Can you tell your litter from your waste?

There is a systemic difference between the words wasting and littering, which has huge effects on the potential for recycling and a cleaner society. This startling difference in language and thus behaviour became clear to me on a recent trip I made to Florianópolis, the capital of one of Brazil’s most developed states, Santa Catarina.

11-hour bus ride to the south

There I was welcomed by NovoCiclo, a pioneering sustainable business with a mission to create a zero waste society. Founded by Rodrigo Sabatini, the organisation delivers services to clients that improve the organisation’s or household’s waste management and installs aesthetic systems to change behaviour.

For the fact of the matter is that our global waste problem is as much a behaviour issue as it is an infrastructure problem. 

Litter vs. Waste

Given today’s production and consumption processes it is impossible to produce litter. However, it is possible to generate zero waste.

Litter, by definition, “consists of waste products that have been disposed of improperly, without consent, in an inappropriate location.” (Wiki-P). 

In contrast, waste is an object the holder discards, intends to discard or is required to discard.” (European Union) 

There are many different types of waste, which only become litter when discarded of inappropriately and when it becomes contaminated, infected and mixed up with organic waste and other types of wet waste. To avoid littering, separation of waste types is key to make recycling and material recovery as effective as possible.

Below is a photo of different types of wastes that have been dumped next to a river. I took this picture in 2008, not knowing I’d return to the issue 4 years later. Children played right next to this heap, which contains organic waste, plastic and household items – all which could have been recycled and disposed of had it been separated and collected correctly.

Dumped types of waste in a favela in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte

On a global scale, I wasn’t aware that the size of the Pacific Rubbish Patch is half the size of Brazil and consists of 100 million tonnes of rubbish. This is the issue NovoCiclo are trying to solve, and it begins in our homes.

The Great Pacific Garbage patch is half the size of Brazil and is generated through a combination of unsustainable behaviour and poor infrastructure

The amount of waste we collect determines the efficiency of the recycling chain and system, which is made up of various processes depicted in the image below regarding electronic waste. If collection is low, end-processing is expensive and produced little output in terms of recycled materials. Each year, around 40 million tonnes of e-waste is produced, 80% of which ends up in dumps, landfills or is informally recycled in China or in African states.

Recycling chain, taken from UNEP and Umicore

Until recently I wasn’t aware of the difference between litter and waste, which is more pronounced in Brazilian Portuguese. ‘Lixo’ (pronounced lee-sho) refers to a mixture of different types of waste that cannot be disposed of correctly. ‘Residuos’ refers to waste types that have been separated for recycling, i.e. plastics, paper, organic waste etc.

An innovative business solution

NovoCiclo specialises in providing zero waste services, helping clients like residential buildings, companies and government bodies to create zero waste.

Their primary strategy is behaviour change through design, marketing and aesthetics. The concept is simple: set up a system that helps people separate their waste as much as possible. What once was a heap of mixed rubbish items turns into an organised, clean and tidy collection site.

This is one of the systems designed by NovoCiclo’s team. It’s intended for household use and provides different compartments and space for waste types: plastic, paper, electronic, organic and glass amongst others.

Nicely designed waste sorter for households

NovoCiclo provide great looking infographics for clients that breakdown how much waste was separated, what type of wastes were generated and how much CO2, trees, water and energy clients saved. They typically reduce client’s litter production by over 90%, facilitating correct waste disposal  so that as much as possible is recycled.

They’ve also set up a big recycling shipping container in the city, Espaço Recicle, intended to raise awareness and engage people in waste separation. Anybody can walk in on one end with their separated waste in exchange for reward points. These points can be exchanged for recycled and upcycled products on the other end of the shipping container.

Customers can pick up and buy upcycled and recycled products with the points they collect when handing in waste

Tackling the global waste issue

I often hear people discredit the effect of individual action on issues such as global climate change, rising CO2 and degradation of our ecosystems. If my trip to Florianopolis taught me one thing, it’s that all of us are responsible for the waste we produce as individuals. To make recycling and waste management as efficient as possible, collection rates need to be high. The more households separate waste, the better and more efficient collection can be. Our input determines the efficiency of the recycling chain. 

What you can do

  1. Educate yourself – understand your local waste management system and collection
  2. Separate your waste – especially try to keep your wet/organic waste separate from dry waste (paper, plastic, etc.)
  3. Dispose correctly – especially e-waste, take it to credited e-waste recyclers
  4. Engage yourself – take it one step further and try to recycle your food waste in a wormery or in a compost box

3 thoughts on “Can you tell your litter from your waste?

  1. Great post Katerina. However, your last sentence “our input determines the efficiency of the recycling chain” caught my attention, because nowadays not even the INPUT that you advocate for is defined and exactly this is a major problem. Oftentimes poor design and stupid pure economic decisions in sourcing determine the fate of a material, and whether it will ever be possible to recycle this material on a high level. I wish you all the best with your work, and if you need input you know where to contact :-)! Abraco

    • Hi Markus! That’s exactly the issue, there’s such a lack of knowledge and understanding of the implications of materials from a sustainability point of view. I.e.: does this material easily break down? Is it good for recycling? Can it be reused after its first cycle? Is it toxic? How much energy/water is needed to recycle or recover this material?

      These are question product designers aren’t familiar with yet, because they haven’t had to be. It seems that things are likely to change in Europe, where discussions on resource efficiency are growing. In Brazil, however, these discussions are still very nascent.

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