain of production and consumption. The producers need to be made responsible for the waste generated by their products. The distributors need to search for packaging alternatives, which now solve their logistic problems, but which also create mountains of disposable packaging waste, and which, in the best cases, can be recycled.

A circular economy is encouraged as a solution and a way to sustainable economic growth – a kind of positive alternative to sustainable development. Under the slogan of developing industrial solutions similar to biological cycles, a circular economy is presented as a way of retaining the value of materials, eliminating waste in the long term and even as recreating. When choosing between ecology and economy, the circular economy chooses, of course, the latter, even though it invokes the former. Once more any progress in the area depends on the good will of industry and commerce, and above all on being interested in developing circular business models. In reality, only those circular solutions which prove to be profitable will see the light of day. Besides that, the circular economy has no answers to what will happen to materials which cannot circulate in more than a few material cycles, such as paper, plastic or cotton; or to materials which are combined in such a way that they develop declining technical characteristics; or to materials which spread in such a refined way that it is difficult to reassemble them or repair them.

There is more to be done if we return to waste prevention, its policies and solutions. One of the mistakes here has to do with terminology. Just as preventive dental care has nothing to do with tooth repair, waste prevention has nothing to do with waste. Waste prevention is about introducing systemic changes to the production, distribution and consumption processes. Waste prevention activities of the municipalities are, however, organised in such a way as if they had to do with handling waste. We need to teach our children (and ourselves) to consume less and in a different manner. Instead of making study visits to waste recycling centres to see how waste is handled, visits should be made to shopping centres where future waste is being sold. We should learn more from activists who do repairs, encourage reducing waste in real life – we must not forget that waste sorting was introduced by hippies in the 60s, living on the margins of society at the time, which has now become a normal thing to do. We must change our attitude to waste, so that it is associated with shame rather than living the good life.

Right of disposition is a suitable word in the context of municipal authorities. For how can waste prevention, which is at the pinnacle of waste hierarchy and has therefore top priority, be hampered by being unable to be financed through monthly garbage rates? Despite the fact that waste prevention is at the top of waste hierarchy, waste prevention receives a very small portion of the municipal budgets. The municipalities must be given the right to make decisions concerning preventive measures, be able to invest resources in it and act decisively and energetically. Political decisions reducing waste in a direct way are also welcome and should target organisations to a higher degree, since they are much stronger than individual persons. In order to combat the giant masses of plastic waste it is not enough that consumers learn not to throw away their PET bottles. What is necessary is to stop the production and distribution of water in plastic bottles for consumers who have access to tap water which is safe to drink, which can be done by means of political decisions and organised action.

Last but not least, waste prevention entails the following question: is it worth the waste, for me, for us, and for the coming generations? The answer is ‘no’, it is not worth the waste. What remains is to adopt a holistic approach, starting from raw material recovery, via production, consumption and post-consumption, minimizing this way the amount of waste generated along the entire chain. Let us thus strain at both a gnat and a camel!

Hervé Corvellec, University of Lund, and Patrik Zapata, University of Gothenburg




















Hervé Corvellec

Professor Hervé Corvellec
Institutionen för service management och tjänstevetenskap
Lunds universitet

Epost: herve [dot] corvellec [at] ism [dot] lu [dot] se
Tel: 042 356 603, 0730 31 99 04


Patrik Zapata

Professor Patrik Zapata
Göteborgs Universitet

Epost:patrik [dot] zapata [at] spa [dot] gu [dot] se
Tel: 031 786 1611