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

How mobile phones are 280 billion cars and 5,600 atomic bombs

I started looking at the production, use and disposal of electronic goods to figure out the environmental impacts along each of these stages. I found a paper that revealed just how much energy it takes to produce a mobile phone, which analysed the four processes involved in mobile phone production. The final result: the production of one mobile phone is equal to the energy of 175 one-tonne vehicles moving at 100 mph (source at the end of post).

Last year 1.6 billion phones were produced globally, with 60% of production coming from China.

Energy use breakdown

Here’s the joulific breakdown of energy required to produce a phone. Manufacturing mobile phones occurs in four stages, listed below.

    1. Materials extraction 23MJ
    2. Component manufacturing 120MJ
    3. Assembly 2MJ
    4. Packaging & transport 30MJ


Measuring the energy in joules- bite size recap

The units used for measuring energy use is joules. A joule represents the work done in applying a force required to accelerate a mass of one kilogram at a rate of one metre per second, per second (no type here). What on earth does this mean?

Here are some practical examples, straight from Wiki-P:

One joule in everyday life is approximately:

      • the energy required to lift a small apple one metre straight up. (A mass of about 102 g)
      • the energy released when that same apple falls one metre to the ground.
      • the energy released as heat by a person at rest, every 1/60th of a second.
      • the kinetic energyof a 50 kg human moving very slowly (0.2 m/s).
      • the kinetic energy of a tennis ball moving at 23 km/h (14 mph).

A mega joule is equivalent to one million joules, or more practically:

“the kinetic energy of a one-tonne vehicle moving at 160 km/h (100 mph)” (Wikipedia again).

Kinetic energy refers to the energy an object possesses when it’s in motion, so the energy needed to get it from a stationary to a moving state.

Global scale

Last year 1.6 billion phones were put on the market (UNEP), which required the following amount of energy for production: 1.6billion * 175MJ = 280 petajoules. The total global production of mobile phones thus requires an amount of energy equivalent to accelerate nearly 280 billion Volkswagen Golfs from 0 to 100mph. Bear in mind there are currently ‘only’ 1 billion cars in the world.


Volkswagen Golf Mk5, weight 1.3 tonnes

UPDATE [20th July]

Producing 1.6 billion phones each year requires 280 Petajoules of energy, equivalent to the energy released from approximately 5600 Hiroshima bombs (280 Petajoules / 50 Terajoules). All with some help from my engineering friends.

The Hiroshima nuclear bomb released roughly 50 Terajoules energy.

These figures don’t even include the energy required in the use, nor in the disposal of mobile phones. Take into consideration that we replace our mobile devices on average every 18-24 months. Even before we throw the phone away, we keep them in storage at home for at least 2 years before we chuck it, hopefully, into an appropriate waste stream. Storage delays recycling, which means we can’t substitute virgin materials with resources we could’ve otherwise have extracted from old mobile phones.

What to do?

Research shows that holding onto phones for longer reduces their environmental impact. So keep your mobile phone for as long as you can, until it breaks and can’t be repaired. Most people stop using their phone before it’s reached its end of life. Once you wish to throw it away, make sure you give it up to an appropriate programme where it can be treated properly.

Storing electronics influences the amount of products entering the waste stream before they can be appropriately treated. Nokia published results on a survey on how many mobile phones ended up in storage before being disposed of, which revealed the difficulty in collecting mobile phones, as nearly half were kept in home drawers (Cobbing, 2008) and merely 5% were collected for end of life treatment:

  • 48% kept in storage
  • 27% traded in for a new phone through vendor
  • 13% passed on to another person
  • 7% did something else
  • 3% national collection
  • 2% recycled through Nokia take back points

Envirofone, Mazuma and Pound4Phone are all highly rated mobile phone recycling services that are easy and simple to use.

I’m certainly a little sad about my phone taking up quite so much energy, but I have been using this little simple thing when I go travelling over the past 5 years and it’s still going strong. No obsolescence here (as compared to the iPhone I also own… woe betide the age of communication).

Source for MJ figures: Analysis of material and energy consumption of mobile phones in China, Jinglei Yu, Eric Williams , Meiting Ju 


Gotta keep it up

Why the city and cooperatives matter

Yesterday I trekked across Sao Paulo to Barra Funda to visit one of the city’s best waste cooperatives, Coopermiti. I say one of the best because cooperatives that deal with waste tend to have a bad reputation of being disorganised, inefficient and unfortunately dirty too (this came from two sector professionals who work with cooperatives).

Coopermiti are unique in that they secured a partnership with the Municipality of São Paulo, meaning that they are contracted by the city to deal with e-waste. Currently they recycle around 20,000 tonnes a month, employ around 30 ‘cooperadores’ and are pioneers in that they treat all types of e-waste. They receive the waste through donations and collection points and separate individual components before sending them off to appropriate recycling treatment centres. They are 100% efficient and create zero waste themselves.

I spent two hours there speaking with the President and then taking a tour around the place. Their employees are previously low-skilled or unemployed workers who are trained in the ways of a cooperative and learn to fix and dismantle waste, giving them great technical skills. Here’s Ana dismantling a desktop using the right type of equipment and protection.

Ana doing her thing

Usually when the private sector deals with waste, they only treat stuff that’s high in value: computers, laptops, mobile phones, printers etc. Nobody cares about hair dryers, keyboards, vacuum cleaners, electric shavers etc. Why? Because these products don’t contain the gold, silver, copper, palladium or tantalum found in ICT. Tantalum is made of coltan ore, which can fetch US$ 500 on the market, is found in mobile phones and mined in the Congo (in effect financing militias that force people into slave labour and destroy ecosystems).

What’s more, this cooperative also tackles social issues of digital exclusion and unemployment. However, without the help of the government they wouldn’t be able to operate.

So, there are some issues in our world that the private sector alone cannot solve. Treating all types of e-waste is one of them, which requires innovative and new types of partnerships, technology and infrastructure.

And when e-waste is this pretty, who wouldn’t want to work with it?

Instagram can make anything look pretty. I like these motherboards though.