Ten Trends from 2013: Waste Not, Want Not

17 Dec 2013Mohammed Al-Shawaf

The expanding legitimacy of waste picking. Image of Filipino waste picker by Global Environment Facility, Flickr.

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For over 25 years, companies have valued our ability to serve as their early warning system—to interpret emerging issues and trends in the sustainable development agenda and help them anticipate, understand and respond to shifts in the business landscape. In 2013, SustainAbility re-launched a dedicated function to regularly track and interpret “what’s next”—our Ten Trends of 2013 series is the distillation and public output of our thinking over the year.

From 1900 to 2000, global population increased just under four times, while the amount of waste produced by humans increased ten times. With waste set to double again by 2025, and the world facing a number of drivers (e.g. less space for landfills, urbanization, volatile commodity prices) that are already upending the status quo, a variety of actors are viewing waste as an enormous business opportunity.

While concepts such as industrial ecology and circular economy (CE) are not new (see Kalundborg, Denmark), there is heightened interest in re-thinking and reusing waste. In 2013, the Ellen McArthur Foundation launched the Circular Economy 100, a business alliance that includes Coca-Cola, M&S and Ikea with an ambition to accelerate CE projects that result in an “aggregated economic benefit of $10 billion” by 2015. We also see goals from Unilever to increase recycling rates in their top 14 markets by 15% by 2020 (not theirs – the national rates!), and a budding effort from Walmart and others to increase recycling across the US.

The economic case is also being made in other parts of the waste value chain. Cities are experimenting with new technology and partnerships to not only reduce the methane emissions associated with landfilled waste, but also to access untapped value. New York City, for instance, pays $335 million per year in fees annually to landfill operators and forgoes a minimum of $40 million in valuable commodities that are landfilled instead of being recycled. The UK–based NGO WRAP published a study this year showing the money consumers were throwing out, estimating that the average UK family was wasting nearly £60 a month of food by throwing away almost an entire meal a day.

What has been referred to as the final frontier of recycling, food waste, is seeing a rise in interest too, spurred in part by a sweeping FAO report studying the environmental impacts of global food wastage for the first time. New initiatives abound, but of note, Tesco published its food waste figures for the first time and pledged to alter promotions and increase education to shoppers. While noteworthy, many more actors along the value chain will need to be engaged which is why we are interested in following the development of the new Food Waste and Loss Protocol, led by WRI, that will enable countries and companies to measure and monitor food loss and waste. While the economic and environmental aspects of waste are important levers for bringing more actors around the table, a thread that is equally, if not more, important is its connection to livelihoods across the world, from the expanding legitimacy of waste pickers to the real prize in rethinking food waste: As FAO’s Director-General states, “We simply cannot allow one-third of all the food we produce to go to waste, when 870 million people go hungry every day.”

If you’re interested in learning more about our trends service for your business, contact Mohammed Al-Shawaf or Michael Sadowski.

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