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

Taking it back to the original source

Do you know how much aluminium you consume per year? Could you take a guess at how much copper your friend in a country like Brazil, Nigeria or China consumes?

It’s a bit of an odd question to ask yourself. Usually we’re asked to consider how much water or energy we consume, to which most of us splutter out some figures we don’t even really understand, like 5kWh (a unit I’m still getting my head around, but apparently most professionals don’t get it either, so here’s a good explanation if you wish to learn more, from David MacKay).

Yet, the electronics we own consume vast amounts of non-renewable resources. We’ve had an impact on the environment in just buying the product, even before we turn it on. I came across some data regarding the extraction of aluminium to produce electronic goods and I spent 40 minutes checking calculations because I couldn’t believe how much waste is generated.

The figures just reinforce how critical it is to recycle materials from electronics.

Metals for electronics: crash course
To make electronics, we need to extract metals. Some of the most popular metals found in electronics are:

  • Gold
  • Silver
  • Palladium
  • Copper
  • Tin
  • Aluminium

There are also some less well-known metals, like ruthenium, antimony, bismuth, selenium and indium.

Your average mobile phone contains around 250mg of silver, 24mg gold, 9mg palladium and 9g of copper (according to this report by the UNEP). That’s not much on an individual scale, but consider that in 2010 1.6 billion new mobile phones entered the market.

For the 1.6 billion mobile phones produced in 2010, this required:

  • 400 tonnes of silver (equivalent to the weight of 80 African bush elephants)
  • 38.4 tonnes of gold (7 elephants)
  • 14,400 kg of palladium (2 elephants)
  • 14,400 tonnes of copper (2 elephants)

In 2007 the combined sales of mobile phones and personal computers represented 3% of global supply of silver and gold, 13% of palladium and 15% of copper [1].

If we continue mining silver at the rate at which we did in 2010, we’re left with 23 years worth of reserves. So by 2033 all the silver in the ground will have been mined. The good news is that silver is fairly substitutable, but that doesn’t solve the issue of resource scarcity. For copper it’s been estimated we have about 39 years left and for gold about 20 years.

If these figures have stoked some interest, take a look at the Resource Revolution Report. It contains lots of information on all types of resources and how we’re guzzling them away.

Back to the start
In answer to the original question, people living in a country with a GDP higher than US$25,000 are said to consume between 15-35 kg of aluminium per year. Individuals living in a country with a GDP lower than US $5,000 consume less than 5kg of aluminium per year. The aluminium is embodied in TVs, laptops and computers amongst others.
To produce 1 tonne of aluminium, you need to extract 4-5 tonnes of bauxite first, which then gets processed into aluminium. One tonne of bauxite generates 13 tonnes of waste. So one tonne of aluminium generates circa 65 tonnes of waste (13*5). Click on the image to the right for better detail.

For 10,000 televisions, you need to extract 6t of aluminium, which generates 390 tonnes of waste (equivalent to 36 new London Routemasters [2]).

So far, so good. Now, lets consider that 200 million new televisions were produced last year. This means 7,800,000 tonnes of waste produced to make the aluminium for 200 million TVs. This is equal to 300 million London Routemasters.

These facts are for aluminium alone. The extraction of copper, silver, gold and other materials further contribute waste and pollution to the environment, and human health.

All these numbers provide a somewhat clouded, jaded, view of the environmental impacts of electronics. It’s not easy to get your head around what 7,800,000,000 tonnes of solid waste looks likes, or even means.

What’s important to understand is that mining metals to produce electronics is driving resource depletion and waste generation. The facts speak for themselves and make a good case for recycling. According to the UN: “Recycling 1 kilogram of aluminium saves 5 to 8 kg of bauxite, 4 kg of chemicals and 14 kilowatts of electricity. It also produces 95% less air pollution.”

The origin of electronic and digital life begins deep down in mine ores. The question is how long and how deep can we continue digging?

“A river bleached white with the waste of aluminium production, emerging into red lake.” Darrow, Louisiana – J. Henry Fair


[1] The Global Aluminium Recycling Committee. Global aluminium recycling: a cornerstone of sustainable development. London: International Aluminium Institute, 2006.

[2] Weighing around 11 tonnes each according to Wikipedia (no shame in using it as reference).