Image: H&M

Every year, consumers buy 30 billion tons of stuff– from clothing and cosmetics to groceries and homewares. We throw out or demolish 13 billion tons of it as waste – about 2 tons per person. A third of the things that we discard was purchased that very same year. The extraction, use and discarding of so much stuff creates a large environmental burden, from the depletion of minerals to the destruction of rainforests.

The idea of a circular economy aims to address these problems by rejecting the take-make-dispose model of production and consumption that governs our world. Instead, waste is “designed out” and materials are kept at a high value for longer through reuse, repair and recycling. This model is not perfect, as unfortunately, some wastes are an inevitable result of growing or making things, and even durable products such as cars, toasters and smartphones eventually break down or become useless.

So, how should we deal with this reality? How about a legal requirement that recognizes the potential for this waste to be used again? 

Why waste is necessary

To deal with waste, we must first understand why it is there. Waste consists of products that are unwanted, and so, little attention is currently paid to their fate. As a result, these byproducts tend to end up in the wrong places, including ecosystems that supply our food and drinking water. After all, the cheapest way to get rid of waste – a plastic bag, old furniture, an out-of-season dress – is to dump it.

To avoid litter and dumping, governments define everything we discard as waste. Once that happens, strict regulations apply for its transport, treatment and disposal. For example, when you have your car tires replaced, the car workshop needs a permit, or a permitted contractor, to legally and safely reuse, recycle or dispose of the old tires. 

Not a total solution, defining a potentially valuable material as waste can complicate the process of using it again for another purpose. A construction firm – or even boot-maker Timberland, which introduced an “innovative recycled outsole” made with rubber from discarded truck and car tires back in 2008 – may want to reuse the tires. But once the tires are classified as waste, both parties will have to take extra steps to meet regulatory guidelines, including filling out paperwork just to show they are meeting the waste handling requirements. Defining fewer materials as waste cuts out paperwork and makes reuse easier. 

(It is worth noting that tires are flammable and release chemicals as they wear down. If the reuse of them was unregulated, it could compromise fire safety and pose dangers to consumer health. Without strict regulations, car workshop might resort to illegal dumping, which is already a major problem).

The use potential of waste

This leaves regulators with a dilemma. How can we strictly regulate waste while promoting its reuse? The solution is to think ahead. If we know in advance how and to what extent waste can be used again – its “use potential” – we can regulate it more effectively. Most importantly, we need to design products to be safely reusable and create regulations that allow and encourage reuse.

For example, if we design car tires – or fabrics, for that matter – that are not highly flammable and/or potentially toxic, they can be reused in a wider range of applications. To get manufacturers to develop and use these products, governments need to help them identify the use potential of the resulting waste. Tires – and other types of goods – could be approved and labeled not only for their first use on a car, but also for their subsequent reuse in other ways by other industries.

While the path towards sustainability is likely only really achieved by a true reduction in the volume of products created for consumption and ultimately, discarded (this is particularly true when it comes to fashion), a universal requirement for designers across the board to increase the use potential of waste, and for product users to fulfil this potential, could be a good start. Such an approach could ensure that waste is repeatedly used, without having to change the definition of waste and how it is regulated. Waste is still a necessary concept for keeping us safe and preventing illegal dumping, but we should think about it even before it is generated, rather than pretending it can be made to vanish entirely.

Stijn van Ewijk is a Postdoctoral associate at Yale University. Julia Stegemann is a Professor of Environmental Engineering at UCL. (Minor additions courtesy of TFL).