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12 May 2017

Zero Hazardous Waste?

waste minimisation recycling workshops

I had a meeting earlier with a Sustainability Manager earlier this week who is busy drafting a Sustainability Strategy for his company. His waste goal was "zero non-hazardous waste" and I mused that in the last ten years such a once-impossible target has become pretty much standard – which is a brilliant achievement by the Sustainability community.

But what about hazardous waste? The main reason why this is caveated out of zero waste targets is the tight regulation around such material reduces the opportunities for action. In sectors such as healthcare where human tissue or blood is involved, there isn't much room for manoeuvre, but for others my (blasphemous) alternative to the waste hierarchy still applies:

Design it out or find a good use for it.

The circular economy mindset sees the hazardous nature of a material as an opportunity rather than a problem. So if you have a highly alkaline 'waste' material, you need to investigate uses for alkalis, preferably those which result in pH neutral materials.

The design process offers exciting opportunities for innovation. In one of my favourite examples, Camira found that using a mixture of wool and bast fibres (e.g. sisal) led to a naturally flame retardant fabric, eliminating the need for hazardous chemicals and the resulting waste.

It will be interesting to see how this develops over the next decade – I expect to see 'zero waste' applying to all waste, not just the benign stuff. After all it was just a few years ago that people kept telling me that zero non-hazardous waste was physically impossible.


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14 March 2011

Japan's Double Jeopardy

I can't think of a worse situation than the one Japan finds itself in. They have suffered a terrible natural catastrophe, killing thousands and wiping out local infrastructure. Then, with the country already reeling, a nuclear meltdown is ticking away - a race against time to avert another disaster.

I've never been a big fan of nuclear energy. While for some it is an issue of political identity or moral certainties, for me it is the practicalities - cost, the long term sustainability of a finite and rare fuel, the safe storage of waste for millenia, the risk of theft of radioactive material by malignant tendencies, and, most of all, the risk that it all goes horribly wrong. We can do all the risk assessments we like, but every so often a series of circumstances coincides and we witness a major accident, whether we're talking about Chernobyl, Hurricane Katrina or the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The whole point of being 'benign by design' is to remove potential hazards at the drawing board. If you don't have hazardous material in the system in the first place, then little or nothing can go wrong. This applies at the organisational level as well as international incidents. If you don't have hazardous material on site, then it doesn't matter how unlucky you are, the impacts of any incident are much diminished.

In the meantime, like everyone, my thoughts are with the people of Japan, hoping that the brave engineers can quickly shut down the at-risk nuclear reactors, leaving the country free to concentrate on rescuing the dispossessed, rebuilding what it has lost and taking time to mourn those who perished.

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