Moderator: Elizabeth A. Kócs, University of Illinois at Chicago
- Gabrielle Gaustad, Alfred University
- Lucas Mariacher, Phoenix Public Works Department
- Karsten Schischke, Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration
Written by Aashutosh Mistry
Population growth intrinsically strains resources supporting human life. The glocal (global and local) nature of today’s communities, combined with population growth, causes sustainability issues. Two separate paradigms have been advocated to assist sustainability goals: Materials for Sustainable Development (e.g., photovoltaics) and more recently Sustainable Development of Materials—a broader approach that promotes materials based on both application as well as sustainability. Despite the recognition of sustainability, waste management has been historically underappreciated, with most of the efforts contained in a linear system that either incinerates the final product or disposes it to landfills.
A panel discussion was organized around sustainability and waste management on Tuesday evening. It was argued that zero waste is a lofty goal, and the end effects may not be apparent immediately. Zero waste is difficult to achieve through waste management, and attention should be focused on waste prevention. Ensuring zero waste is a tricky balance due to a variety of often negatively correlated factors such as the interconnected nature of a zero waste economy, technological as well as policy challenges, the participation of producer and consumer, and different local standards to name a few. Additional ambiguity arises from the fact that zero waste is not consistently defined. For example, San Francisco, California enforces participation in recycling, in contrast to Phoenix, Arizona where it is voluntary. Circular economy, where materials are designed to be reutilized at the end of product life, creates problems as well, especially when a material is banned, and it needs to be phased out from all the phases of the circular economy.
The panelists agreed to a need for lucrative incentives to pursue recycling. Many times, rearranging the process sequence itself can be an effective incentive, for example, a large fraction of recycling cost is attributed to processing—sorting out different waste types, and it is economically more feasible to incentivize consumers to categorize trash than handling it at a recycling plant. This cost of sorting waste often decides whether recycling can be pursued and, in the presence of unacceptable overheads, incinerators or landfills are preferred.
A unique aspect of this panel discussion was the interactive participation of the audience in the form of audience polling. It was argued that good policies go a long way in realizing the zero waste future. Good policies are to be built upon scientific rationale and statistical data, both of which require active participation from scientists and engineers.
This event was supported in part by NSF, MRS Focus on Sustainability, MRS Energy & Sustainability journal, and Symposium ES13.