books circular economy waste

Book review: Waste, by Kate O’Neill

Since Planet Earth II and Britain’s awakening to the issue of plastic pollution, there has been a string of books on cutting out plastic – How to give up plastic, No more plastic, Turning the tide on plastic, etc. The focus of these books has been on the consumer, on what we can do to avoid single use plastic around the house.

Kate O’Neill, an environmental science professor at UC Berkeley, has started at the other end of the scale and deals with the global issues of waste. Globalization has given us international trade in goods and services, and its counterpart is an international trade in waste. This is usually invisible – for the end user, the beginning and end of our engagement with waste services is that we expect things to be taken away. A central aim of the book then, is to make waste visible again.

One thing that rapidly emerges is complexity, and that’s largely because waste itself is so varied. To use the example O’Neill cites, waste includes a dab of leftover mustard on the side of a plate, but also a decommissioned nuclear power station. Each form of waste needs a different approach. Food waste, for example, is highly suited to very local processing and circular economy approaches. (I have one of the tightest loops possible in my own household: raised beds – kitchen – wormery – raised beds.) Discarded electronics need more complicated processing and that will happen where there is a ready end user for the extracted resources.

That’s another thing that the book makes visible: markets. For the most part, waste isn’t ‘dumped’ on other countries. It is bought by the ton by brokers who have a use for it. Countries that manufacture and export plastic goods can make use of recycled plastics, or that certainly used to be the case with China. Old electronics are processed where there are repair networks or where resource recovery is economical. There are abuses and injustices of course, but it is not a simple flow of the North’s garbage to the global South.

Waste picks through these questions with a series of chapters looking at discarded electronics, food waste and plastic scrap. It also looks at waste as a livelihood, and the sections on how waste is processed informally in developing countries are particularly useful – well established informal waste processing can deliver higher recycling rates than many advanced industrial societies achieve. There are real opportunities to make them safer while preserving jobs and small businesses, something Tearfund have done some good work on in their reports on circular economies in the developing world.

The book isn’t comprehensive. I’d have liked to see more on how prices of raw materials affect prices for scrap. Falling gas prices have played a significant role in our current plastics crisis, for example. I’d like to know more about waste smuggling and black market handling of waste, though obviously this is notoriously difficult to trace. As a recent local example, Milton Keynes council have been trying to establish how their recycling was found by the BBC in a field in Malaysia. There are markets for recyclate, but they are clearly failing.

In this aspect the book is a victim of timing, as it was written right in the middle of China’s Operation National Sword, which has shaken the global recycling industry to its core. I imagine this was both an exciting opportunity and a major headache for the author. We don’t yet know the medium to long term consequences of China’s decision to close its doors to waste imports, and it means that certain sections of the book feel almost provisional.

Still, behind that unassuming cover and one-word title is a very readable and useful introduction to waste as a problem and as a resource. It tidies up some lazy assumptions about how waste is moved and processed in a global economy, sketches out an industry that is largely invisible, and serves as a great primer on global waste.

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