How to maintain environmental recovery post-pandemicWritten by Shahino Mah
The idea of sustainable industrial practices through circular economy can be one of the many solutions to address environmental issues post-pandemic as it will reduce the exploitation of resources, maximise their utility, and reduce waste from landfills while minimising pollution.
A circular economy is aimed at reducing waste of resources through redesigning, reducing, repairing, reusing, refurbishing, recycling and recovering processes that will eventually allow regeneration of natural ecosystem.
Ideally, it will prevent the collection of waste in landfills and, to a certain extent, be capable of discarding existing wastes. In the post-pandemic period, there are several challenges in implementing a circular economy.
First, the government has to prioritise expenditure towards recovering public health to be resilient in current and future pandemic events; empower the support system to help affected individuals and businesses; and most importantly, revive the economy in the long run.
Therefore, to ensure the environmental recovery agenda is not left behind, the integration of long-term sustainability must be part and parcel of policy decisions.
For example, building more coal power plants is not the best long-term measure for the people, economy and the environment. Instead, adding and expanding reliable greener energy facilities is beneficial to meet current energy demand while also creating jobs and reducing pollution.
The circular economy involves, among others, the transformation of waste to energy (WTE) through incineration plants to clear landfills and recover collected wastes in the form of electricity back to industries and consumers.
Energy recovery from waste is basically the conversion of non-recyclable waste materials through a variety of processes, including combustion, pyrolisation, gasification, anaerobic digestion and landfill gas recovery, into usable heat, electricity or fuel. WTE plays an important role in sustainable waste management and reduces the reliance on fossil sources with high carbon emissions.
However, countries like Sweden and Holland exhibit incineration overcapacity, which not only used up all their landfills' wastes but now they have to import more wastes from neighbouring countries for energy generation.
From one perspective, the waste-to-energy policy and its implementation there have been successful and indicate their capability to be circular economy nations.
However, this ambitious waste-free economy will potentially impact the recycling market. Excessive incineration of waste to energy will discourage the recycling of reusable materials such as plastics, cans and papers.
Consequently, the need for more raw resources cannot be reduced due to the inability of the recycling sector to make a significant contribution. This is because the amount of waste channelled to the recycling sector and waste-to-energy incinerator is hugely disproportionate.
The reason behind this might be due to a less-complicated process in transforming waste to energy through incineration compared with recycling procedures that include the collection, transportation, sorting, cleaning and complex reprocess before new products can be produced and sold.
Despite the challenges faced by the recycling sector in most countries, it must be improved and empowered since recycling is an essential subset of a circular economy.
Therefore, waste-to-energy should not be an alternative to bypass recycling and shall not be considered as the only and easier option to eliminate waste.
The recycling sector can actually be an opportunity for industries to make a profitable business.
The producer can change the packaging and product design to create market demand for recycled materials and reduce price volatility.
Lastly, the waste sorting system must be made efficient for the long term. WTE incineration process will serve as a short-term solution to manage the waste crisis, while a good waste sorting system will favour the recycling and WTE sectors.
The increasing importance of waste sorting is further underlined since the Covid-19 pandemic saw a large increase in medical and plastic wastes.
In the future, the government must also consider adopting new technology that improves waste-sorting to protect the environment.
The circular economy strategy, which includes integrated and systemic solutions involving waste management, recycling, and WTE initiatives, will further support environmental recovery post-pandemic. Additionally, it will increase job creation and the long-term resilience of the country.
The writer is a Research Fellow at the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia
Published in: The New Straits Times, Friday 10 Dec 2021