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Waste models as green crystal balls

To improve current resources use and decrease related waste, scientists are now building material consumption models focusing down to the national level

Waste models as green crystal balls

By 2030, two planets might not be sufficient to sustain human activities. Estimates suggest that we are currently using resources equivalent of 1.5 planets. And the trend is going upwards. That’s according to the Living Planet Report (LPR2012), published earlier this year by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). The problem is that we are restricted to one world. To reduce consumption, we therefore need a deeper understanding of the fate of the resources we use.

Models in material flow assessment (MFA) give such an insight. For example, one EU funded model, called FORWAST, was designed to follow the fate of products we use, encompassing material use and waste generation. It successfully forecast volumes for 102 types of waste, in the first complex model for the EU-27 countries created back in 2009. “[It] is an innovative project with interesting results,” says Alejandro Villanueva from the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies in Seville, Spain. He believes that its advantages are that it created a robust and self-evaluating tool.

However the weakness of this model is that it relied on many assumptions. Insufficient environmental data in each of the contributing EU-27 nation’s account was available at the time. Policy makers thus found the predictions were of limited use to inform decisions for waste management. 

Instead, thanks to the subsequent availability of environmental date, another EU funded research project called CREEA offered some new solutions. Based on comparative assessments of material use and resource efficiency, it provides data for all product groups in the EU-27 and their 15 major EU trading partners. This project draws extensively on data from the FORWAST model.

This novel approach could well overcome limitations of existing models by providing robust waste predictions for various individual products. Unlike previous attempts, its granularity goes down to national levels. “I am convinced this approach can identify best practice models dealing with products more resource efficiently than others,” says Stefan Giljum, head of the Sustainable Resource Use research group at the Vienna, Austria-based think-tank Sustainable Europe Research Institute (SERI).

Giljum believes comparing national strategies for product categories could help identify best practice models.  For example, Austria was a pioneer in using MFA to model the national consumption of building materials. The model revealed such resource use is considerably higher than previously assumed. They attributed the difference to underreporting of smaller businesses. “This is likely to occur in other European countries and at international level as well,” comments Dagmar Hutter, responsible for data management at the Austrian Federal environmental agency in Vienna, Austria.

To date policy makers have focussed on increasing efficiency of material use to offset economic growth. “Rather than a policy focus on productivity increases, which encourages business-as-usual, the focus should be directly on reducing consumption,” comments Fridolin Krausmann, deputy director of the Institute of Social Ecology in Vienna, Austria. This is in line with the LPR2012 calls for an immediate focus on drastically shrinking the ecological footprint of high-income populations.

10 December 2012

By Stefan Grünert

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This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Programme for research, technological development and demonstration under grant agreement No 6419747th FWP