Waste may be a local issue, but the growing movement to rethink how it’s generated and utilized is beginning to happen on a much larger scale.
With talk of circular economies and closed loop systems becoming more common among companies, nonprofits and local governments, the interest in sustainable material and waste management (MWM) is on the rise. Though without significant policy drivers at the national level, the role of implementing this still falls to state, regional or local governments. Seeing an opening in this field, the American Planning Association (APA) released a report this spring outlining how planners can get more involved.
“Planning for Sustainable Material and Waste Management,” co-authored by Ning Ai and Nancey Green Leigh, outlines a range of ideas to take into consideration for holistic material management plans on any scale. With a particular focus on urban planning, because of the population growth and inherent land challenges that come with it, the APA report sets a bold standard for how cities of the future should think about their waste: "A city cannot be sustainable if it generates more waste than it can assimilate."
That statement is intended to be open-ended, sparking new conversations about the way traditional material management systems run. Regulatory intersection, infrastructure development, social equity, job creation opportunities, data collection and product life-cycles are among the main themes explored.
"Fundamentally, sustainable MWM needs to transform the focus from minimizing pollutants to maximizing the efficiency and value of materials and resources,” reads the report’s introduction. "Opportunities are lost if we continue to focus on residuals disposal and examine waste materials simply as the byproducts of socioeconomic activities."
Waste Dive spoke to Ai, an assistant professor specializing in urban environmental planning, material and waste management, and system analysis of urban sustainability at the University of Illinois at Chicago, to learn more. Ai has a joint appointment at the university's Department of Urban Planning and Policy and Institute for Environmental Science and Policy.
The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
WASTE DIVE: What inspired the APA to commission this report?
NING AI: The more I work on this topic, the more I believe planners have to contribute to it. It’s not just engineers' job and it's not just a public service. No matter what specific area planners are working on — transportation, infrastructure planning, finance, social community development, housing — it has impact. Whatever area they work on, they always have something to contribute to it.
Based on your research, why do you think this topic doesn’t get discussed more often on a national level?
AI: Other advanced economies, like European countries and some Asian countries like Japan, have a lot more proactive and advanced national level policies. I was actually disappointed to see how much money the Americans have spent on waste management services and how little attention they have paid to it. But I think there are multiple factors.
First, because we don't have a national level policy, we don't have that consistent definition or program or data that will provide a concrete basis for a planning process. If we had consistent data reporting requirements then that would provide us more accurate information and meaningful lessons for decisions in the waste management process.
"I was actually disappointed to see how much money the Americans have spent on waste management services and how little attention they have paid to it."
Assistant professor, University of Illinois at Chicago
I feel like for those advanced regions like California who have relatively high quality statistics, in some ways they are penalized because their data show a high volume of waste generation. Other regions may not present that high volume or quantity of waste. That may only suggest they didn't have a quality of data collection and recording system. That's kind of a disappointment from a planning perspective and I think planners could contribute to that or at least advocate for a nationally consistent and proactive policy.
More importantly, I think whenever we talk about environmental issues [we have to realize that] to be sustainable, it has to be financially sustainable. If you talk about this in an economic sense the sustainable practice generally has some inconsistent goals at the local level, and the national or even the global level. The efforts of recycling and waste diversion and material management incur costs at the local level, the impacts are regional, national and global. We call those "externalities," which are not solely benefiting the local environment or community that contribute to this effort. So I think that's fundamentally an economic issue...That's the most important reason to connect the local planning practice with national and global sustainability goals.
The line about cities not being truly sustainable if they can’t assimilate their own waste was very interesting. Do you really think it’s possible for a city to achieve this type of closed loop system?
AI: I would say yes. Think about Earth and the ecosystem. It has been surviving regardless of human presence. We call it a metabolic process. It has inputs and outputs. For other planners, similar processes may also exist. So regardless of human activities, a system can only survive and thrive if they are not generating more waste than they themselves assimilate. When we go back to the case of cities, I would say that whenever we talk about sustainability, economic efficiency, environmental effectiveness and social equity are the three goals. Most of the time when people think about sustainability, they think about environmental sustainability as the first performance goal. But in practice if we want to be realistic then [making a program] financially sound has to be a primary goal.
"When we go back to the case of cities, I would say that whenever we talk about sustainability, economic efficiency, environmental effectiveness and social equity are the three goals."
Assistant professor, University of Illinois at Chicago
When we think about a zero waste plan, technically speaking it is possible. We have the science and technology that have demonstrated we could possibly handle and recycle all the materials we have discarded. Now the essential issue is the cost, [deciding] if the cost of managing that really can justify the benefit of it. The benefit could be environmental benefits, but it could be also socioeconomic benefits. It really depends on people's perception — how they think about the benefits, for example, of recycling, reuse and recovering.
How do you think the waste and recycling industry compares to other sectors from a planning perspective? Because less national policy exists, it's more market-driven. Do you see a need for more transparency with consumers because of that?
AI: I strongly believe so. Industries tend to hold tightly to their data. I think they can be more transparent. They could share the data, not to disclose their business operations, but more to educate the public. It is mutually beneficial. For example, a lot of the time when we think about the environmental impact or footprint, people will question the big players in the industry sector. [They say] it's the polluting industry that generates more greenhouse gas emissions and has a larger carbon footprint. But when we check the data from another perspective actually consumers, us, contribute to most of it. The industry, from that perspective, could open up more and then help consumers understand better what they are doing and what it means, for the environment and the society.
Also, I think most of the time, at least for now, because we don't have this national policy, some more advanced thinking industries are using this as a marketing brand to promote their business. No matter how green they are, they are using this is as a brand. But truly I think if they also play a role in educating the public, then they will stimulate more demand of “green” products [and reduce the cost through economies of scale]. Right now if we continue the pattern...we may just be racing to the bottom, whatever's cheapest - go for it - regardless of the environmental impact. And that's a fundamental issue.